Political problems, street protests, coups and corruption have been a feature of Thailand for a very long time. The protests in Bangkok earlier in the year and the way they were handled by the government and security forces were an all too familiar reminder of previous incidents in Thai history. Today, an estimated 5,000 red shirts gathered peacefully at the Democracy Monument area in Bangkok to mark the six-month anniversary of the clashes on April 10 and to carry out religious rites for those who died. Also this month, activists and political groups in Thailand will be remembering the student uprisings of October 1973 and October 1976 in which dozens of protesters lost their lives. Here are some of the key dates and events which have helped to form the current political landscape in Thailand.
1932 – A coup in Bangkok ended the system of absolute monarchy and King Rama VII became just a figurehead with no power.
1935 – King Rama VII abdicated and his 10-year-old nephew Ananda assumed the throne.
1939 – Siam changes name to Thailand.
1946: organised political parties fight elections for the first time and a new constitution is drafted. In June 1946, King Ananda is found dead in his bedroom with a bullet wound to the forehead. Bhumibol Adulyadej is crowned king of Thailand and becomes King Rama IX.
Vote rigging and bribery in Thai politics is widespread with the 1957 election particularly notorious. September 1957 sees a military coup led by General Sarit. The army man believes that Thailand needs a unifying figure and encourages His Majesty the King to adopt this role.
Thai farmers face continuing financial hardship and many turn against the Bangkok government. Communist party of Thailand and other left wing groups gain broad support in north and north-east Thailand. In 1969, the military government held elections which were won by the ruling government party amid growing calls for more democracy from the ordinary Thai people.
Student demonstrations take place in Bangkok. In October 1973 as many as 500,000 protesters turned out at Thammasat University and the Democracy Monument area of Bangkok to demand a new constitution. Thailand’s king intervened and made a call for calm. On October 14, the students had apparently heeded the king’s advice and began to disperse. As police tried to control the crowd dispersal, fighting broke out. At least 77 people died and more than 800 were wounded as the violence spiralled out of control and the army refused to provide enough troops to quell the trouble. Three army generals were forced to resign and leave Thailand.
Following the 1973 bloodshed, the students became more radical and left-wing. At the same time, the Thai middle classes began to look towards right-wing groups. In October 1976, one of the generals who had been forced to leave the country after the Bangkok riots in 1973, returned to Thailand. This led to renewed student protests. On October 6 1976, the police were aided by right-wing groups in a crackdown on the student protests. The result was brutal with hundreds of student protesters beaten. At least one student was lynched and there were reports of other bodies being burnt. The official death toll was 46, but students and activists at the time claimed the figure was much higher. As a consequence of the police action, the Thai military took control and suspended the constitution.
General Prem Tinsulanonda becomes leader of the military government with widespread support including support of the monarchy. In 1981, Prem managed to avert an attempted coup by some members of the military. During the 1980s, Prem was backed by a parliamentary mandate and under his unique style of leadership, sometimes referred to as ‘Premocracy’, Thailand enjoyed an economic boom. Prem eventually stepped down from office in 1988.
Corruption began to re-appear in Thai politics and this, combined with an economic downturn and government attempts to lessen the political role of the Thai military, led to a bloodless coup in 1991. The army commander-in-chief, General Suchinda, became premier of Thailand. Unfortunately, Suchinda soon earned the displeasure of the Thai public when he reneged on promises about democratic amendments to the Thai Constitution. In May 1992, hundreds of thousands of Thai people took to the streets around Sanam Luang and Bangkok’s Democracy Monument. From May 17-20, General Suchinda brutally crushed the protests with the official death toll recorded as 52. There are many in Thailand who never believed that figure and claim that hundreds were reported missing or unaccounted for during this period which is still referred to as ‘Black May’ or ‘Savage May’. Defending his action, Suchinda said he was taking necessary steps to protect the king and country from communist agitators. However, Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej went on television to publicly denounce Suchinda who was then forced to resign.
The Democrat Party won the elections of September 1992 and held office until 1995. The 1995 elections were plagued by vote-buying and corruption, but even this was topped by the 1996 elections which have been called the most corrupt in Thai history. However, following the 1996 election an independent assembly did manage to draw up a new constitution. The new constitution was approved and included some key points which have a bearing on today’s situation in Thailand. One of the aims of the constitution was to make politicians more accountable and bring an end to the practice of vote-buying and corruption. The constitution also guaranteed individual rights and freedoms and included the right to assembly as the basis of a democratic society.
The 1997 economic crisis saw the Thai Baht collapse and resulted in Thailand seeking a rescue package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Unemployment in Thailand soared and so too did inflation.
The emergence of Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai party was to have an indelible effect on Thailand. Thaksin’s populist policies won widespread support from the poor and his economic measures were also popular with business leaders. Thaksin won the elections in 2001 and did the same again in 2005. However, there was growing opposition to the power that Thaksin had and the way he used that power. There were continuing accusations of corruption and cronyism. Significantly, the traditional Bangkok elite who had previously held power were now accusing Thaksin of being disloyal to the monarchy and having a republican agenda. This set the scene for an anti-Thaksin movement to develop in Bangkok. The anti-Thaksin sentiment gathered pace at the beginning of 2006 following a high-profile business deal that raked in millions of dollars for the Shinawatra family. Thaksin was removed from office by a bloodless military coup in September 2006.
October 2006 – military government controls Thailand.
June 2007 – anti-coup demonstration takes place in Bangkok.
December 2007 – new elections held which results in a pro-Thaksin government.
May 2008 – the yellow shirts mount anti-government protests in Bangkok.
August 2008 – yellow shirts storm government buildings in the Thai capital and also force the temporary closure of regional airports including Krabi and Phuket.
September 2008 – Thai prime minister Samak Sundaravej is controversially disqualified from office and is replaced by another pro-Thaksin leader, Somchai Wongsawat.
October 2008 – two yellow shirt protesters killed following clashes with police in Bangkok.
November 2008 – yellow shirts occupy Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang airport.
December 2008 – yellow shirt protests end and Bangkok airports re-open. The Democrat leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva is confirmed as the new prime minister of Thailand.
February 2009 – red shirts rally in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
March 2009 – red shirts rally at Government House in Bangkok.
April 2009 – violence flares in Pattaya as red shirts disrupt regional ASEAN meeting being held there. Bloody clashes also take place in Bangkok as troops move against red shirt protesters.
February 2010 – Thai Supreme Court rules against Thaksin Shinawatra and seizes part of his fortune.
March 2010 – red shirt rally takes place in Bangkok.
April-May 2010 – red shirt protesters and troops killed during violent confrontation in April. More protesters killed and injured as troops finally clear the protest site in May. In total, more than 90 people died and over 1,000 were injured during the prolonged red shirt protest in Bangkok.