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Thailand’s Bloodless Coups d’état

When a country undergoes internal conflict and something as dramatic as a coup d’etat, the results can often lead to a dizzying shift in policies as well as an abrupt change in those who are in charge. In Thailand, the situation is different. The country has gone through 12 coups since 1932 (not counting a number that had failed or were thwarted), the process – though far from democratic — is usually bloodless and the change in government is often minimal.

The first successful coup in the 20th century occurred in 1932. In the Siam Revolution of 1932, military leaders overthrew King Prajadhipok and established a constitutional monarchy. This resulted in the first drafting of the constitution. Another coup occurred in 1947, after the death of King Ananda Mahidol and the establishment of Rear Adm. Thawan Thamrongnawasawat as Prime Minister. When his government became immersed in corruption and scandal, the military ousted him and placed Khuang Aphaiwong as the new Prime Minister.

In 1951, the Silent Coup or Manhattan Coup was carried out by military leaders while King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his family were away in Switzerland. The military reestablished the constitution of 1932 and appointed one of their own, Field Marshal Phibunsongkhram, as the new Prime Minister.

In 2006, after several more years of corruption and political turmoil, Thailand’s army revoked the constitution, staged a coup and ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra while he and his ministers were in New York for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly. The military then established a junta called the National Council for Order and Peace, which elected General Prayut, the Commander of the Royal Thai Army, as the new Prime Minister. In August 2016, a referendum was passed approving a constitution backed by the military which consolidates its hold on the government.

Philip Mayhew served at the East Asia Desk for Thai and Burmese Affairs from 1989-1992. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in May 1995. John H. Holdridge served as an Information Officer in Embassy Bangkok from 1950-1953 and vividly describes the coup of 1951 and how the Prime Minister was arrested. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in July 1995.

Victor L. Tomseth served as the Political and Military Officer in Embassy Bangkok from 1967-1968. He recalls his experience in Thailand in 1967, when the first Parliamentary elections since the coup of 1957 were held. He was interviewed by Kennedy beginning May 1999. Philip Mayhew served at the East Asia Desk for Thai and Burmese Affairs from 1989-1992. He was interviewed by Kennedy beginning May 1995.

For a lighter story, read about the Queen of Thailand’s visit to Neiman-Marcus and the story behind The King and I. Go here for other Moments on East Asia and the Pacific. Learn more about other coups around the world.


“They were never social revolutions”

Philip Mayhew, East Asia Desk, Thai and Burmese Affairs

MAYHEW:  The problem of course with political change in Thailand is that change-by-coup had been institutionalized over the long period since the overthrow of the absolute monarchy in 1932.

There had been 17 coups. They were never social revolutions, there was never any significant social change after coups. Coups were generally reflections of changes in political power within the military, or as the Marxists might say, objective conditions.

When it became clear that the objective conditions for someone to move on were such that he ought to move on, there would be a generally bloodless coup. You had a change in leadership but you didn’t really have a change in the bureaucracy or society.

By the time that I went to Thailand for a second assignment there were really 3-1/2 important institutions: the bureaucracy, the military, the throne, and you could count Parliament as a half because it had at least gotten to the point where people saw it to their advantage to be parliamentarians.

That may have been personal advantage rather than national advantage, but people had begun to think that being a member of a party was worthwhile, that the government situation had evolved enough so that there was considerable freedom of action and influence as a parliamentarian, whether or not one was actually a member of government.

In fact, one of the motive forces of the Thai system is that early on the military seems to have made the decision to allow the technocratic ministries to be run by technocrats.

One of the successes of Thai development, is that from an economic viewpoint they have a very conservative leadership, and the military did not go to the budgetary extremes that it has in some other countries. In fact, one of the overall reasons for Thai success is that they don’t seem, individually or collectively, to go to extremes. They may have had Marshal Sarit, but they did not have a [Philippine dictator Ferdinand] Marcos. They never had the kind of excesses that the Philippines experienced.

Thai Coup of 1951 — “The navy waited, bided its time”

John H. Holdridge, Information Officer in Bangkok, 1950-1953

HOLDRIDGE: What I saw in Thailand was tension, political tension. King Phumiphon had just recently come back from school in Switzerland, and I watched the outpouring of enormous emotion as the people welcomed back this symbol of Thai culture, history and nationalism. But the military wasn’t getting along very well. The prime minister, Phibun Songgram, a military general, an army general, was not liked by the navy. The navy waited, bided its time.

