[Note: Updated May 20, 2014, because apparently the Thai military can’t get enough about coups.]
It is not precisely clear just how many coup attempts and successful coups there have been in Thai history, just looking at the 20th century. One might say, if one has a fair amount of historical knowledge, that Thailand’s unstable political history goes back before then, as the present Chakri dynasty was founded in a successful coup, and the much-touted and glorious Ayutthaya period had a great many coups in it, especially in the last century of rule by that city before the Burmese sacked the city and put an end to Ayuttaya’s glory except as ruins.
There are really a few great difficulties that a historian must wrestle with when it comes to counting coups. For one, how serious does a movement have to be before it can be counted as a coup attempt. For another, not all hostile changes of government have generally been considered coups because of political reasons. We will talk about a couple of particularly significant examples of this phenomenon below. There is also one particularly troubling trend, and that is that while early military coups were often meant to guide the nation in a more democratic direction, that fairly soon (especially after the assassination of King Ananda of Thailand in 1947 ) the coups became a way of preserving an increasingly insecure palace establishment as many of the military elite became co-opted, and thus became a danger to Thailand’s progress in democracy rather than a danger to its monarchy.
The prelude to the Thai Revolution of 1932, whose 80th anniversary is today (an anniversary which is not particularly celebrated in contemporary Thailand for understandable reasons), where the Thai absolute monarchy was replaced with an uncertain constitutional arrangement that is still rather unclear (after all, it can be argued that the royal-military elite still does not consider itself under the law, a foundation for the development of any kind of republican virtue in a society), began after the Chinese Revolution of 1911. Thais saw the large Chinese minority cut off their long hair because they were no longer ruled by the oppressive Manchu dynasty, and this gave some Thais hope that Thailand’s own monarchy could be brought into the modern era of constitutional rule . Interestingly enough, many of these early revolutionaries, starting from 1912 or so, were from the royal guards, who had a close witness to the decadence of Thai’s monarchy and a desire for better rulers and less corrupt rule.
It took 20 years after these beginnings for a successful revolution to occur in Thailand. On June 24, 1932, a relatively small group of military and civilian leaders, part of the “People’s Party” (clearly populist in nature), overthrew the absolute monarchy and established a constitutional monarchy in its place  (the constitution was established on December 10, 1932, a day still “celebrated” to this day in Thailand, but a day no one in Thailand seems to know anything about ). Unfortunately for Thailand, this was only the start and by far from the finish of the process of the establishment of a genuine Thai constitutional monarchy on Western grounds, a process that is still underway and far from certain.
June 24th was celebrated as Thailand’s National Day until 1960, when a royalist military dictator named Sarit Thanarat changed it to the current King’s birthday as a sign that royalist interests had overcome the constitutionally minded interests of well-being for the ordinary people in the eyes of the military and in the elite in general . No longer were the military interested in reforming Thailand for the benefit of the larger population, but they had been successfully co-opted to defend the royal order that had seemed so insecure during the middle of the 20th century. Needless to say, the multifaceted ways that a coup can take place with a corrupt military and judicial establishment more interested in preserving a privileged elite status than concern for the general population (especially in marginalized areas like the North and Northeast of Thailand) make counting coups a difficult task .
Let us therefore examine only those coups that resulted in a change of government, and let us furthermore consider every change of government from one party to another that did not result from an election as an illegitimate coup. The numbers are fairly depressing for anyone who would wish for a stable and just constitutional order in Thailand, and is revealing in showing the military’s change from a force of defense for the people to a force of defense for a narrow elite. We have already commented on the first of these successful coups, on June 24, 1932, when Thailand’s absolute monarchy was theoretically ended.
Less than a year later, on June 20, 1933, Thailand suffered its first (but not last) counter coup, where the originally democratic government was overthrown by an elite-backed “National Party” upset over the pace of reforms in Thailand . Like France and other nations where democracy had been established by some kind of revolution rather than as a long and gradual development (like in the United States, Great Britain, Israel or Switzerland, to name a few examples), the attempted establishment of a constitutional order met with extreme hostility from those who may have wanted the forms of constitutional government to look good in the eyes of the world, but were not ready in the least to be held accountable to the general population at large, and who sought to base this on the principles of snobbery by arguing that the Thais were immature to learn self-government.
Soon thereafter, there was a successful “silent coup” on April 20, 1933, where the existing Prime Minister overthrew himself and sought to use the threat of Communism to justify tyrannical and oppressive laws that not coincidentally helped Phraya Manopakorn Nititada remain in power, if not for very long . While this is the first time that Communism was used to justify a suppression of rights in Thailand, it would not be the last such occasion, not by a long shot. As in most areas of life, those attempts that are successful are often repeated, and both coups and anti-Communism remained long-term approaches to attempting to legitimize rule in the eyes of the Thai military leadership.
