425. Telegram 28513 From the Embassy in Thailand to the Department of State, October 14, 1976, 1117Z.1 2

TELEGRAM
Department of State
BANGKOK 28513

R 141117Z OCT 76

FM AMEMBASSY BANGKOK TO SECSTATE WASHDC 4685
INFO AMCONSUL HONG KONG
AMEMBASSY JAKARTA
AMEMBASSY KUALA LUMPUR
AMEMBASSY MANILA
AMEMBASSY RANGOON
AMEMBASSY TOKYO
AMEMBASSY SINGAPORE
CINCPAC HONOLULU
USLO PEKING
AMEMBASSY VIENTIANE

BANGKOK 28513

CINCPAC ALSO FOR POLAD

EO 11652: GDS
TAGS: PGOV TH

SUBJECT: THE END OF THE DEMOCRATIC EXPERIMENT IN THAILAND
REF: BANGKOK 28368

SUMMARY: THAILAND'S THREE-YEAR-OLE EXPERIMENT WITH DEMOCRACY ENDED WITH THE COUP D'ETAT OF OCT 6. THE DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENTS IN POWER DURING THE PAST THREE YEARS WERE UNABLE TO PROVIDE THAILAND THE LEADERSHIP THE COUNTRY NEEDED. THE CONFUSED AND COMPLEX EVENTS WHICH LED TO THE CHANGE IN GOVERNMENT WERE CERTAINLY TRIGGERED BY THE RETURN OF FORMER PRIME MINISTER THANOM TO THAILAND ON SEPT 19, BUT THE FACT IS THAT THE THAI MILITARY DID NOT TAKE OVER FROM A SUCCESSFUL, FUNCTIONING DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENT. THAILAND'S FLIRTATION WITH DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENT HAS NOT ENTIRELY ENDED, AND THE SIGNS ARE THAT AN ESSENTIALLY CIVILIAN CABINET WILL BE CONSTITUTED IN THE NEAR FUTURE. THE 24-MEMBER NARC, AS PRESENTLY CONSTITUTED, IS PROBABLY TOO LARGE TO FUNCTION EFFECTIVELY, AND IT WILL TAKE SOMETIME FOR THE MILITARY-DOMINATED GOVERNMENT TO SETTLE DOWN. END SUMMARY.