Right in front of my very eyes, in June 1951, occurred what they called the “Manhattan Coup,” in which the navy tried to overthrow the government by arresting the Prime Minister.

This was at a formal ceremony in which we and the United States were presenting the Thai with the first tangible fruits of our economic relationship, an old U.S. Army engineer harbor dredge from New York, the “Manhattan,” which had been towed by a Dutch tug all the way through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific to Thailand. Here it was being greeted by Buddhist priests with good fortune symbols painted on the bow, all of the diplomatic corps was there, with everybody wearing white suits.

This grimy old tub — it was a coal burner and coal dust had gotten impregnated into the decks. Anyway, it was quite a ceremony. I did not board the ship because I had been there the day before with a bunch of newspaper people, Chinese reporters. My job was working with the Chinese, and there was a very active Chinese press in Thailand.

So I had taken a bunch of reporters down there the day before, and I had seen the “Manhattan,” and I wasn’t interested, but as I stood there, watching others board this ship, on my left I noticed three guys in military uniform, khaki uniform with Japanese-style steel helmets on their heads, pushing a light machine gun along the ground.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I am very sorry, but I must arrest the Prime Minister”

I said to myself, “Well, this wasn’t on the program yesterday, what’s going on here?” Those people set themselves up so they could sweep the crowd with their machine gun. Then other khaki-clad, steel-helmeted types came through the assembled throng with rifles at high port, locking and loading as they came through, and I said, oh-oh.

And about then, a young lieutenant commander in the navy come up with a .45 pistol and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I am very sorry, but I must arrest the Prime Minister.”

And he went aboard the “Manhattan” and grabbed the Prime Minister and arrested him. After that, they walked along the edge of the Mena Chao Phya River about five feet away from me. I had by this time stepped very quietly back behind the light machine gun, so I wasn’t going to be in any line of fire.

I could have pushed both of these guys in, in fact, including the police bodyguard for the Prime Minister, a police colonel, I could have pushed all three into the river. But somehow the thought didn’t occur to me. Then, the Indonesian military attaché said that he had seen this sort of thing before, we better get out of here before somebody starts shooting, and we all bugged out.

What happened was that for a period of around three days, the city of Bangkok was under siege. The army set roadblocks near the main center of navy power which was the naval communications center on Telegraph Road, straight down the street from the British embassy. The British embassy was at one end and the navy communications center at the other.

Then the army came along and surrounded the navy communications center. The navy was trying to whip up enthusiasm among the people to overthrow this corrupt Phibun regime, which it didn’t like much.

Meanwhile, the army brought in several divisions of troops from up country. The air force joined the army and came over and did some bombing. From my own house I watched them bomb, they had T-6 trainers, which they had fitted with bomb racks but they never came particularly low. They dive-bombed from about 2000 feet.

You could see the bombs drop, and then, boom, up would come pieces of palm tree. But after about three days of this, and an artillery barrage right across the klong, or canal, from me, it became obvious to the navy that their cause was lost. The rebels threw off their uniforms, and in their underwear, I guess, melted into the surrounding crowd and the coup was over.

Parliamentary Elections of 1969: “It still remained with the military to appoint a Prime Minister and a cabinet”

Victor L. Tomseth, Political and Military Officer, Embassy Bangkok, 1967-1968

TOMSETH:  In early 1969, there were parliamentary elections for the first time since 1958. So we spent a lot of time covering the run-up to the elections. One important factor in northeastern Thailand and in rural Thailand generally was the poor communications infrastructure. There weren’t a lot of roads. Constituencies were entire provinces. Some of these provinces were pretty big.

So the challenge for a candidate, particularly after a more than 10-year hiatus, was how do you get the word out that you are running for office? How do you generate votes?

The methods were fairly primitive because of the lack of this communication infrastructure, but in a sense, it was more democratic than this much more sophisticated system that has developed over the years has become in that money didn’t count for nearly as much as it does now. You got a lot of former teachers who were elected to that parliament.

I think some people who have stayed in politics over the years have been very good politicians in the sense that they pay attention to their constituencies and they are very interested in local development issues.

But in terms of the sophistication of the process, it was very primitive compared to what you have in Thailand now, where a road goes everywhere, every village is electrified, they all have television sets, there is a lot of media advertising, but money counts for a lot more in this system than it did at that very early stage.

