THE RELATIVE STABILITY of the Thai political system in the 1980s may prove to be a political watershed in modern Thai history. This stability, which resulted after several decades of spasmodic experimentation with democracy, could be attributed to the growing support of the monarchy and the traditionally dominant military-bureaucratic elite for parliamentary democracy. Evidently an increasing number of educated Thai had come to believe that a "Thai-style democracy" headed by the king and a parliament representing the people through political parties was preferable to excessively authoritarian rule under military strongmen. The future of parliamentary democracy was not a certainty, however, as many Thai continued to believe that democratic rule was not the most effective option in times of incompetent national leadership, prolonged civil and political disorder, or external threat to independence.
Under the Constitution of 1978, Thailand has a British-style cabinet form of government with King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX, 1946- ) reigning as constitutional monarch and Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda heading the government. Unlike the British prime minister, however, Prem was not a leader of or even a member of any political party in the nation's parliament, the National Assembly, nor did he run for election in the July 1986 election that led to the formation of his four-party coalition government. This was his fifth cabinet and seventh year in office--no mean accomplishment in a country that had witnessed numerous coups, countercoups, and attempted coups during its sporadic experiments with parliamentary government since 1932.
Unlike many of his predecessors, Prem became prime minister in March 1980 not by a coup, the traditional route to power, but by consensus among key politicians. At that time he was the commander in chief of the Royal Thai Army, a post that was long considered to be the most powerful in the country. With little dissent from any quarter, he succeeded Kriangsak Chomanand, who had resigned as prime minister amid mounting economic and political tensions. A group of disgruntled officers, popularly known as "the Young Turks," attempted coups against Prem in 1981 and 1985. These attempts, however, had no disruptive effect on political stability.
Despite these failed coups, in 1987 the military as a whole continued to play a major role in Thai politics. Increasingly, this role was tempered as so-called "enlightened" officers realized that a coup was no longer acceptable to the public and that the military could bring its influence to bear politically by working within the constitutional system. The military continued to believe, nonetheless, that politics and government were too important to be left entirely in the hands of civilian politicians, whom they tended to disdain as corrupt, divisive, and inefficient.
Barring early dissolution or resignation of his cabinet, Prem's mandate was scheduled to lapse in July 1990. Who would succeed him and, more important, how it would happen were the key questions because of their far-reaching implications for parliamentary democracy in Thailand. A related question concerned the future role of the monarchy and whether or not it would continue to command the reverence and loyalty of all segments of society and maintain its powerful symbolism as the sole conferrer of political legitimacy.
In the 1980s, a growing number of Thai favored a constitutional amendment requiring that only an elected member commanding a parliamentary majority could become prime minister. Citing Prem as an example, others argued that, even in the absence of a constitutional amendment, orderly succession was possible if a nationally reputable figure were acceptable to a majority of the country's political leaders. In any case, many observers agreed that, rather than imitating a foreign political model, Thailand should develop the political system best suited to the kingdom's particular needs and circumstances. The quest for a so-called "Thai-style democracy" was still under way in 1987, although the form and process of such a democracy remained largely undefined.
During the 1980s, Thailand pursued three major foreign policy objectives: safeguarding national security, diversifying and expanding markets for Thai exports, and establishing cordial relations with all nations. On the whole, Thailand conducted what it called "omni-directional foreign policy," and it did so in a highly pragmatic and flexible manner. Relations with such major powers as the United States, China, and Japan were increasingly cordial, and relations with the Soviet Union were correct. The Thai were suspicious of Soviet intentions because Moscow was perceived to be aiding and abetting Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Beginning in the mid-1970s, Indochina had come to be viewed as the major threat to Thailand's security. The normalization of relations with these Indochinese neighbors remained the principal unresolved issue for Bangkok, which continued to address the problem directly as well as indirectly through a regional forum called the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
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