Thai Student Revolution

The Students and the King:
Thai Blood Meets Western Ideas
November 2000

Student activism can change the society as witnessed in Indonesia, Turkey, France, Japan, U.S.A. and in other countries. We study and understand what has happened in other countries… but I hope that the students would not over-estimate their power. Power has to be controlled and used in a purposeful manner. Otherwise the power can cause destruction and chaos. And this we do not want to see.
Thirayuth Bunmee
National Student Center of Thailand
Summer 1973 (Prizzia and Sinsawasdi 41)

On October 14, 1973, after days of tension and demonstrations had brought together over 400,000 Thai students and other residents of Bangkok, violence finally erupted. They had gathered to demand a new constitution, and the release of fellow students held as political prisoners. By the time the violence ended the next day, nearly one hundred demonstrators lay dead. Most of them were students. Several hundred were wounded by tank and machine gun fire. In response to the violence, the king asked the top three government officials to leave the country. It appeared that the students had succeeded.

To those who are familiar with traditional Thai culture, this procession of events may seem slightly out-of-character, even bizarre, for the Thai. For centuries, Thai institutions such as absolute monarchy, Buddhism, and harmonious living had made the Thai a passive, almost fatalistic people. They played no role in politics and respected all authority figures. But in the nineteenth century, Thailand began to have increasing contact with Western thought. From Western countries such as Britain and the United States, the Thai began to learn of ideas like higher education, democracy, and independent thought. Many of these ideas directly conflicted with Thai culture. As the decades passed, the nation began to blend its traditional worldview with these new ideas from the West. The 1973 student revolution and the events leading up to it demonstrate this blending of two cultures.

Three Pillars of Thai Society

Thai culture is a rich and complex mixture of outside ideas from other Southeast Asian countries with its own ideas and adaptations. Historically, three of the most important elements of Thai society were the king, Buddhism, and interpersonal harmony. From the days of Ramkhamhaeung (Rama the Great, 1277 – 1317), the first king of Sukhothai, until the 1932 coup, the king ruled as an absolute monarch (LePoer 10). They were considered divine kings and “derived their authority from the ideal qualities they were believed to possess.” The Thai people gave them absolute respect. Rama the Great was said to have gone out to listen to the petition of any subject who rang the bell outside his palace (13). Beginning with the Ayutthaya period, the Thai even developed a separate language to use when addressing or referring to royalty. Now known as the sacred range of Standard Thai, it includes some special vocabulary as well as a set of prefixes to elevate common words to sacred status (Smalley 55). The 1932 coup, although it stripped the king of most of his political power, did not reduce his esteem in the eyes of the Thai people in any way (LePoer 26).

Buddhism is the national religion of Thailand and is practiced by all but a tiny minority of the Thai people. The main form is Theravada Buddhism, which blends the teachings of Buddha with animistic elements borrowed from Hinduism. Buddhism teaches that human suffering is caused by attachment to the things of this world, such as material wealth, pleasure, and people. The way to eliminate suffering is to detach oneself from these elements. This includes keeping one’s emotions stable by avoiding anger, sadness, extreme joy, and other strong emotions. The Thai call this the “cool heart” (Mulder 112). Furthermore, life is seen as a cycle rather than a one-time event. After death, a person returns to the world in another form, either higher or lower than his previous station (LePoer 99). The station one enters is determined by one’s karma, the sum of good deeds and bad deeds committed in the previous life. Good deeds, such as becoming a monk, honoring one’s parents, or fulfilling one’s social obligations, produce merit, which boosts one’s karma. Bad deeds, such as murder, drinking alcohol, or illicit sexual relations, damage one’s karma (100).

The desire for interpersonal harmony permeates all Thai relationships whether intimate or distant. Politeness is more important than honesty, and one should avoid conflict with other people at any cost. All Thai are defined in terms of their relative positions on the social ladder. Some factors that determine a person’s position on ladder are age, occupation, and education. All roles in a business, government, or community are clearly defined. By showing the proper respect and deference to those who rank higher, the Thai maintain harmony within the society (Fieg 34-35). In schools, the students accept whatever their teachers say and generally do not challenge the ideas presented by them or even those of their classmates. Independent thought is not an important part of education (33). Before the changes of the twentieth century, the Thai did not question their government, either. All officials were considered servants of the king.

Elements of Western Influence

In the nineteenth century, Thailand began to experience increasing contact with Western ideas, people, and products. Beginning with Mongkut, Rama IV, the kings began to open the nation to Western influence in an effort to modernize and strengthen the nation. Thai rulers and elites began attending school in Western Europe as young adults. These contacts sometimes conflicted with or changed aspects of Thai culture. Three elements in particular helped pave the way for the 1973 student revolution: education, democracy, and independent thought.

Mongkut’s son Chulalongkorn, Rama V, was the first of the Thai monarchs to study under European tutors as a child. Accordingly, his accomplishments as king included establishing three European-style schools for elite children, including one for girls, encouraging study in Europe for “promising civil servants and military officers,” and sending one of his princes to Europe to study the European educational system. His son, Vajiravudh, Rama VI, studied in Britain (LePoer 22-3). In 1916 Vajiravudh founded the first Thai university in Bangkok, named Chulalongkorn University in memory of his father. The University of Moral and Political Science, later known as Thammasat University, was established in 1933. Other universities followed. By 1972, Thailand had established ten universities where over 86,000 students studied subjects such as political science, education, agriculture, and medicine that were typical in Western schools. Most of the universities were located in Bangkok (Prizzia and Sinsawasdi 16-18).

