In Thailand, May is the month for coups, crackdowns, and villains

May is a month with a dark recent history in Thailand, from the 1992 Black May events that would see 52 people lose their lives in protests against strongman Suchinda Kraprayoon, to the 2014 coup d'etat that brought Prayut Chan-o-cha to power

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May 21, 2021
In Thailand, May is the month for coups, crackdowns, and villains
A relative of bloody May victim holds a portrait of his son who was killed in the 1992 "Black May" massacre following protests against then strongman Suchinda Kraprayoon. Photo: Pornchai Kittiwongsak/AFP

Historically, May is a turbulent month for Thailand. It’s the season for coups and crackdowns, usually headed by the military. 

May 1992 and May 2014 are extraordinary periods in contemporary Thai history – one far more insidious than the other. Chronologically speaking, 1992 was a chaotic year. It would see two major elections, several prime ministers and governments, mass protests and public demonstrations on the streets of Bangkok. There would also be bloodshed and death – commonly known now as the “Black May” events of May 17-20 that cost the lives of 52 people, resulted in hundreds of injuries and the arrests of thousands. 

While Thai history is replete with heroes, the military on countless occasions is content to play the role of the villain. In February of 1991, Royal Thai Army Commander Suchinda Kraprayoon overthrew the government of Chatichai Choonhavan. Operating under an entity known as the National Peace Keeping Council (NPKC), they surprisingly chose Anand Panyarachun as premier, who added a layer of legitimacy and ensured public support. 

The 1991 coup was led by a cadre of members of Class 5 of the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, an elite institution for both military officers and would-be dictators. Like many of the coups that would come after it, there was a promise of returning democracy to the people, like in 2006 and 2014, where the Thai military promised elections only after the “corrupt” regimes of Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra and their followers were purged from governing institutions. 

Yet the 1991 coup didn’t have the same character as other coups. There were no external or internal security threats like those that justified interventions in the 1970s. Even after the coup, political parties weren’t banned or the political opposition tempered. The press was measurably stronger during that period and often coup planners would regularly answer questions from the media. 

Many suggested that it was the promotion of a Class 7 graduate of Chulachomklao, Manoon Roopkachorn, that provided the strongest rationale for the coup, as he was a suspect in a 1982 assassination attempt against the Queen, then-Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda, and Supreme Commander Arthit Kamlang-ek. The Class 5 alumni were also worried that Chatchai was advancing the principle that the military needed to be second to that of a civilian Prime Minister.

The military during this period also had naked ambitions about the kind of power that could be had through the ballot box, and in April 1991 formed the Samakkhi Tham Party (STP) by alumni of Chulachomklao. Admittedly, this was an environment with strong political parties and there were limited schemes plotted to subvert the electoral process. The STP had gamed that it could, with some assistance, do well. Predictably, the STP won the most Parliamentary seats in the March 1992 elections. 

Thai troops began shooting on May 20, 1992 during protests against the government of Prime Minister Suchinda Kraprayoon in Bangkok. Photo: AFP

In all, there were five pro-military parties that contested in March 1992. The five – STP, Chart Thai, Social Action, Prachakorn Thai and Rassadorn – would come to be known as the “satanic” parties. Almost immediately after the March election results were announced, they convened and soon coalesced around General Suchinda after the nomination of Narong Wongwan was mysteriously dashed by allegations of drug trafficking

Yet any semblance of public confidence the coalition had accumulated quickly fell apart. That previous November there were public concerns that the pro-military Senate could join with the House to select the Prime Minister, allowing military officials to hold Cabinet-level offices. To alleviate those fears, Suchinda made a public statement that promised that he and Air Chief Marshal Kaset would not become Prime Minister after the March election. 

The overreach by the military set the stage for 14 years of democratic governance that was interrupted only by the September 2006 coup

He wouldn’t keep that promise, and Suchinda’s later acceptance of the role of Prime Minister on April 7 would doom him. The military had overplayed its hand. Other coups enjoyed the benefit of a divided Thai society, but there was a near unison against Suchinda and the military-aligned coalition. A wave of public anger raised tensions across the country. Members of the opposition political parties wore black in symbolism of the “death of Thai democracy”.