1.
THE TAKEOVER OF POWER BY THE NATIONAL ADMINISTRATIVE REFORM COUNCIL (NARC) IN THAILAND ON OCT 6 MARKS THE END OF THE KINGDOM'S THREE-YEAR "DEMOCRATIC EXPERIMENT". THAILAND MAY GO THROUGH FUTURE PERIODS OF RELATIVELY OPEN AND EVEN FREE GOVERNMENT, BUT THERE CAN BE FEW ILLUSIONS ABOUT THE TEMPORARY CHARACTER OF SUCH EPISODES. IN LARGE MEASURE, THE RESULTS OF THIS EXPERIMENT WERE FOREORDAINED IN THE SENSE THAT DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENT OF THAILAND STANDS OUT AS A BREAK IN THE PATTERN OF AUTOCRATIC OR OLIGARCHIC RULE WHICH HAS CHARACTERIZED THIS COUNTRY'S HISTORY. IN THE 40-SOME YEARS THAT HAVE PASSED SINCE THE OVERTHROW OF THE ABSOLUTE MONARCHY IN 1932, THERE HAVE BEEN ONLY ABOUT THREE YEARS OF DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENT, MOST OF IT SINCE OCTOBER 1973.
2.
BACKGROUND: THE THREE CABINETS THAT SPANNED THE THAI DEMOCRATIC EXPERIMENT (EACH WAS SLIGHTLY RESHUFFLED DURING ITS PERIOD OF OFFICE) HAD THEIR UNIQUE QUALITIES, BUT NONE OF THEM WAS ABLE TO PROVIDE THE KIND OF IMAGINATIVE AND STRONG LEADERSHIP WHICH THAILAND REQUIRES IN THE PRESENT PERIOD. IN SEVERAL RESPECTS THE TWO CABINETS OF PRIME MINISTER SANYA THAMMASAK (OCT 1973, TO MARCH 1975) WERE PROBABLY THE MOST MEMORABLE, IN THE SENSE THAT SANYA PRESIDED SUCCESSFULLY OVER THE TRANSITION FROM AUTHORITARIAN TO DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENT. SANYA'S ROLE HAD TO BE A TEMPORARY ONE, HOWEVER, AS HE WAS APPOINTED DIRECTLY BY THE KING, HAD NO SPECIFIC POLITICAL BASE, AND HAD A FUNCTION LIMITED TO SETTING OUT THE FOUNDATIONS OF FUTURE DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENT. THE CABINET OR PRIME MINISTER KHUKRIT PRAMOT (MARCH 17, 1975, TO APRIL 20, 1976) WAS HOBBLED BY A BADLY-SPLIT PARLIAMENT ISSUING FROM THE ELECTIONS OF JANUARY, 1975, AND THE 16 POLITICAL PARTIES THAT MADE IT UP FOCUSED MUCH OF THEIR ATTENTION ON POLITICAL INFIGHTING, RATHER THAN OF DEALING WITH THE MAJOR PROBLEMS FACING THAILAND. THE CABINET OF PRIME MINISTER SENI PRAMOT (APRIL 21, 1976, TO OCTOBER 6, 1976) IN SEVERAL WAYS APPEARED TO HAVE THE MOST PROMISE, AS IT WAS A COALITION CONSISTING OF ONLY FOUR PARTIES, WITH A HUGE MAJORITY IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES. THERE WAS LITTLE OVERT FRICTION BETWEEN THE FOUR PARTIES, BUT THERE WAS DISASTROUS DISAGREEMENT BETWEEN FACTIONS WITHIN THE DEMOCRAT PARTY, PARTICULARLY OVER THE HANDLING OF THE RETURN OF FORMER PRIME MINISTER THANOM. IT WAS ON THE CONSEQUENCES OF THIS ISSUE THAT THE FINAL BLOWUP OCCURRED.
3.