Thailand’s next “successful” coup was on January 29, 1939, where insecure and unpopular Thai dictator Luang Phibulsonggram engaged in an auto-coup where he executed and exiled numerous potential rivals (18 of them ended up dead in trumped up charges) in order to secure his power . Unfortunately, his way of dealing with political rivalries was not the only quality he shared with other fascist dictators, as he was largely responsible for Thailand’s pro-axis policies during World War II, which makes the similar political viewpoints of modern Thai fascists part of a larger and far darker history . While his potential rivals were dead or living in penury in exile, Phibul was forced to resign in 1944, but came back and ruled from 1948-1957, despite his unsavory character.
Thailand’s brief period of attempting a principled democracy from 1944 to 1947, a period in which the principled King Ananda was assassinated, led to another military-dominated coup on November 8, 1947 which demonstrated that key royalist elements, along with the royalist Democratic Party (still royalist to this day) were unwilling to accept democracy when it meant rule by their political enemies supported by and large by the common people . As I mentioned earlier, this coup soon brought the corrupt pro-Nazi Phibul back into power as a Prime Minister for about nine years.
Phibul remained prime minister through another “successful” coup in 1951, which got rid of a Democrat-drafted constitution that had banned military leaders from serving in the cabinet. In the coup of November 29, 1951, we see that the military was not content to wait for explicit royal approval to overthrow a government , and that it was not content even to play second fiddle to a political party that was a rival for spoils even as it shared a basic royalist outlook. This coup is called a silent coup because it did not change the face of government even as it changed the legal structure in ways that took power from civilians and gave them to military strongmen. Still, it demonstrates the harmful influence of the military in the Bhomipol era on the development of Thailand’s democracy, including basic principles of civilian rule.
Phibul would not survive the next coup unscathed, though, which took place on September 17, 1957. King Bhomipol explicitly supported this coup, which brought a military-dominated leader to the forefront in a government that would endure for more than a decade that combined a royalist cult with a popular Buddhism. It was during the aftermath of this bloodless coup that King Bhomipol and his wife increased their royal tours in the countryside, at the urging of the 1957 coup leader Sarit, apparently , and that June 24 ceased to be celebrated as National Day, with King Bhomipol’s birthday being celebrated instead. From this point forward, if not necessarily before, we can see the interests of the king and the military leadership as having greatly coincided, though this did not signal the beginning of a democratic order in Thailand, unfortunately.
Before Sarit’s power could be consolidated after his successful 1957 coup, though, it required another “self-coup” on October 20, 1958 to overthrow an undesirable 1952 constitution. As we saw earlier, Sarit did not particularly concern himself with constitutions, and seemed to consider them as inconveniences. Nonetheless, his 1958 coup, which signaled the end of his efforts at a “National Socialist” coalition government (!), led to the establishment of martial law for more than a decade, and his strong anti-Communist views ensured that the United States would support his regime for geopolitical concerns, without the need to even pay lip service to democracy . Sarit, like many people, had a paternalistic view of the people, considering them too immature to handle Western-style democracy. Sadly, as Thailand’s 20th century history demonstrates, Thailand was never given the chance to have an enduring democratic order because as soon as the “wrong” parties or people were placed in power, the democracy was under threat from those who thought they knew better than their people on who was a proper and right ruler.
The establishment of a parliamentary democracy and constitution in 1968 did not long endure, because the prime minister, Thanom, engaged in yet another “auto-coup” that overthrew the constitution of 1968 on November 17, 1971 and with American support sought to engage in the usual government corruption, which the government made no effort to hide, and an attempt to establish a political dynasty through his son, who made a rapid and much resented rise through the military ranks . The rising influence of Japanese companies and the corruption and cronyism threatened immense division within the military base of support for Thanom’s regime, making sure it did not endure as long as his much more royally favored predecessor.
After Thanom was forced to resign, a civilian government was established, but the usual tension between those who wished for no reforms to be made and those who sought for drastic Communist reforms and blatant anti-royalism led even many moderate Thais to support a harsher hand to deal with Thailand’s problems. One prime minister was forced to resign for having sought to hold military leaders accountable for their corruption under the previous regime, while right-wing elements sought to trump up the level of hostility among protesters, stooping to the level of using doctored evidence, and soon thereafter, on October 6, 1976, a coup overthrew the existing government and a new government was led by a civilian former member of Thailand’s judicial branch, Thanin Kraivichien . His harsh and repressive government was apparently even harsher than many military governments (that is saying something), and the severity of his government was such that it did not long endure.
