Affable and gregarious Thai premier Chatichai Choonavan was ousted from power after boarding an Air Force plane that was supposed to take him to Chiang Mai for an audience with the King. The flight never got airborne.
With the benefit of hindsight, the 23 February 1991 coup that removed Chatichai could be viewed as an opening salvo in a domestic thirty years’ war, during which the political role of Thailand’s military has been a constant source of contention. Although Samuel Huntington published his classic book on the Third Wave of Democratization that same year, Thailand’s ninth successful military coup proved that despite the downing of the Berlin Wall and all that followed, this global wave of democracy had not reached Siamese shores.
Despite any appearances to the contrary, Thailand’s relatively calm 1980s had not really institutionalised parliamentary politics following the turbulent 1970s. The decade had been dominated by eight years of ‘Premocracy’, under which former army commander Prem Tinsulanond served as prime minister, with the increasingly grudging support of an elected parliament. In 1988, Prem finally stepped down and Chatichai Choonavan, leader of the Chart Thai Party, became the first elected MP in twelve years to serve as prime minister.
The putsch staged by a junta calling itself the National Peace-Keeping Council (NPKC) was a classic promissory coup, staged ostensibly to end a culture of corruption associated with Chatichai’s much pilloried ‘buffet cabinet’, which had seen a bevy of prominent politicians become ‘unusually rich’. Chatichai – a retired general whose own father Pin Choonavan had seized power in the notorious 1947 coup – was accused of establishing a ‘parliamentary dictatorship’ and undermining the military, as well as mishandling an investigation into a bizarre alleged plot to assassinate the Queen and then prime minister Prem Tinsulanond in 1982.
Insisting that they did not intend to hang onto power for long, NPKC leaders supreme commander General Sunthorn Kongsompong, army chief General Suchinda Kraprayoon and air force chief Air Chief Marshal Kaset Rojananil promptly appointed respected diplomat and royal favourite Anand Panyarachun as prime minister. Anand was given a relatively free hand to appoint a cabinet consisting mainly of well-regarded technocrats.
So long as they stuck to their script of restoring democracy and backing Anand, the generals remained relatively popular. But after a new constitution had been drafted and the election scheduled for March 1992 approached, people began to smell a rat. A well-funded new political party known as Sammakkhi Tham was established in June 1991 to contest the election. It was an open secret that air force commander Kaset was behind the creation of Sammakkhi Tham.
Ironically, major figures in the party included several of the very same unusually rich politicians that the coup had allegedly been staged to remove – all of whom the junta had by then decided to let off.
Sure enough, to cut a long story short, Sammakkhi Tham deployed massive MP-buying and vote-buying, became the largest party in the post-election parliament, and eventually nominated General Suchinda Kraprayoon to become prime minister – despite Suchinda’s previous promises that he would not accept the position. The sight of a tearful Suchinda reluctantly ‘sacrificing himself’ by accepting the premiership ‘for the good of the country’ provoked many Thais to reach for the sick-bag.
After Suchinda’s wife Wanee declared she had dreamed that her husband would remain in Government House for the next ten years, hundreds of thousands of people poured onto the streets to insist otherwise.
Following a royal dressing-down by King Bhumibol on the night of 20 May, Suchinda sulked for another four days before finally resigning.
The rest is history. The military staged a violent crackdown on a huge anti-government demonstration led by former Bangkok governor Chamlong Srimuang (another retired general) from 17 to 20 May, during which at least 52 people were killed. The episode became known to Thais as ‘Black May’. Following a royal dressing-down by King Bhumibol on the night of 20 May, Suchinda sulked for another four days before finally resigning. He had been prime minister for just 48 days.
The debacle of the NPKC era, and especially its bloody ending, badly tarnished the reputation of the military, which was forced to retreat to the barracks until September 2006 – when the Royal Thai Army yet again staged a coup against an allegedly corrupt and over-powerful prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, while he was in New York attending the UN General Assembly. The 2006 coup turned out to be the only ‘good’ recent coup: for once, the generals did not try to cling to power after the December 2007 election.
The aftermath of the May 2014 coup resembled a slow-motion version of the 1991–92 train wreck: like Suchinda, coup-maker General Prayuth Chan-o-cha was also made into a ‘democratic’ prime minister by an opportunistic, military-funded political party. The difference is that, initially at least, Prayuth got away with it: he did not face major protests until more than a year after he was installed by parliament.
What are the lessons of the 23 February 1991 coup?
First, Thai generals are often not very bright. In retrospect, Sunthorn, Suchinda and Kaset were really a bunch of clowns, with little grasp of Thailand’s rapidly changing society, economy and politics, and completely unprepared to run a country. They confused initial public acquiescence to the coup with genuine popularity, and imagined that Suchinda could readily be eased into the premiership following the election. In short, the military over-reached themselves. Fortunately.
Second, Thai generals can be defeated when faced by a broad coalition of opponents. What stopped the junta was a formidable opposition alliance, including prominent newspapers, critical journalists and academics, and key figures from the business community – not to mention party politicians who had no wish to return to military subjugation. Crucially, the anti-Suchinda movement was backed by the majority of Bangkokians, including many normally conservative members of the middle classes.
Neither much-needed reform of the monarchy nor the institutionalisation of electoral politics will ever be achieved until the coup-happy military has been permanently de-fanged.
Third, Thai generals are out of control. The political reform process triggered by the upheavals of 1991–92, and which led to the much-praised 1997 Constitution, was fundamentally misguided. Driven by lawyers and political scientists who were obsessed by the quest for a perfect constitution, the reformers introduced a slew of new independent agencies, ranging from a Constitutional Court to an Election Commission and a National Human Rights Commission. In the end, none of these agencies helped institutionalise democratic change.
Thailand urgently needs security sector reform: a dramatic reduction in the number of generals, abolition of the Supreme Command, root-and-branch reorganisation of both the armed forces and the Defence Ministry, and parliamentary oversight of military budgets. This should be a core demand of the current anti-government protestors. Neither much-needed reform of the monarchy nor the institutionalisation of electoral politics will ever be achieved until the coup-happy military has been permanently de-fanged.
Future civilian Thai prime ministers should be able to board planes – whether bound for Chiang Mai or New York – without being afraid of losing office.
First published in Southeast Asia Globe, 23 February 2021