It is literally possible to buy a seat, if you’re prepared to spend enough money to get it in Thailand. In 1969, I don’t think you could have bought a seat. There [had been a ten-year hiatus in elections because there] was a coup in 1957. Thailand has had lots of coups.

The military strongman who won out was a guy named Sarit Thanarat [on left of the picture], but he did not in 1957 become Prime Minister, which was the traditional thing to do. He appointed one of his lieutenants, a general named Thanom Kittikachorn [on right of the picture], who was the commander of the First Army as Prime Minister.

But a year later, Sarit took that over himself. He was Prime Minister from 1958 until he died in 1964. Then Tunong became Prime Minister once again. But all this time, there was a constituent assembly appointed by the military, supposedly drafting a new constitution.

For years, they really didn’t do very much, but in late 1967 and early 1968, there was a flurry of activity. They produced this constitution in the fall of 1968. It called for parliamentary elections, but they didn’t really give parliament very much power. It still remained with the military to appoint a prime minister and a cabinet.

So, this was a parliament that had basically little more than debating powers. They could debate the budget, but they really didn’t have any power to affect it in any meaningful way. But even that was too much for the military. They threw parliament out again in 1971. It didn’t last very long at all.

Coup of 1991 — “The military were not tremendously interested in government policy, outside of procuring supplies and equipment for the Thai armed forces” 

Daniel A. O’Donohue, Ambassador to Thailand, 1988-1991

O’DONOHUE: In Thailand, coups d’etat were an established means of changing civilian governments or getting rid of them. I remember one well-known Thai politician giving a speech, in which he said that people were always telling him that what Thailand needed is a democratic constitution. He said, “That’s not our problem at all. I myself have personally participated in drafting 12 constitutions!”

On occasion and for brief moments, civilian politicians have exercised actual power. However, generally, the Thai military decided who would hold power. There were all sorts of political alignments which ultimately were based on the Thai military. The military were not tremendously interested in government policy, outside of procuring supplies and equipment for the Thai armed forces. They were more interested in the “fruits” of government, along with their own role as the ultimate determinants of power.

The first time I was in Thailand, when I was DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission, 1977-1978], coups were generally “peaceful,” meaning that they took place with little or no bloodshed.

There were minimum penalties exacted, outside of the loss of office by one political figure or another. They didn’t carry out retribution or things like that. There was a mini-coup when I was in Bangkok as DCM. It probably involved no more than a company of Thai troops. This coup disposed of the then civilian government.

“He was viewed as a 70-year-old playboy and essentially a lightweight”

However, when I came back to Thailand in 1988 as Ambassador, I knew almost every major figure on the Thai political scene fairly well. Gen Prem had stepped down as Prime Minister, perhaps a few weeks before I arrived.

In my view Gen Prem was the outstanding Thai statesman of the 20th century. He is still on the scene as the King’s loyal right hand. He had presided over Thailand as Prime Minister during a very difficult period.

First, he was dealing with the problems associated with the changes in Vietnam and Cambodia. This had started before he became Prime Minister but was accentuated during this period. He had dealt with economic difficulties. To everyone’s mild surprise, he also presided over the return to civilian rule.

When the Thai military “ruled,” this didn’t mean that there was a military government. The Thai governments were composed of politicians and technocrats. When I say that Gen Prem handled economic issues, what I meant was that he supported what the technocrats were doing. For a long time he gave them a strong role. However, the power of even the strongest figures tends to erode. The power of Gen Prem was eroding.

One of the s

trongest of his generals, General Chavalit [Yongchaiyudh, pictured], wanted to become Prime Minister. Chavalit had been waiting for a very long time for General Prem to retire as Prime Minister. He was Prem’s protégé.

For a combination of reasons, including the machinations of politicians who wanted to get back into power and General Chavalit’s “chafing” to become Prime Minister, General Prem decided that it was time to resign. He could have held on as Prime Minister for another year but he decided to step down. The problem was that there was no one immediately available to replace him.

Even General Chavalit really wasn’t in a position to civilianize himself and become Prime Minister. He simply wasn’t prepared to take over that office so soon. So, as they looked around, they picked a Prime Minister who, they thought, would clearly be a temporary phenomenon. He would be a transitional figure of no great weight, because the return to civilian rule did not mean what the Thai military wanted.