So, about a year later the military (this time the navy instead of the army) overthrew Thanin and set up Kriagsak Chomanan as Prime Minister in a “bloodless coup” . By this time the Thai military in particular was become old hat when it comes to overthrowing governments. It scarcely mattered if the governments were civilian or other military governments, caretaker governments, popularly supported or not. If Thailand had devoted the last 80 years to working and improving democracy instead of being constantly threatened by the overthrow of governments, it may have been able to develop some skill at self-government, but sadly, its self-appointed rulers have been unable to let Thailand learn self-government by practice, but has instead practiced its abilities at overthrowing governments in many ways.
On March 3, 1980, another coup by military leaders led to Thai General-in-chief Prem Tinsulanonda serving as Prime Minister from 1980 to 1988 with a shifting coalition of parties to keep a governing majority . Despite several coup attempts from military elements, he governed for eight years with a great degree of support from Thai King Bhomipol, and remains to this day as the leader of the King’s Privy Council. The fact that Prem was an unelected prime minister for so long suggests that his rise to power ought to be counted as yet another example of Thailand’s “bloodless coups.”
Not surprisingly, the next “democratic” government of Thailand was overthrown in yet another coup, on February 23, 1991 . This particular coup led to the temporary placement of another Thai general-in-chief in the role of Prime Minister, but this was unacceptable to a large amount of protestors, who gathered almost 200,000 people together to protest this anti-democratic action. This show of mass popular hostility to the latest coup pretender led to royal appeals for the people to cease their protesting and for a resignation based on palace pressure, leading to an unstable situation of weak coalition governments and frequent elections until the rise of Thaksin Shinawatra represented the next threat to royal-elite-military domination, leading to the next rash of coups in the early 21st century.
The first (but by no means the last) of these coups was on September 19, 2006, when the military (and it is highly controversial the extent of involvement by palace and privy council figures in this coup) overthrew the popular prime minister and banned his Thai Rak Thai party leaders from politics for five years, leading Thaksin to live in exile until the present day . After fifteen years without any coups, it might have been thought that Thailand was starting to overcome the coup addiction, but unfortunately that was not the case, and once again Thailand’s inability to accept the need for ballots and not bullets proved to be fatal to Thailand’s development as a constitutional monarchy/democracy, leading to another abrogation of the constitution, martial law, and other draconian measures.
After the promised elections led to the victory of the PPP, another pro-Thaksin party, in 2007, there was a “judicial coup” in 2008, where instead of military involvement a corrupt Thai judiciary declared the PPP illegal, broke up the party, and a royalist Democratic party government was set up instead , leading to massive protests, which included a government crackdown in 2010, and to elections which were won in 2011 by another pro-Thaksin party led by Thaksin’s younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra. Sadly, rumors have been flying for weeks, if not months, that yet another judicial coup is threatened that would overthrow democracy yet again in Thailand.
It ought to be clear by this point that Thailand is a confirmed addict to coups. Thailand’s government has suffered nearly every variety of coup that is possible to endure, ranging from military coups, to protests that bring down governments, to self-coups and silent coups and judicial coups, coups by different branches of the military, and on and on and on. Every time a popular party gains power that threatens the power of the royal and military elite, there is a coup that in some fashion overthrows that party and leads to an illegitimate government until the next elections allow the cycle to continue on and on again.
It is small wonder, in light of this tragic political history, that people are protesting today to tell the military to stop overthrowing governments . At this point, it is unclear what sort of intervention would be necessary on the part of some entity to keep Thailand from destroying any opportunity for its people to develop the self-government and self-discipline to rule themselves. A nation cannot be slandered for being incapable of governing itself when it has never had the chance to weigh and balance promises, hold leaders accountable themselves for corruption and false promises and activities that lead to short-term or elite-driven gain without long-term benefits for ordinary people. As human governments are only legitimate to the extent that they serve at the pleasure of the people and for the benefit of the people, it is clear that Thailand’s road to legitimate government remains bumpy and uncertain. Thailand’s military elite does not look remotely ready to beat the coup addiction for good.
Update: May 20, 2014:
As if one would think such a thing impossible after so many coups, it appears that Thailand wishes to add another type of coup to its list. Although today’s coup, an overthrow of a weak caretaker government after a judicial coup (so I guess that’s two more coups to add to the list) overthrew the government of Yingluck Shinawatra just before they were expected to win a second election after a first one was boycotted by the opposition. This particular coup was a coup that tries to pretend it is not a coup , presumably in order to avoid popular discontent by pro-democracy red shirt protestors. The real test of whether this coup by General Prayuth Chan-ocha is a real coup or not is if they accept the inevitable victory in the forthcoming polls by whatever Thaksin supporter runs in whatever they decide to name their party, if the elections are held at all, that is. That will be the real test whether this coup is merely another roadbump on the slow road to responsible republican government in Thailand or whether this is yet another coup that makes a mockery of the hopes and aspirations of the Thai people.