Thailand: Comparing the 1976 and 2006 coups

By Giles Ji Ungpakorn

October 5, 2009 -- People like to say that “history repeats itself, but not in exactly the same way”. In some ways, and not others, the military coup of the September 19, 2006, was a repeat of the bloodbath and coup on October 6, 1976. Circumstances are different, some actors are different and some have changed sides. But there are interesting comparisons to make.

Both the October 6 and the September 19 coups were actions which destroyed democracy because the conservative elites felt that “too much democracy” would lead to “too much equality”. In 1976, students, intellectuals, workers and farmers were talking of socialism, redistribution of wealth and a welfare state. In 2006, then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai party (TRT) government was providing village funds and had set up a universal healthcare system. His popularity as a result of these genuine pro-poor policies threatened the conservatives. In both cases the conservatives claimed that welfare would make people lazy and that pro-poor policies threatened to destroy the country.

The September 19 coup claimed legitimacy from the king, although it is very unlikely that the king ordered the coup. But following the coup he praised the soldiers. After the Democrat Party was manoeuvred into power by the army, there was a regime of draconian censorship. Government opponents were persecuted, put in prison and killed, even though the number of deaths has been small compared to 1976. Events surrounding the September 19 coup coincided with the creation of semi-fascist armed gangs. First we had the People's Alliance for Democracy's “guards”. They carried and used guns, knives, bombs and sticks in the streets and attacked pro-democracy movement (the ``Red Shirts'') and the police with impunity. Then the Democrat Party and Newin Chitchorp set up the paramilitary “Blue Shirts”. The pro-coup side had their own rabid media, ASTV, which continues to churn out lies about their opponents.

The conservative elites were a loose coalition between the army, the PAD, conservative civil servants, academics, the royal palace and the some in the NGO movement. They agreed on the need for a coup but squabbled over their own self-interests. PAD leader Sonti was shot by someone in the army. The Blue Shirts were set up to counter the PAD. The squabbles continue.

The October 6, 1976, bloodbath also claimed legitimacy from the king. The soldiers were too tainted with the Sarit and Tanom dictatorships and were totally lacking in legitimacy as a result of the successful 1973 uprising. So they used the paramilitary Border Patrol Police from Hua Hin, near the king’s palace, instead. These were the armed forces that attacked and killed the students inside Thammasart University. The king and queen visited the ex-dictator Tanom at Wat Baworniwet, days before the bloodbath. Outside the university, on the October 6, the paramilitary and semi-fascist village scouts, and thugs from the Krating Daeng and Nawapon, beat, hung and burnt students. The village scouts were under royal patronage, the Krating Daeng were unemployed technical college students organised by the army and the Nawapon were out-of-uniform soldiers, “the army of number 9”. It is believed that Chamlong Srimuang had a role in the killings at Thammasart. Later in 1992 he led an uprising against a military dictator. Now he is with the PAD.

The entire conservative elite were united in the need for a bloody crackdown in 1976 against the socialists and all those who believed in democracy. Yet they were divided into factions around key figures in the armed forces and key politicians, such as Chartchai Choonhawan in the Chart Thai Party. Violence and intimidation, plus provocations, were organised in the run-up to 1976 and three separate groups tried to stage a coup. Only one faction was successful, the one led by Admiral Sangat Chaloryu. The king blessed the new prime minister, Tanin Kraiwichien, giving his government a royal hue. His extreme right-wing government, with Samak Sundarawej as interior minister, set about using draconian censorship and burning books. By 2006 Samak was in with Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai. A year after the October 6, 1976, coup Tanin’s government was overthrown by another coup. The soldiers felt his extremism was counterproductive. So much for his royal credentials!

In 1976, the conservatives had their rabid media: Dao Sayam newspaper and the tank corps radio station. They lied that the students had held a play with a mock hanging of the crown prince. A photo of the play was reproduced from the Bangkok Post. That paper, conservative as ever, did not refute the false allegation against the students. After the bloodbath, the crown prince visited the village scouts at the Royal Plaza to thank them for their work.

Because no soldier, police officer or government official has ever been punished for the October 6, 1976, bloodbath other soldiers and politicians have been able to abuse human rights with impunity. Suchinda Kaprayoon and Surayut Chulanon are guilty of crimes against pro-democracy demonstrators in 1992. Thaksin and the 4th Army chief are guilty of crimes at Takbai. Thaksin is also guilty of crimes in the ``war on drugs''. This war was also supported by Prem Tinsulanon and the king. There are other examples. But by repeating the claim that “no one knows what happened on October 6”, the mainstream Thai media reinforce the tradition of immunity from proecesuion for human rights abuses. There are no big secrets about what happened in 1976 and the entire ruling elite have blood on their hands. Even the Democrat Party, which was in government at the time, despite being powerless, failed to condemn or even raise any opposition to the bloodbath. They were weak and indecisive, as always, but they agreed with the need to “deal with” the students and the left.

The October 6, 1976, bloodbath resulted in a civil war. Thousands joined the Communist Party of Thailand to fight against the elites. Thousands held the monarchy in contempt. Yet the armed struggle and Maoism were a failure. The September 19, 2006, coup has stimulated the growth of the pro-Democracy Red Shirts. The monarchy is once again being seriously questioned. But this time, we have a mass movement in the cities and in the countryside. It is led by ordinary people and is becoming increasingly politicised.

[Giles Ji Ungpakorn worked in the faculty of political science, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand. He was forced to leave Thailand after being charged under Thailand's anti-democratic les majeste laws. He is an activist with the socialist Turn Left Thailand group. Visit and]