A huge demonstration was held at the Royal Plaza near Parliament condemning Suchinda for becoming Prime Minister without running for a Parliamentary seat. Leading the opposition was Chamlong Srimuang, who staged a hunger strike at one point, and later led thousands of protesters toward Government House, where they were blocked at Phan Fa Bridge. 

It would be unfair to say that these were non-violent protesters, considering the tangible anger in Bangkok at the time. Despite pleas from Chamlong, protesters threw molotov cocktails at the police and burned vehicles, which ignited violent exchange between the two. Soon, Suchinda declared a state of emergency, banning the gathering of more than 10 people and cracking down on a free press. Thai state television soon announced that Chamlong had started a riot and once the emergency was declared, the military began using their assault rifles to disperse protesters near the Phan Fa bridge. 

The exchanges of violence that followed were lopsided and the Thai authorities used lethal weapons indiscriminately for the next few days. The overreach by the military set the stage for 14 years of democratic governance – capped off by a democratic 1997 Constitution – that was interrupted only by the September 2006 coup. The coup was eventually toppled with the public intervention of late King Bhumibol Adulyadej in the aftermath of the Black May violence, but the military would learn significant lessons, those that would benefit them in later interventions.

Some of the keys to a stable and longer-lasting coup d’état is the consolidation of power within the armed forces, the ability to mould the constitutional drafting process to expand the role of the military within both chambers of Parliament, and forming stable coalitions with other like-minded political parties. 

A relative of a Black May victim participates in a candlelight vigil at the democracy monument in central Bangkok on 17 May 1999 to mark the seventh anniversary of the 1992 uprising against strongman Suchinda Kraprayoon. At least 52 demonstrators were killed during the uprising. Photo: Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP

While the May 22, 2014 coup was publicly about the stability of the country and a supposed desire to return happiness to the Thai people, it was more likely about ensuring a monarchy-friendly order during a turbulent period of royal succession and to sure that the long-standing military-monarchy alliance secured political power in the face of potential internal security threats from civilian actors. The lessons learned by the military’s failure during the Black May period were absorbed and learned in the years it was not in control. 

The 1991 coup and the debacle of leadership and lack of restraint during those fateful days 29 years ago cost the military dearly, but that failure proved to be a platform for a repeat in 2014. Coup planner and now-Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha did not need to cloak himself in a veneer of legitimacy by forming a political party so early on. He also capitalised on a divided Thai society and used more pronounced authoritarian curbs on mass mobilisation, the media, civil society, and on opposition political parties. Once the 2017 Constitution was in place and institutions were weakened and manipulated, the odds of a political opposition sweeping Prayut from power were non-existent. 

Prayut’s grip on power is partly the result of weakness on the part of the political opposition and the implementation of draconian measures to keep political opponents at bay – from the use of Article 112 as a weapon against his enemies, to the subjugation of Thai media and academics. Until early 2020, Prayut’s chorus of critics was small. Now, the pro-reform, pro-democracy movement has been stalled by Covid-19 and the onslaught of lèse majesté charges against their leaders. 

Thailand has had its share of heroes in the past. Student leaders in the 1970s stood up against the brutal dictatorship of Thanom Kittikachorn. Chamlong Srimuang is widely credited with ending the brief reign of Suchinda, although he was powerless to stop the violence. Parit “Penguin” Chiwarat, who recently went on a lengthy hunger strike during his pre-trial detention, has been inspirational to millions. 

However, it is readily apparent that the heroism that propelled Thailand toward democratisation in 1992 – and the fruit of their labour – has been lost. The military, which has been so keen on being the villain in Thailand’s turbulent story, is winning. The often-praised 1997 Constitution is just a memory. The Constitutional Court, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRCT), among other institutions have been corrupted. The space for civil society and human rights is shrinking rapidly. 

The bad guys are winning. Thailand needs an epic surge of opposition in order to undo the damage caused by the subsequent 2006 and 2014 coups. If Black May is to be of significance, Thai people must learn that villains can be toppled only when the opposition is united. Divided, you fall.

Mark S. Cogan is an Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan. He is a former communications specialist with the United Nations in Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East.

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