Thailand Modern History

By | January 30, 2023

Thailand is a country located in Southeastern Asia. With the capital city of Bangkok, Thailand has a population of 69,799,989 based on a recent census from COUNTRYAAH. Thailand’s modern history is characterized by coups, military rule and short periods of unstable democracy. Military dictator Phibun Songkhram came to power in a coup in 1947. Thereafter, the country was ruled by various generals until 1973, when student-led protests caused the military dictatorship to fall. After three years of shaky democracy, a new military regime took over. In 1992 democracy was restored and in 2001 Thaksin Shinawatra was elected prime minister. He was deposed in a coup in 2006, which became the starting point for a protracted fight between supporters and opponents of him.

After the US-backed coup against military dictator Phibun Songkhram in 1944, democracy was restored, but the political parties were weak. A new military coup was carried out in 1947 and the following year Phibun was again Thailand’s leader.

The Korean War in the early 1950s pushed production in the country and a period of economic growth began. Foreign policy saw the United States and its allies Thai generals as a bastion against communism in other parts of Southeast Asia and provided extensive military and financial support.

  • ABBREVIATIONFINDER: List of most commonly used acronyms containing Thailand. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.

Phibun tried to strengthen his position in 1957 through an election where the cheating was so obvious that the election victory became the government’s fall. Another general, Sarit Thanarat, initiated a new dictatorship. At the same time, the rapid economic development continued. Japan began to make major investments in the country, and the war in Vietnam gave Thailand benefits as a supplier of goods. The Americans were allowed to build several military bases and at the same time expanded the road network and other infrastructure in the disadvantaged eastern part of the country. New generals took over after Sarit’s death in 1963, and despite the success of communism in neighboring countries, left-wing guerrillas never gained a foothold in Thailand. Check best-medical-schools for more information about Thailand.

Troubled 1970s

In the 1970s, student protests blossomed in Bangkok. The US decision to withdraw from Vietnam and seek relaxation with China had created uncertainty about the future. The economic upturn stopped, and there were hard times for many, not least in the capital. Student-led protests against the regime led to the collapse of the military dictatorship in 1973.

Three troubled years followed. Parties were formed at a rapid pace, and besides the students, farmers, workers and monks also began to organize themselves. When the civilian governments proved unable to sort out the situation, the militarily-led Nawaphon movement grew under the slogan “nation, religion, king”. In 1976, a military-led government was installed, ending democracy. The new dictatorship went hard to the left activists.

In 1980, General Prem Tinsulanonda became head of government and the close contacts with the United States were restored. At the same time, the attitude was softened towards dissent, and political prisoners were released. Thailand began to reach the same growth rates as in the 1960s. The modernization that followed led to a change in the social structure of society, where a middle class began to emerge.

At the 1988 election, the country’s oldest party, the Democratic Party, strongly declined in favor of the right-wing party Thaination, the powerful businessmen’s party. Its leader Chatichai Choonhavan became prime minister. Now a market liberal policy was initiated. The protection duties were discontinued, a number of regulations and subsidies were removed and a privatization program was initiated. The reforms, combined with low labor costs and comparatively stable political conditions, made the country attractive to foreign investors.

Hundreds of protesters are killed

Soon there was a concern about the negative effects of free capitalism: inflation, corruption, traffic and environmental problems and more. Several distrustful votes were directed at the government, and senior officers expressed their displeasure. A bloodless coup was carried out in February 1991. In March of the following year elections were held which resulted in a weak coalition government. When it failed to present a credible leader, the Prime Minister’s post was taken over by Suchinda Kraprayoon, one of the men behind the latest coup.

This time a strong reaction came from the public. Demonstrations in Bangkok demanded that the head of government must be elected. The protests continued throughout the spring. On May 17, Suchinda decided to crush the protests. At least 100 people are believed to have been killed during three days of violence. The king intervened to find a solution. Suchinda resigned and a transitional government was appointed. The new commander-in-chief declared that the military would not intervene during his tenure.

In the fall of 1992, the Democratic Party got the most seats, but almost as many went to the Thaination and a new party, National Development, which Chatichai formed after the violence in May. Democratic Party leader Chuan Leekpai became prime minister.

In connection with a land distribution program, the government was accused of corruption in the spring of 1995. After a vote of no confidence, a new election was held in July. The election became a triumph for the “vote-buying policy” in the countryside. Thaination secured the most seats in parliament, but not a single water in Bangkok. Party leader Banharn Silapa-Archa became prime minister in a naval party government. The government proved increasingly openly corrupt and the public support collapsed. In the fall of 1996, Banharn resigned and a new election was announced.

