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Thailand Celebrates Anniversary of Turning Point in Democratic History

Thailand's democracy movement is marking a vital anniversary in the country's political development - the 30th anniversary of the fall of the military government in 1973.

Thirty years ago on the streets of Bangkok, a student coalition of close to 500,000 clashed with the armed forces. That confrontation led to the overthrow of a military government led by Prime Minister Thanom Kittikachorn.

Marking the October 14, 1973, anniversary, former activists, politicians, academics and families of those who died in the clash, gathered for religious ceremonies and speeches in central Bangkok to remember the event that was pivotal in Thailand's political history.

Since becoming a constitutional democracy in 1932 Thailand has faced 17 coups or coup attempts.

But by the 1970s, Thailand's economy was changing and there was an emerging middle class. And with more cash lining the pockets of Thais, more young people were being educated. The student population had risen from 15,000 in 1961 to 100,000 by 1972.

Chulalongkorn University political scientist Pasuk Phongpaichit says these were the key elements in the call for political change.

"This rapid growth of urban capitalism also meant that there was a very rapid expansion of the educated middle class and these are the student generation of the 1970s who came from a sort of urban and rural backgrounds, from a petty-middle class background both in Bangkok and upcountry," explained Professor Pasuk. "They were the ones who through their demonstration on the street fell the military."

Faced with growing calls for constitutional reform, the military rulers responded in 1973 by arresting activists, sparking student demos in October.

The protests were peaceful. Singing and chanting students called for change.

Then in the early morning of October 14, the protesters faced a violent crackdown by the military.

Thirayuth Boonmee, a former student leader during the 1973 uprising, says at the time, students believed they would get widespread public support for their peaceful movement.

"We felt that our power was quite strong so we are quite certain we could press for democratic reform," recalled Mr. Thirayuth. "But I mean at the time we were quite young. We didn't expect any bloodshed."

The death toll from the military crackdown along Bangkok's famous Ratchadameon Avenue was reported to be as high as a hundred with some 300 injured. Public shock and reaction to the violence forced Prime Minister Thanom to leave the country.

Mr. Thirayuth says for the student movement it was not a jubilant victory.

"I think it's not jubilation," he said. "It was pretty hazy for about two days with the loss of life of our colleagues of our sisters and brothers. So it's very much the feeling that although we have achieved what we have fought for [that] when it came to that moment it almost [was] a foregone conclusion in one way or another they have to go out." But the political turbulence did not end there. The fall of Saigon to the Communists in Vietnam in 1975 and the political and economic uncertainties in Indochina and Thailand paved the way for the military to come back to power.

Through the 1980s, the government was led by the respected General Prem Tinsulanond, a period that Professor Pasuk calls a semi-democracy of shared power between the military and the civil and business sectors in parliament.

The military's final attempt to regain the upper hand came in the February 1991 coup. A year later there were more bloody street demonstrations.

Professor Pasuk says this was the last attempt by the military to maintain a leading role in political life.

"It's like one of the last attempts of the old remnants of the military who thought themselves as being born to rule or being trained to rule to try and reestablish their powerful position again against the grain of democratic ideals," he said.

Five years after the 1992 bloodshed, Thailand's parliament passed a constitution calling for improved human rights and stronger civilian government. Former student activist Thirayuth Boonmee says Thailand's steps to political development are not yet over. But the activist says, although there is still a need to press for more democracy, there is no turning back to the days when the military felt it had the right to rule.