THE DETAILS OF HOW THE MILITARY TAKEOVER WAS PLANNED AND EXECUTED ARE ONLY OF ACADEMIC INTEREST NOW, BUT IT MAY BE WORTHWHILE TO MAKE A FEW POINTS IN THIS CONNECTION. THERE WERE SEVERAL INDICATIONS OF COUP PLOTTING DURING THE PAST YEAR. THE ROYAL THAI ARMED FORCES PROBABLY HAD THE CAPABILITY TO MOUNT AND EXECUTE A SUCCESSFUL COUP THROUGHOUT THIS PERIOD. HOWEVER, IT WAS NOT UNTIL LAST WEEK THAT THE ELEMENTS ESSENTIAL TO A FINAL DECISION WERE BROUGHT TOGETHER. SUCH A TAKEOVER PROBABLY CAME CLOSE TO OCCURRING LAST FEBRUARY, AND, INDEED, THE THEN COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF OF THE ROYAL THAI ARMY, GENERAL BUNCHAI BAMRUNGPHONG, ORDERED A MILITARY ALERT TO PREVENT A COUP FROM TAKING PLACE. MOREOVER, THE KING CLEARLY OPPOSED A COUP LAST FEBRUARY. FINALLY, MOST MILITARY LEADERS WERE CONCERNED THAT A COUP WOULD REQUIRE THE INFLICTING OF MANY THOUSANDS OF CASUALTIES TO RESTORE ORDER. BY CONTRAST, LAST WEEK THERE WAS AGREEMENT AMONG THE MILITARY LEADERS, THE KING APPARENTLY APPROVED, AND THE STUDENT AND LABOR LEADERS WERE NEUTRALIZED EITHER BY ARREST OR BY CONCERN OVER THE INVOLVEMENT OF THE STUDENTS IN AN INSULT TO THE ROYAL FAMILY.
4.
SOME OBSERVERS--PARTICULARLY AMONG JOURNALISTS AND SOME FOREIGN RESIDENTS OF THAILAND--HAVE TRIED TO CONNECT THE EVENTS OF LAST WEEK WITH THE RETURN OF FORMER PRIME MINISTER THANOM TO THAILAND ON SEPT 19 AS PART OF A DEEP-DYED PLOY TO OVERTHROW DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENT. THIS "PLOT" THEORY, IN SOME VERSIONS, EVEN ALLEGES THAT THE MOCK HANGING EPISODE AT THAMMASAT UNIVERSITY ON OCT 4, INVOLVING A STUDENT WHO RESEMBLED THE CROWN PRINCE, WAS ARRANGED BY THE COUP PLOTTERS TO BRING ON DISORDERS AND SO PROVIDE AN EXCUSE FOR THE MILITARY TAKEOVER. A "PLOT" THEME WITHOUT SPECIFIC DETAIL IS PLAYED IN THE COMMENTARIES ON THE MILITARY TAKEOVER IN RADIO BROADCASTS FROM MOSCOW, VIENTIANE, AND HANOI.
5.
BEYOND A CLOSENESS IN TIMING, THERE IS NO EVIDENCE FOR ANY OF THIS. THOUGH THANOM MAY BE PERMITTED TO REMAIN IN THAILAND, HE IS NOT ON PARTICULARLY GOOD TERMS WITH ADMIRAL SA-NGAT AND OTHER MILITARY LEADERS, AND MOST THAI MILITARY FIGURES NOW APPEAR TO FEEL THAT THANOM'S TIME IS PAST IN ANY CASE. THANOM'S RETURN RELEASED TENSIONS WHICH LED INITIALLY TO THE RESIGNATION OF PRIME MINISTER SENI ON SEPT 23 AND TO THE DECISION BY SENI ON OCT 5 TO SEND POLICE INTO THAMMASAT U. CAMPUS TO ARREST SOME OF THE STUDENTS. HOWEVER, THANOM'S RETURN DID NOT RPT NOT PROVIDE THE PRIMARY MOTIVE FORCE TO THE EVENTS OF LAST WEEK. THE MILITARY LEADERS MAY HAVE USED A LONG-PREPARED CONTINGENCY PLAN IN STAGING THE COUP, BUT THIS APPEARS TO HAVE BEEN THE MOST THAT WAS DONE IN ADVANCE. THE COUP ITSELF APPEARS TO HAVE BEEN DECIDED ON IN REACTION TO THE EVENTS OF OCT 6.
6.
