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POLITICS: Thailand Remembers a Dictator

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Jun 18 2004 (IPS) - The death this week of Thanom Kittikachorn, a former Thai prime minister who ruled with an iron fist, is giving reason for Thais to pause and reflect on the roots of their young democracy.

For it was while Thanom ruled that Thailand witnessed its first mass uprising against the tyranny of a military dictatorship, and in the process people discovered the power of the right to political and civil liberties.

That event, immortalised in the minds of human rights activists here, occurred on Oct. 14, 1973, when hundreds of thousands of people led by university students came out on to Bangkok’s streets to oppose Thanom.

Even Thanom’s response – a military crackdown over the next three days which resulted in the deaths of over 70 unarmed pro- democracy activists – failed to contain the spirit of political freedom that had burst forth.

Thanom, who died on Wednesday at the age of 92, was forced to step down soon after.

”Thanom, like other military dictators before him, wielded virtually unlimited political power, presiding over a regime festooned with an elaborate form of corruption woven from political power and strands of personal interest,” commented ‘The Nation’ newspaper in an editorial on Friday.

But through ”oppression, rampant political corruption, political domination and greed, Thanom’s empire inadvertently gave birth to a collective spirit of freedom,” the paper added in its lead story on the front page, under the headline, ‘Democracy’s bitterest foe.’

Those that support Thailand’s struggle for democracy ”will remember Field Marshal Thanom as a tyrant,” Giles Ungpakorn, associate professor of political science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, told IPS.

”The victory of the democratic movement in 1973 has had a profound effect on Thailand’s political culture,” he added. ”It resulted in the forces of democracy being placed firmly on the map.”

According to Gothom Arya, secretary general of the regional human rights lobby Forum-Asia, the 1973 demonstration against Thanom is widely accepted as the foundation upon which the country has built one of South-east Asia’s most vibrant democracies. ”The democratic ideals are more absorbed in the society,” he told IPS. ”Now it cannot be challenged easily.”

What is more, that pivotal event in Thailand’s political history also succeeded in the beginning of another process – a steady rolling back of the Thai military’s grip on the country’s political culture.

”After October 1973, Thais discovered that it was possible to separate the military from politics,” Sunai Phasuk, Thai representative of the New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in an interview.

Consequently, today, with the military removed from the political role it enjoyed previously, Thais ”may not have to fear military dictatorships,” he added.

But that has neither stopped Sunai nor ‘The Nation’ from cautioning against the possible emergence of dictators without military uniforms over thirty years after Thailand’s march towards democracy.

Since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, this country has experienced 17 military coups. Moreover, military generals have served as the country’s prime minister for 48 of the last 72 years.

By the time Thanom took power in the 1960s, the country had endured the military dictatorships of Phibun Songkhram and Sarit Thanarat.

His contemporaries in the region were men whose capacity for oppression is legendary: Burma’s military leader Ne Win, Indonesian leader Suharto and Filipino leader Ferdinand Marcos.

And like Suharto and Marcos, Thanom’s regime, like Sarit’s before, was amply aided by the U.S. government as part of its Cold War policies in South-east Asia.

In 1971, Thanom removed all doubts about where he stood with regards to democracy by revoking the constitution and dissolving parliament.

Besides relying on martial law to suppress dissent, Thanom’s regime also resorted to more ingenious ways in crushing opponents, such as targeting Thais suspected of being members of the country’s Communist Party.

Among them were the Red Drum massacres, where suspects were forced down 200-litre red drums which were divided by an iron grille, below which was a fire.

As a result of this form of torture that began in1972, more than 3,000 villagers in southern Thailand were killed in army camps.

Yet in Thai high schools, text books have been kind to Thanom. So, too, are official records of the period he ruled and the events that led to his downfall.

”That period has been sidelined by the mainstream historians,” said HRW’s Sunai. ”Not many people like to talk about it besides saying that Thanom was, simply, a dictator.”

Such an attitude, he added, was due to the reverence in Thai culture towards the establishment and those in power.

”What October 1973 showed was that the reverse was possible; it undermined the belief in the top-down notion of authority and culture.”

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