For many, Thailand is the definition of paradise with sandy beaches, turquoise waters and hospitable people. What does not fit in that description are the political problems that in recent years have led to extensive demonstrations in Bangkok, as well as the armed conflict that is going on in the southern parts of the country that is killing victims every week.
Thailand has a turbulent political past and has more or less regularly been hit by coups, most recently in August 2014. In addition to the media-covered coups and political demonstrations, there is an armed conflict in Thailand’s southern provinces. This conflict harvests both civilian and military victims.
The conflict has been going on since the beginning of the 2000’s and is still relevant. Although there has been talk of negotiations between the rebels and the government, it remains unresolved. In recent years, the conflict has intensified, but the situation remains uncertain, especially for the civilian population in southern Thailand, which is hard hit by the conflict.
Thailand has been ruled by the military since August 2014, under the command of General Prayut Chan-o-cha. There are plans to hold free elections, but these plans have been postponed to the future, and it is unclear when free elections can be held in Thailand.
Border disputes with roots from the 1950’s have also flared up between Thailand and Cambodia in recent years.
Thailand is a country with big differences. The Thailand that is shown in tourist destinations is different from the parts of the country that do not live in the tourism industry. The country’s history has been marked by coups and political contradictions. For the past ten years, a conflict has erupted in southern Thailand, a conflict that is reaping new deaths every week.
Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that has not been a European colony. In the area that today constitutes Thailand, between 1350 and 1767, a powerful kingdom, Ayutthaya, emerged with a base north of what is today the capital Bangkok. On the outskirts of this kingdom there were smaller kingdoms that had some self-determination, and in the mountainous regions and along the coast the people had little contact with the center.
Several wars were fought with the neighboring kings of Burma and Angkor (in present-day Cambodia). After the Burmese defeated Ayutthaya in 1767, a general fled south to Bangkok where he crowned himself king and named the country Siam.
During the 19th century, the kings of Siam expanded the country’s military with the help of Britain and France. They also managed to avoid the colonization of the country by accepting that both French and English merchants were allowed to trade freely in Siam. At the same time as keeping up with the European powers, they spent large resources on modernizing the military.
The political role of the military
While nationalism was on the rise in Europe and Japan in the early 20th century, the military felt an obligation to safeguard the country’s interests.
The military seized power in 1932 through a bloodless coup. They changed the name of the country to Thailand and established that areas in northeastern Burma, northwestern Laos, western Cambodia, and northern Malaysia belonged to the Kingdom of Thailand.
During World War II, Thailand entered into an alliance with Japan and attacked the territories they considered to belong to the Kingdom of Thailand. These areas were then British and French colonies. Towards the end of the war, Thailand’s Prime Minister resigned and Thailand instead began cooperating with Britain, France and the United States.
Since then, Thailand has worked closely with the United States and fought in Korea, Vietnam and Laos as an ally of the United States. Thailand also sent a few troops to Iraq in connection with the US invasion in 2003.
The military’s involvement in the country’s political life continued for the next 50 years. Its role in politics was strengthened as they carried out coups on a regular basis to influence politics. This was done mainly through amendments to the constitution, but also through other legal measures that guaranteed the military an important role in the Thai political system.
Civil war against the Communist Party
One of the main reasons the military used to defend its strong position was that they had to defend Thailand against a communist threat. Many of the independence movements against the colonial powers that emerged in neighboring Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Malaysia were led by people who wanted to introduce a socialist regime.
The leaders of the communist countries in the region, such as China and North Vietnam, also wanted to encourage revolution in other countries. At the same time, the United States offered aid, both financial and material, to virtually everyone who fought against communism.
The last communist rebels ended their armed struggle in 1989 when Thailand, Malaysia and the Communists signed a peace agreement. By then, communist groups had been fighting the state for almost 30 years. However, Thailand continued to have many troops in the areas where the fighting had taken place, both in the southern provinces and in some northern regions.
Around the same time as the communist rebels began to grow into a major threat in the 1960’s, demands arose that the military should have less political influence. As Thailand’s economy improved, the military’s position of power was questioned and demands for greater democracy were made by the people.
In 1968, the military decided that political parties would be allowed again, while forming their own party.
Demonstrations in Bangkok
In 1973, the opposition – many of them students – organized large demonstrations with over 250,000 participants for increased democracy. The military responded by shooting dead 75 protesters.
Free elections were held in 1975, but this did not lead to any stability. Political activists from both the right and the left organized strikes and demonstrations. The military began to organize extremist paramilitary groups and the atmosphere was very threatening.
The students in Bangkok organized large protests that the paramilitary groups attacked in October 1976. The incident is usually called the “massacre in Bangkok” when unarmed students were beaten, tortured and killed inside a central university campus. At least 43 people lost their lives that day, but it is suspected that there were many more.
This massacre, which took place just a few years after 75 protesters were shot dead, testified to the need for change in the Thai political system.