Thailand History

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Although a military figure, Thailand’s new prime minister sought to give civilians a greater role in government and promote more stable and democratic political institutions. He enlisted the support of the Democrat Party and the Social Action Party in the House of Representatives and, in contrast to Kriangsak, appointed mostly civilians to his cabinet. He benefited immensely from the support given him by the royal family, as was especially evident in April 1981 when "Young Turk" officers launched a coup attempt in the capital region. These officers established a "Revolutionary Council," disbanded the National Assembly, and promised sweeping social changes, including land reform. Prem rushed to Khorat, where the royal family was in residence. When it became clear to regional military commanders that Prem enjoyed the king’s backing in the present crisis, they offered him their support. On April 3, 1981, loyalist military units secured Bangkok and rounded up the rebellious officers with minimal fighting and casualties.

The monarch’s role in politics was low key, but still pivotal. He had played a major part in the 1973 transition from military dictatorship to democracy. During the 1973-76 period, however, the king became increasingly apprehensive about the kinds of changes that were emerging because of a more liberalized political system. Communism seemed a genuine threat not only to political stability but also to the continuity of the royal family. This danger explains the king’s support for extremist groups such as the Village Scouts, his controversial decision to visit ex-strongman Thanom in a Buddhist monastery on the eve of the October 1976 violence, and his backing of Thanin’s repressive anticommunist regime. Bhumibol’s support of Prem after 1980, however, suggests that although his basically conservative perspective was unchanged, the king was also concerned with promoting the development of stable parliamentary institutions in which the military would have a limited, and institutionalized, role.

Prem, however, faced serious problems. A major figure in the suppression of the April 1981 coup attempt was General Arthit Kamlangek, deputy commander of the Second Army Region. After Bangkok was retaken, Arthit was rewarded for his loyalty with the post of commander of the First Army Region, which encompassed the capital. In October 1982, he was appointed army commander in chief. Arthit thus seemed poised to succeed, or push aside, Prem as Thailand’s prime minister. Prem’s government had been severely weakened by the coup attempt and by continual dissension among the civilian members of the government. Moreover, economic problems focused popular dissatisfaction on Prem in both urban and rural areas. Students became politically more active, though the leftist extremism of the 1973-76 period was not evident. Students and workers combined forces to protest an increase in bus fares in 1982, obliging the government to rescind the increase. Demonstrations by farmers to raise the price of rice also occurred during this year with the backing of civilian politicians.

By early 1983, however, Prem had the distinction of being the longest serving prime minister since the fall of Thanom in 1973. Although the military had remained the most powerful political force in the early 1980s, civilian political institutions had shown surprising vitality. One reason for their strength was that the political parties had some success in mobilizing popular support behind economic and social issues. On a more basic level, there was evidence that the population, especially in the urban areas, had grown tired of military strongmen and wanted stable and more open political institutions.

Elections were scheduled for April 1983. A major obstacle to be overcome before the polling, however, was resolution of the heated dispute over "transitory" clauses in the 1978 Constitution. These clauses, which had ensured military control over the political system, were to become inoperative on April 21, 1983. Unless a constitutional amendment was passed to sustain the clauses, the appointed upper house, the Senate, would no longer be able to sit in joint session with the lower house and thus would lose a substantial measure of power. Also, government officials, including military officers, would no longer be allowed to serve in the cabinet. Finally, the structure of election constituencies would be radically altered. Small, single-member constituencies would be replaced by large constituencies covering entire provinces. The first two changes were naturally unpopular with the military elite, while the third alienated the members of the smaller political parties, who believed the creation of "winner take all" province-level constituencies would deprive them of parliamentary representation.

These groups supported constitutional amendments to make the transitory clauses permanent and preserve the conservative aspects of the 1978 Constitution. The amendment proposals, however, were narrowly defeated when the Chart Thai voted against them in the legislature (see The Central Government , ch. 4). Prem deftly engineered a compromise by declaring that elections would be held before the transitory clauses (and the small constituency system) expired on April 21. The April 18 balloting, however, resulted in gains for the major parties. A coalition of the Social Action Party, Democrat Party, and National Democracy (Chart Prachathipatai) Party was stitched together and had a small majority in the lower house (the Chart Thai was excluded from the government because it lacked military backing). As a result of his continued military backing and image as a leader above party politics, Prem was reappointed prime minister.

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