So they picked Major General Chatichai [Chunhawan] who at the time was in his early 70’s. He was viewed as a 70-year-old playboy and essentially a lightweight.

His father was one of the original coup plotters, when the Thai intellectuals and military deposed the absolute monarchy in 1932. When his family fell precipitously from power in the mid- 1950’s, Chatichai served for about 15 years in various diplomatic posts, in a form of political exile. He came back after the student revolution in 1973. His family had money, and he became a politician.

He was chosen to be Prime Minister in 1988, not because he was a respected political leader, and not because he had a military background, but because he was viewed essentially as a lightweight who, at some point in time, would inevitably be swept aside.

In fact, Chatichai was a shrewd politician who was utterly worldly. He had a very cynical view of politics and people. However, on the other hand, he had a certain amount of charm and good political sense.

“The military finally reached the point where they could only get rid of Chatichai by staging a coup”

He took over as Prime Minister and didn’t do badly the first year. After Chatichai (pictured) had spent about a year in office as Prime Minister, two things happened. General Chavalit, who had waited so long, had based his power in the military on a younger group — all classmates at the Military Academy from a class several years after him and his factions at the Military Academy.

However, no one wanted a coup. When the Thai military didn’t want a coup, this didn’t mean that they supported the government or were going to wait passively. It just meant that, in a variety of ways, they tried to push the serving Prime Minister out of office.

So an erosion of Chatichai’s position and a disintegration of the political situation began. This process was essentially conducted largely, but not completely, by the Thai military. Thai politicians out of power were quite capable of joining this themselves. So the military had Chatichai on the ropes.

He had growing problems, and his position weakened. As the process of undermining Chatichai continued, I was actually getting along with him pretty well. He was cynical but realistic.

For example, during the Gulf War of 1991, he agreed to let us send troops through the Royal Thai Air Base at Utapao, Southeast of Bangkok. I was also instructed to ask him for Thai formal support in connection with the Gulf War, which he gave us. On other issues, like the civil air and Caltex Refinery matters, where there was a convergence of his and American interests, he was helpful….

You could have predicted that Chatichai would be out of power by the end of 1990. However, in the course of early 1991 he was consolidating political power and moving toward new elections, which his coalition government might well have won. So the military finally reached the point where they could only get rid of Chatichai by staging a coup. Political tensions were high, and we knew that there were problems. “Crescendo” is the wrong word, but one thing after another was happening, instigated by the military.

“The Department was going to be more “condemnatory” of the coup than the Embassy had recommended….My view was, ‘Why get excited?’”

Chatichai was going to fly down to southern Thailand and went to the airport in Bangkok, got on the plane, and then the Thai military pulled the coup. By the time the coup occurred, the Class 5 Thai Military Academy class group controlled everything – -the Air Force, the 204 Navy, and the Army.

So the coup plotters took Chatichai and his party and put them under arrest. By then, although Chatichai had outwitted the coup plotters politically and was theoretically in a strong position, his reputation had been so eroded that there was no great regret at his fall from power.

But there was no enthusiasm for the Thai military, either. The coup happened on a Saturday morning, Bangkok time. By that time the Embassy had prepared its analysis. The Director of the Office of Thai Affairs in the [State] Department had also previously served in the Embassy in Bangkok. He telephoned us, but, by that time, it was “over.”

So we sent in our analysis of the coup which, I think, turned out to be 100% correct. If you summed up our recommendations, they were that the coup group really didn’t want to change anything. Indeed, over the short term, the coup group might even let somebody else run the country.

We should condemn the coup publicly but we should continue to do business with the Thai government as usual. The King continued to reign.

That evening, though, I got a call on the secure phone from the Office Director. He said that the Department had received our cables, which he thought were probably just about right. He said, though, that the Department was probably going to be more “condemnatory” of the coup than the Embassy had recommended. Otherwise, everything was all right. Remember, that we were about 12 hours ahead of Washington.

By 10:00 p.m. Bangkok time we learned that the Washington agencies were considering all kinds of options. The CIA was discussing various aspects of the situation, but, remember, the coup was over.

In Washington the Assistant Secretary for East Asian Affairs and representatives of the NSC [National Security Council], the Department of Defense, CIA, the human rights people, and others were meeting to discuss how to handle the situation.

