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Former Thai Dictator Thanom Kittikachorn Dies - 2004-06-17


In Thailand, a former military dictator, who was overthrown by a popular uprising, has died after illness following a stroke in January.

Throughout his career, Thanom Kittikachorn was associated with the hard-right wing of the Thai military. As a young army officer in 1947, he participated in a coup. Later, he headed a military government from 1963-to-1973.

Field Marshal Thanom's rule came at the height of the Vietnam War, during which the Thai government had allied with the United States. Chris Baker, the author of a book on Thailand, says the country was receiving massive amounts of U.S. aid at the time, and this made the Thai army, the primary recipient of the aid, very powerful.

"The army more or less ruled in a completely dictatorial way, without any parliament, without any election, without really having to be bound to anybody except the U.S," says Mr. Baker.

However, resistance to the dictatorship began to rise in the early 1970s. Student protests in 1973 led to clashes that left 77 students dead and hundreds wounded. Following the clashes, Mr. Thanom resigned and went into exile. The military-dominated parliament was dissolved, and a new constitution was drafted establishing civilian democracy.

The communist victories in Vietnam and Cambodia in April of 1975, the subsequent communist takeover in Laos, and a small but bothersome Communist insurgency in Thailand itself, all led to renewed repression by the military of suspected Thai dissidents. Mr. Thanom returned to the country in 1976, and was ordained a Buddhist monk. Mr. Baker says the return sparked new unrest.

"That return was the provocation that led to a revival of student protests against his return, and then directly to the bloodbath of October 6, 1976, which is one of the worst events in modern Thai history," he says.

On that day, right-wing militias attacked students at Bangkok's Thammasat University, some of whom had staged a sit-in the day before. Officially, 50 people were killed, but historians say the figure was much higher. That evening, the military seized power again, ending the country's first experiment with multi-party democracy. The military continued to dominate Thai politics until 1992, when it was forced from power by a pro-democracy uprising.

Author Chris Baker says there are still vestiges of the Thanom dictatorship in Thailand's political culture today. "The Thanom era was the last of the military eras, which really stretch back to 1938, so you're talking of a half-a-century, in which the military had a very big role in the politics of the country," he says. "And although that's declined, particularly over the last 20 [years], it's still a huge part of political culture."

Despite his enduring effect on the country, Field Marshal Thanom lived the last years of his life in quiet wealth. He shunned the spotlight, and stayed out of politics.

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