This week has seen commemorations in honour of the ordinary people who rose up in the hope of ridding Thailand of dictatorship once and for all. But those hopes proved to be in vain.
In 1988, Chart Thai Party leader Chatichai Choonhavan became the first elected prime minister in more than a decade after his party won a parliamentary majority and formed a coalition government. Chatichai’s ascension to the top political job came after General Prem Tinsulanonda, having already served as prime minister for eight years, turned down an offer to head the new coalition administration.
Under Chatichai’s leadership the economy grew more than 10 per cent per year on a policy to “turn the battlefield into the market” by boosting trade ties with war-wearied neighbouring countries. The goal for Thailand was to become Asia’s fifth “economic tiger”.
With his military background, General Chatichai was well aware of the ongoing political instability and met leaders of the armed forces leaders each week in a bid to shore up his government’s position.
However, the perennial problem of corruption seemed to dog his administration. When the NPKC staged a coup in 1991, “severe corruption” was cited as one of the five reasons, along with abuse of power by politicians, the government’s parliamentary dictatorship, undermining of the military, and distortion of lese majeste cases.
The power seizure was initially welcomed by the public, especially when the coup-makers named respected former diplomat Anand Panyarachun as prime minister.
However, public sentiment towards the NPKC turned negative after it became clear they were bidding to hold onto power after fresh elections. A new constitution written by a team led by Meechai Ruchupan allowed a non-MP to become prime minister. Pro-military party Samakkhi Tham won the subsequent general election in March 1992 but party leader Narong Wongwan had been blacklisted by the United States for alleged involvement in the drug trade. The allegation was never proven, but it was sufficient to end Narong’s prime ministerial hopes.
Instead, General Suchinda assumed the post, despite having previously promised in public that he would not become prime minister. His rise to power infuriated many ordinary citizens and prompted the popular uprising. Anti-Suchinda demonstrations started in late April 1992 and reached their climax on May 17, when dozens were killed in a military crackdown. Many Black May protesters remain missing to this day.
There are striking similarities between the aftermath of the NPKC coup of 1991 and the power seizure by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) in 2014. These include the reasons cited for staging the coup, certain figures involved, clauses in the resulting constitutions, and also concern at the coup-makers apparent bid to extend their power beyond fresh elections.
However, unlike the NPKC, whose support base was limited to security forces, the NCPO is also backed by a significant section of the general public. Many of these citizens would likely be willing to take to the streets to protect a military-led government if need be. Meanwhile, another swathe of Thai society would likely rise against any imposition of Army rule over a civilian administration.
Nobody knows how long this fragile peace will continue. The “last straw” could well be public discontent over the extension of junta power.
Twenty-four years after Black May, we still can’t agree whether the prime minister must be elected. And that’s after dozens laid down their lives to uphold this principle.
Only the NCPO can ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself. The junta has to make its policy clear, in actions as well as words.