The discussions were completely irrational, and no one was playing the role that one would have expected. The Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Department of Defense was so concerned about the coup aspect of this event that he was advocating “strong measures” to reverse the coup. The DAS [Deputy Assistant Secretary of State] in charge of Southeast Asian Affairs was also advocating “strong measures.”

The DAS who was not in charge of Southeast Asian Affairs, the Office Director of Thai Affairs, and the Special Assistant to Assistant Secretary Solomon, all of whom knew a lot about Thailand, supported my position.

The NSC person who attended that meeting, who didn’t know Thailand, was siding with those who wanted to take “strong measures.” It was only some time later that I realized that this was happening. My view was, “Why get excited?” This group was talking about recalling me for consultations and taking “draconian measures.”

Well, as I understood it, if you had taken a consensus or a vote, the majority of those attending this meeting would have supported taking very “harsh measures” against Thailand. There were people at this meeting in Washington, worrying about “bloodshed” and so forth.

However, the group that supported my position was prepared to continue to sit indefinitely at this meeting and oppose the views of the other group.

So, as Saturday in Washington wore on, those favoring “harsh measures” started to drift off home or to whatever else they wanted to do. They had drafted a cable which wasn’t going to go anywhere. That became the pattern for the next few days.

At the end of each day there would be “agreement” on a cable setting out a “harsh course of action.” However, this draft would not be transmitted and would be diluted on the following day. I think that it took five days before the Department arrived at the position which I had recommended in the first place….

“The coup of 1991 itself was a perfect illustration of an old-time Thai coup d’etat”

So, at the end of five days, we ended up about where we should have been. There weren’t any great penalties paid for this. In the absence of instructions to me to pack my bags or take one unrealistic step or another, we just proceeded, and the Thai-American relationship continued without change.

I had a very good relationship with the King of Thailand. Through the King’s secretary I learned that the King essentially had no respect for the coup leaders.

However, the coup had happened, and the King’s immediate concern was that the country should get back to normal as quickly as it could. Remember, the King has never played a major role on a day-to-day basis. His dominating role has always been during a time of crisis and uncertainty.

For instance, in 1992, he was decisive in forcing the same coup leaders to leave power. However, that was a different situation, in which there was turmoil. His role was essentially to be a stabilizing influence.

In the case of the 1991 coup, his position was different; the coup was a fait accompli and was not reversible. Initially, the coup leaders, as I had predicted, set up an appointed government composed of some of Thailand’s best talents. The coup leader, Gen Suchinda, had been an Army attaché in Washington in 1975 when Anand Panyarachun was Ambassador to the United States. They knew each other, of course, but had virtually nothing in common and weren’t close friends in any sense. Because of his respect for Anand, Suchinda appointed him Prime Minister.

Anand went on to be an outstanding Prime Minister. He knew that he was going to be in office for only a year. So an outstanding, civilian government came into power following this coup. The Thai military kept the offices of Minister of Home Affairs and Defense. However, they allowed the country to be run by former Ambassador Anand. The only right thing that this coup group did was to appoint the government under Prime Minister Anand. Then, a year later after the elections, they made the mistake of trying to perpetuate themselves in power.

First, they tried to put in a Prime Minister against whom there were all kinds of allegations. Then they tried to put in General Suchinda himself as Prime Minister. They fell from power shortly after this as a result of public turmoil and political pressure. The coup of 1991 itself was a perfect illustration of an old time Thai coup d’etat.

I was on record as having earlier advised them against staging any coup….I was at a party on a Friday night, about a week after the coup. The nominal head of the coup group saw me and said, “Dan, we’re going to release Chatichai tomorrow. We’re all going to go over and have breakfast with him. We’re going to apologize for the coup and then release him.”…

The idea that the coup leaders were going to have breakfast with Prime Minister Chatichai, the man they deposed, apologize for having deposed him, and then let him go home was hard for Dick [Solomon, Assistant Secretary of East Asian Affairs] to understand. They actually intended to let Chatichai go home to pack and then leave Thailand in a couple of days. That is what happened.

The amazing thing is that when Chatichai left Thailand, nearly everyone was at the airport, including Prime Minister Anand, who had been a protégé of Chatichai’s in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

So the new cabinet, put in office by the Thai military, all turned out at the airport to say goodbye to Chatichai. The old cabinet, which had been deposed, was also at the airport, and the military leaders were there. This was truly a Thai-style coup.