WHILE THE DECISION TO STAGE THE COUP WAS MADE BY THE MILITARY LEADERS THEMSELVES, IT IS A SAD COMMENTARY ON THE DEMOCRATIC EXPERIMENT TO NOTE THEY DID NOT RPT NOT TAKE OVER FROM A SUCCESSFUL, FUNCTIONING DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENT. RATHER, DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENT WAS SEEN BY A SIGNIFICANT PROPORTION OF THAI--NOT ALL OF THEM MILITARY OFFICERS--AS BEING UNSUITED TO THAILAND'S NEEDS. A LARGE SHARE IN THE RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE EVENTS THAT LED TO THIS END TO THE DEMOCRATIC EXPERIMENT MUST LIE WITH THE LEADERSHIP OF THE NATIONAL STUDENT CENTER OF THAILAND (NSCT) AND WITH THE PROGRESSIVE FACTION OF THE DEMOCRAT PARTY. THE STUDENT LEADERS, PERHAPS INITIALLY CONCERNED OVER THE IMPLICATIONS OF THANOM'S RETURN, APPEARED TO BE USING THE DEMONSTRATIONS AGAINST THANOM TO CONSOLIDATE THEIR ASCENDANCY OVER THAI UNIVERSITY STUDENTS AND TO REACH BEYOND THEM TO THE COMMUNITY AS A WHOLE. THE PROGRESSIVE FACTION OF THE DEMOCRAT PARTY EVIDENTLY SAW IN THE RETURN OF THANOM A MEANS OF PRESSURING PRIME MINISTER SENI INTO INCREASING ITS SHARE OF CABINET POSTS IN EXCHANGE FOR RELENTING IN ITS CAMPAIGN TO FORCE THANOM TO LEAVE THAILAND.
7.
IF IT IS CORRECT TO SPEAK OF THE END OF THE DEMOCRATIC EXPERIMENT, THAILAND'S FLIRTATION WITH DEMOCRATIC INSTITUTIONS AND PRACTICES HAS NOT RPT NOT ENTIRELY ENDED. MANY THAI ARE CLEARLY DEVOTED TO THE PRACTICES AND OUTLOOKS OF THE OPEN SOCIETY AND VALUE THE SUBSTANCE OF DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENT, WITH ITS CONSTITUTIONAL GUARANTEES OF PERSONAL FREEDOM. INDEED, THE INITIAL MANIFESTO OF THE NARC ON OCT 6, IN ITS FINAL PARAGRAPH, STATED THAT, "THE COUNCIL AFFIRMS THAT IT WILL UPHOLD THE DESIRE OF THE THAI PEOPLE FOR DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENT WITH THE KING AS HEAD OF STATE AND WILL DO EVERYTHING IT CAN TO GIVE FIRM FOUNDATIONS TO THIS SYSTEM OF GOVERNMENT, BY STAGES, UNTIL WE HAVE A DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENT WITH THE KING AS HEAD OF STATE THAT IS APPROPRIATE TO THE PRESENT CIRCUMSTANCES." SUCH A STATEMENT MAY BE REGARDED AS CYNICAL LIP-SERVICE, BUT ITS INCLUSION IN THE INITIAL MANIFESTO AT LEAST INDICATES AN AWARENESS ON THE PART OF THE NARC THAT THERE IS A CONSIDERABLE ATTACHMENT IN THAILAND TO THE CONCEPT OF DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENT.
8.
THE APPOINTMENT OF THANIN KRAIWICHIAN AS PRIME MINISTER ON OCT 8, THE ANNOUNCEMENT THAT A FULL CABINET WILL BE APPOINTED WITHIN TWO WEEKS, AND THE APPOINTMENT OF A CONSTITUTION DRAFTING COMMITTEE ON OCT 11 INDICATES THAT THE NARC APPRECIATES THAT IT CANNOT GOVERN THE COUNTRY DIRECTLY AND THAT A NORMAL STRUCTURE OF GOVERNMENT NEEDS TO BE COMPLETED QUICKLY. HOWEVER, THANIN'S SPEECH OF OCT 13 (REFTEL) INDICATES THAT CONSIDERABLE EXPERIMENTATION IN GOVERNMENTAL STRUCTURES LIES AHEAD.
9.