Thaksin enters politics

The election was won by the Party for a new endeavor – much because the Party bought votes in the poor northeast. Yongchaiyudh Chavalit became prime minister in a six-party coalition. Like previous governments, it failed to agree on necessary reforms, which contributed to the deep economic crisis that erupted in the summer of 1997 (see Economic overview).

Meanwhile, another political process was underway: the attempts to get a majority for a constitutional reform that would give Thailand a truly democratic constitution. In September 1997, the new constitution was adopted, which stated that Thailand would be a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system including freedom of the press, assembly and other fundamental freedoms.

Chavalit resigned in November 1997 following criticism of the government’s handling of the economic crisis. This made the reform work sluggish, while the economic recovery was slow.

In the 2001 election, billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra’s two-year-old party of Thais loves Thais (TRT) greatly and Thaksin became prime minister in a three-party coalition. Several smaller parties then joined the TRT, which completely came to dominate Parliament.

Thaksin was known as a businessman but had no political experience. He had earned a fortune in the telecom industry and was considered Thailand’s richest man, until in 2001 he transferred large portions of his assets to his son. Thaksin was soon accused of contravening the constitution withholding information about his fortune before entering the government, but he was acquitted by the Constitutional Court.

Thaksin forms a one-party government

Thaksin promised in his election campaign to start a “war on drugs and corruption”. He gave farmers a three-year deferral of loan repayments to a state bank, all the country’s villages would have access to investment funds and he introduced public health care. The measures were popular, especially in the countryside.

The war on drugs started in 2003. It became a bloody story that cost more than 2,500 people and faced sharp criticism from the outside world. About the same time, a rebellion in the Muslim provinces of southern Thailand burst forth (read more here).

On Monday, July 2004, Thailand suffered a severe natural disaster. Flood waves (tsunami), triggered by an earthquake in the Indian Ocean, hit the southwestern coast, especially around the tourist island of Phuket. Thousands of people in Thailand were killed in the tsunami, including over 500 Swedes. Many tourist resorts and fishing villages were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of people lost their livelihood.

The Thai authorities were considered to handle the disaster well. Injured people quickly received help from the medical services and the homeless were given temporary housing. Reconstruction started relatively quickly and tourism gradually recovered.

When elections were held in February 2005, TRT won a landslide victory. Thaksin was able to form a single-party government with a large majority in parliament. The prime minister’s popularity was based on the reforms he had implemented, including cheap healthcare and favorable credits to agriculture and small businesses. The country’s good economy also benefited Thaksin, as did the harsh measures against drug-related crime and the south rebellion.

Thaksin is deposited in a coup

In 2005, several disclosures about Thaksin’s private business came. He was charged with abuse of power and corruption. The criticism escalated when it emerged that the Thaksin family had sold the country’s largest telecom company to Singapore for $ 2 billion without paying taxes on profits. The protests forced Thaksin to announce new elections in April 2006. The opposition decided to boycott the election. TRT again won big and Thaksin was able to remain at his post.

The King now asked the Constitutional Court to “clean up the mess”. He pointed out that a parliament without opposition cannot be called democratic. The Constitutional Court decided that the election would be redone during the fall.

But you couldn’t make any choice. Instead, Thaksin was deposed on September 19, 2006 in a bloodless military coup. The coup leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin announced that a military council would rule the country until a new government was appointed. New elections would be held within one year, after the adoption of a new constitution. A day later, the king gave the cupmakers his support.

The military coup was condemned internationally, but in mild terms. The days after the coup, the military struck Thaksin’s closest staff. Several ministers in the deposed government were detained.

On October 1, the military junta appointed retired general Surayud Chulanont as prime minister until the new election in autumn 2007. At the same time, a provisional constitution was presented that gave the junta great powers, including the right to dismiss the government, appoint a transitional parliament and appoint a commission to draft a proposal for a new permanent constitution.

New constitution

In Chulanant’s new government, only he and the Defense Minister had military background. Other ministers were academics, bankers or bureaucrats. The transition parliament presented by the junta in October consisted almost exclusively of party-politically independent bureaucrats, academics and military.

After the race, TRT began to disintegrate at a rapid pace. Thaksin left the post as party leader and went into self-elected exile. In May 2007, the TRT was banned by the Constitutional Court, which ruled that bribery occurred within the party in connection with the April 2006 election. Thaksin and over a hundred other TRT politicians were banned from acting politically for five years.

In June 2007, Thaksin was indicted for exploiting his position as prime minister for personal financial gain. Among other things, he would have helped his wife to buy land at a favorable price. When the trial began in August, Thaksin refused to appear in the courtroom, and an international arrest warrant was issued against the Thaksin couple. At that time, several other corruption investigations were underway against the former prime minister. In most cases, he was suspected of pursuing a policy that favored his large family business.

The Constitutional Commission’s proposal for a new constitution was approved in a referendum in August 2007. Before the December elections that year, the Thaksin politicians gathered in the right-wing People’s Power Party (PPP), led by Samak Sundaravej. During the election campaign, Samak said he saw himself as Thaksin’s deputy. It was a message that gave great success on election day. PPP won 233 of the 480 seats in the House of Representatives, while the main opponent Democratic Party received 165 seats.

Yellow shirts against red shirts

When the new parliament met for the first time in January 2008, Samak was elected prime minister, and the PPP formed a coalition government together with five small parties. The most important ministerial posts went to people with strong ties to Thaksin. A month later, Thaksin returned to Thailand. He appeared in court to hear the charge against him and was subsequently released on bail. In April, the laws of war were lifted throughout the country, with the exception of the three uprising-affected provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat in the south.

In August 2008, Thaksin’s wife, Pojaman Shinawatra, was sentenced to three years in prison for tax evasion. A few days later, the Thaksin spouses left Thailand and settled in the UK.

Thaksin’s opponents had gathered in the popular movement the Alliance for Democracy (PAD), or the yellow shirts, which were mainly made up of royalists, the urban middle class and business people. The yellow shirts had organized mass demonstrations against the Thaksin government before the coup took place in the fall of 2006. The movement now hoped to also contribute to the PPP government’s fall.

The yellow shirts started organizing demonstrations in Bangkok in May 2008, which escalated during the fall of the same year. Their demand was for the Samak government to resign. Public buildings were stormed on several occasions, including the Government Offices.

Thaksin’s supporters gathered for resistance in a movement called the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (UDD), or the Red Shirts. When a person was killed in clashes between the two groups in Bangkok in September, a temporary state of emergency was introduced in the capital.

The yellow shirts occupy airports

The same month, the Constitutional Court announced that Samak must resign, because he had broken the law when he paid for a cooking show on TV for a fee. According to the constitution, it is prohibited to have income in addition to the trust assignment as a politician. New Prime Minister became the former Judge Somchai Wongsawat, PPP politician and brother-in-law to Thaksin.

In connection with Somchai’s declaration of government in Parliament in October, riots again erupted. Two people were killed when tens of thousands of yellow shirts tried to prevent members from conducting the session. Somchai and the other members managed to get into parliament, but well there the meeting was canceled.

In October 2008, Thaksin was sentenced to two years in prison for corruption in connection with his wife’s land acquisition.

By the end of November, the situation in Bangkok was extremely tense. A number of government buildings were occupied by the yellow shirts, and the government had been forced to move out of the city’s old airport. The yellow shirt demonstrations culminated with the occupation of Bangkok’s new airport, where Prime Minister Somchai was expected to land on November 26. All flights must be canceled and traffic redirected to the city’s old airport. Somchai was forced to land in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

The day after, the yellow shirts also occupied the old airport. Bangkok’s air traffic was thus completely eliminated. The government, which gathered in Chiang Mai, announced a state of emergency and rumors of a new coup were circulating.

The Democratic Party gains power

Once again, Thailand’s Constitutional Court entered the picture. On December 2, 2008, the PPP and two other Thaksin faithful parties were banned after being found guilty of electoral fraud in connection with the 2007 election. The ban led to the PPP government falling and yellow shirts leaving the airports. By then, around 300,000 tourists had been stranded and the country’s economy had been damaged by missing revenue from tourism. Six people had been killed in the unrest since August and hundreds had been injured.

On December 15, 2008, Democratic Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva was elected new prime minister in a special vote in parliament. Thus, after eight years in opposition, the liberal-conservative party regained government power. Admittedly, Abhisit’s coalition government contained everything from people with strong ties to the yellow shirts to defunct Thaksin politicians, but it was dominated by the Democratic Party. Born in the United Kingdom and educated at Eton and Oxford, Abhisit represented the traditional power elite based in the military, the royal house and Bangkok’s middle class.

Immediately after the change of government, the red shirts began organizing demonstrations in Bangkok. They considered that the government of Abhisit was not legitimate because it was not appointed in general elections. Instead, they saw the elected Thaksin as the country’s rightful leader.

The red shirts’ protests escalated in March 2009 to culminate in violent riots in April. Central government buildings in Bangkok were surrounded and a scheduled Asean meeting in Pattaya had to be canceled after the red shirts stormed the meeting rooms. Police and military were called to Bangkok’s streets. On April 13, violence reached its peak when dozens of people were injured in clashes between red shirts and police. The military then increased the pressure on the protesters, who were forced to withdraw.

Bloody protests

Political tensions escalated when the highly respected King Bhumibol was hospitalized in September 2009 after suffering from pneumonia. Bhumibol’s poor health created concern among both the rulers and the population, as the king is considered to be the guarantor of keeping the divided country together.