AS FOR THE 24-MEMBER NARC ITSELF, IT PROBABLY CANNOT CONTINUE IN ITS PRESENT FORM INDEFINITELY. IT IS TOO LARGE TO FUNCTION EFFECTIVELY, AND SEVERAL OF ITS MEMBERS, PARTICULARLY THE COMMANDERS OF THE FIELD ARMIES WHOSE HEADQUARTERS ARE OUTSIDE OF BANGKOK, WILL PROBABLY ATTEND ITS SESSIONS ONLY FROM TIME TO TIME. THE NARC LACKS A SINGLE, STRONG LEADER. THE CHAIRMAN, ADMIRAL SA-NGAT, IS WELL-RESPECTED IN THE THAI ARMED FORCES, BUT HIS CAREER SERVICE IN THE NAVE IS AN ANOMALY IN A MILITARY GOVERNMENT, TRADITIONALLY DOMINATED BY THE MUCH LARGER ROYAL THAI ARMY. THERE ARE INDICATIONS THAT, IF THE COUP OF OCT 6 HAD BEEN DELAYED ANOTHER COUPLE OF DAYS, THERE WOULD HAVE BEEN A DIFFERENT COUP, WITH A DIFFERENT SET OF LEADERS, AMONG WHOM THE THAI ARMY WOULD HAVE PREDOMINATED. THE ABRUPT DISMISSAL OF GENERAL CHALAT ON OCTOBER 10, UNDER CIRCUMSTANCES WHICH INDICATE HE WAS ENGAGED IN COUP PLOTTING, AND THE SUDDEN DISPATCH OF LTG WITHUN YASAWAT TO JAPAN ON OCT 13 TO "SUPERVISE THAI STUDENTS" IN THAT COUNTRY, SIMPLY UNDERLINE THE CONCERN OF THE NARC LEADERSHIP TO HEAD OFF FURTHER COUP ACTIVITY.
10.
IT IS TOO EARLY TO ANTICIPATE WHAT THE NARC WILL DO ABOUT ISSUES DIRECTLY RELATED TO THE MILITARY TAKEOVER, INCLUDING THE FOLLOWING, WHICH WILL DOMINATE THE EVENTS OF THE NEXT FEW MONTHS:
A)
POLITICAL - HOW MUCH FREEDOM TO ALLOW, PARTICULARLY TO THE MEDIA. HOW QUICKLY TO MOVE TOWARDS DRAFTING A NEW CONSTITUTION. WHAT TO DO ABOUT THE INSURGENCY. HOW TO IMPROVE CONDITIONS OF LAW AND ORDER. WHAT TO DO ABOUT CORRUPTION, A PERVASIVE EVIL OF LONGSTANDING SIGNIFICANCE.
B)
ECONOMIC - WHAT TO DO ABOUT INVESTMENT, INCLUDING BOTH FOREIGN AND DOMESTIC INVESTMENT, AND WHAT IS A DESIRABLE MIX OF BOTH. HOW MUCH INTEREST IS THERE IN LAND REFORM.
C)
FOREIGN POLICY - WHAT TO DO ABOUT RELATIONS WITH THAILAND'S COMMUNIST NEIGHBORS (BOTH THE SRV AND LAOS HAVE STRONGLY DENOUNCED THE COUP, AS MIGHT HAVE BEEN EXPECTED). WHAT ABOUT RELATIONS WITH THE U.S. (THE THAI MILITARY HAVE BEEN RESTIVE AT THE CHANGES IN RELATIONS WITH THE U.S. OVER THE PAST YEAR AND THEIR EXCLUSION FROM THE NEGOTIATIONS IN EARLY 1976 ON THE RESIDUAL US MILITARY AND INTELLIGENCE PRESENCE ISSUE.) WHAT VALUE WILL THE MANILA TREATY HAVE FOR THAILAND'S SECURITY INTERESTS, PARTICULARLY AFTER THE FINAL LIQUIDATION OF SEATO IN JUNE, 1977.
11.
AT THIS POINT IT IS EASIER TO ASK QUESTIONS THAN TO PROVIDE ANSWERS. ON THE WHOLE, WE BELIEVE THAT A PERIOD OF SOME INSTABILITY AND CONFUSION LIES AHEAD, UNTIL THE LEADERSHIP OF THE GOVERNMENT DOMINATED BY THE MILITARY SETTLES DOWN. GIVEN THE BACKGROUND AND EXPERIENCE OF THE FIGURES IN THE NARC, IT IS QUESTIONABLE THAT THE NARC AS PRESENTLY CONSTITUTED CAN PROVIDE THE LEADERSHIP THAT THAILAND NEEDS IN THE PERIOD AHEAD.

WHITEHOUSE

  1. Source: National Archives, Record Group 59, Central Foreign Policy Files. Confidential. Repeated for information to Hong Kong, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Rangoon, Tokyo, Singapore, CINCPAC Honolulu, Beijing, Vientiane, and CINCPAC for Polad.
  2. The Embassy analyzed Thai politics.