After a period of relatively calm, around 100,000 redshirts gathered in the capital in March 2010 to demand the government’s resignation and re-election. A well-publicized protest action was carried out on March 15-16, when around 20,000 red shirts in protest of the government poured out large amounts of blood, which they dropped from themselves, outside the prime minister’s office, the government building and the Democratic Party headquarters.

In early April, the authorities announced a state of emergency after the protesters tried to storm Parliament. Due to the state of emergency, larger crowds were banned, but the red shirts did not withdraw. When police and soldiers on April 10 made an attempt to get the red shirts to leave the streets, there were regular riots in which 26 people were killed and over 800 injured.

The red shirts then moved to Bangkok’s central business and financial district, where many foreigners were. They barricaded themselves in the Silom district, and police and military were deployed around them.

The military strikes back

Negotiations in early May between the government and representatives of the protesters on re-election and a reconciliation plan soon went unnoticed. Instead, the government warned against a tougher move against the base of the Red Shirts, where around 5,000 protesters gathered. Over a few days in mid-May, over 35 people were killed and at least 200 injured in clashes between soldiers and protesters.

At dawn on May 19, the military finally entered the area of ​​the red shirts, dispersed the protesters and disbanded their camps. The leaders of the Red Shirts surrendered to the police. A smaller group of militant red shirts continued for some day to resist, among other things by burning some 30 buildings on fire. But already that evening, large parts of Bangkok were deserted. Fourteen people were killed during the day. A total of nearly 90 human lives had been harvested since the demonstrations began in March. On May 21, Abhisit announced that the scheme had been restored.

Some minor explosive charges were detonated in Bangkok during the summer and autumn of 2010, and there were suspicions that a small group of hardy red shirts went underground and in this way pushed the resistance further. At the same time, other red shirts began to hold peaceful demonstrations again on the capital’s streets, despite the prevailing state of emergency.

The government announces new elections

In December 2010, the government lifted the state of emergency that prevailed in Bangkok since the government-critical riots erupted just over eight months earlier. Instead of the state of emergency, the so-called Internal Security Act, which gives security forces the right to detain people for 30 days without prosecution, now applied. Normally, seven days apply before the detainee must be indicted or released. At the same time, regular, peaceful demonstrations held thousands of people.

At the end of the same month, 79 yellow shirts were sentenced to prison or custody (minors) for participation in the storming of a national television station in connection with the yellow shirt protest actions in August 2008. The judges were the first to be targeted by members of the PAD. Among the convicted there were no leaders for the movement.

In February 2011, thousands of yellow shirts gathered in new government-critical protests – this time against the Abhisit government. The dissatisfaction concerned the government’s handling of a border conflict with Cambodia (see Foreign Policy and Defense), in which nationalist yellow shirts thought Abhisit had gone too far to meet the neighboring country. Around 2,000 yellow shirts camped outside the government building in the capital. Earlier in the month, about 30,000 red shirts had performed major events on Bangkok’s streets. The actions were seen as part of the political camps’ position before the new parliamentary elections announced by the government in May until July 3 of that year.

Yingluck Shinawatra’s reign

Prior to the election, Thaksin camp was gathered in the coalition For Thailand, with Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra as leader and electoral locomotive. The coalition won by a wide margin over the ruling Democratic Party. Yingluck became Thailand’s first female prime minister and formed a government consisting of Ministers from Thailand and three small allied parties.

Yingluck’s first two years in power became relatively calm, but when in the fall of 2013 she proposed that everyone who committed a crime during the political unrest after the 2006 coup should be given impunity, new street protests were triggered. The protesters, who feared that the amnesty law was actually in order for Thaksin to return to Thailand, demanded the resignation of the government.

Yingluck refused to give in to the protests but did not call out the military in the streets. When the Democratic Party left its seats in Parliament in protest of the government’s retention, Yingluck announced a new election in February 2014. For the protesters, however, a new election was not the solution, as Thailand would likely win.

The protests continued, and when Election Day came, around six million voters were prevented from voting when protesters barred from polling stations in Bangkok and the south. Many electoral districts were unable to conduct the election, which a month later was declared void by the Constitutional Court. Yingluck announced another election, now until July 20.

The military regains power

In May 2014, the Constitutional Court once again intervened in the policy by ordering Yingluck to resign due to abuse of power in connection with the appointment of an important service. Several other ministers were also forced to step down. The remnants of Yingluck’s government formed a new temporary minister with Minister of Commerce Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan as head of government.

On May 20, another power factor entered the scene, namely the military. The army announced that it had declared a state of emergency throughout Thailand on the grounds that the order in the country must be restored. Two days later, the army commander announced that a coup had been carried out and that the military had taken over the rule of the country. A military council was formed which was charged with leading the country and ensuring that political reforms were implemented.

Thailand Modern History