Another Western idea that shaped Thailand in the twentieth century is democracy. In 1932, a group of “Western-oriented political elites,” mainly military officers and government officials, staged a bloodless coup d’état. Their goal was not to eliminate the monarchy but to modernize the nation’s system of government; they considered absolute monarchy “archaic and inadequate to the task of modern government.” Three of these coup leaders were Pridi, Phibun, and Phahon, all of whom played significant roles in the government for three decades. The leaders wrote a new constitution by the end of the year that created a legislative body with half its members elected by the people (LePoer 26). Over the coming decades, however, although several elections were held, various factions loyal to Pridi, Phibun, and / or Phahon competed for power. Several coups took place, several constitutions were drafted, and much of the time a military dictatorship ruled the nation. Western-style democracy had not established itself in Thailand, but the Thai people had tasted it, and some were growing tired of waiting for it by the beginning of the 1970s.

These two Western influences, education and democracy, also helped spread a third element of Western culture: independent thought. Higher education challenged Thai students to think. Democracy, although its practice in Thailand was limited, theoretically placed power in the hands of the people. The people began to realize that in a democracy, they could make choices that would affect their lives and their country. Furthermore, the Thai, particularly the students, began to hear of student demonstrations and revolts in other countries such as India and the United States, where in the 1960s students at UC-Berkeley, Kent State, and other universities were protesting the Vietnam War. As the Thai worldview broadened, some people began to believe that despite what they culture taught about harmonious living and respect for people of higher status, it was possible to have one’s own thoughts, to speak one’s own mind, and to take actions that would affect one’s life. This idea was most prevalent among the university students, and it led to a series of student demonstrations and the formation of a national student organization.

Student Activism and the National Student Center

Thai students began demonstrating for various causes long before the 1973 revolution. In 1940, after France surrendered in World War II, students participated in nationwide anti-French demonstrations designed to help Thailand regain territory ceded to France in 1903 and 1910 (Prizzia 41). In 1957, students joined thousands in protests against a “dirty election” conducted by Prime Minister Phibun. Eventually the group of students broke down Phibun’s gate to meet with him, and with their support Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat led a coup that drove Phibun from office (43-4). In 1959, after a failed coup attempt, army forces closed and occupied Thammasat University for over three months, claiming that it was “located in a strategic area.” Students from Thammasat and Chulalongkorn Universities marched on the school and badgered the soldiers. A few days later they were withdrawn (42-3).

After protesting against a bus fare hike in 1969, the university students formed the National Student Center of Thailand (NSC), an organization that would play a major role in all student protests leading up to the 1973 student revolution. Its goals were many and included fostering good relationships among Thai students, promoting student welfare and freedom, protecting student benefits, serving the welfare of society, and preserving and promoting Thai culture (Prizzia and Sinsawasdi 29). This last goal is ironic in light of the Western nature of its demonstrations and the revolution itself. Before Thailand had significant contact with the West, no student organization would have formed for the purpose of opposing the government in order to protect the rights and welfare of students; they were young and obliged to respect their elders, and they should have respected the government regardless of their age. In 1972, in response to a rapidly rising national trade deficit with Japan, the NSC organized an “Anti-Japanese Goods Week” boycott. It was successful, and the government issued a decree “reflecting most of the concerns which were stated in the 10-point plan prepared by the National Student Center” (33). Later that year the NSC, led by Thammasat University law students, successfully protested a government decree that would have damaged the credibility and ethical makeup of the national judicial system (34-5). The students had mobilized and were speaking out for the causes they believed in, something they never would have done before the twentieth century. And perhaps even more surprisingly, many in the nation were listening to them.

Student Expulsions at Ramkamhaeng University

In June 1973, nearly two years after Prime Minister Thanom had led a successful coup and abolished the constitution, the rector of Ramkamhaeng University expelled nine students on charges of distributing an illegal magazine that criticized the government, in particular Thanom and Deputy Prime Minister General Prapas. The next day a crowd of at least 10,000 university students gathered at Pramain Ground, an open area near Thammasat University where most student protests began (Prizzia and Sinsawasdi 36). Then, as usual, the students marched to the nearby Democracy Monument singing songs and carrying banners. Speakers addressed the current situation and also called for a new constitution to replace the one that Thanom had abrogated. The students camped there overnight, and the government ordered all Bangkok universities closed. The next day the crowd grew to 50,000. Civilians in Bangkok supported the students with food, water, and money. From time to time the demonstrators turned toward the King’s palace and sang the King’s Song, “as if to emphasize that even though they were hostile to the government, they still admired and respected the king” (39). After some political maneuvering by the government, the standoff finally ended with the readmission of the nine expelled students and the resignation of the university rector who had expelled them. The students and the NSC had won, and “they were establishing themselves as the voice of the people, representing the best interests of a democratic form of government in the face of a government determined to rule by martial law” (40-1).

The Ten Days

Four months later, in October 1973, the tension between the people and the government finally erupted in one of the bloodiest student demonstrations of the century. It was the climax of a time known as the “Ten Days” between October 6 and 15. By the time it ended, for the first time it was the people who had overthrown the government rather than a military or political leader.

Trouble began on October 6 when eleven students and adults were arrested for distributing leaflets calling for a new constitution by the end of the year. Soon thereafter, the government sent detectives to their homes to search for other illegal material. The students considered this an “unwarranted search and seizure,” a concept probably borrowed from the American Bill of Rights (Prizzia 60). The next day another activist was arrested, bringing the total to twelve. On Monday, October 8, Deputy Prime Minister Prapas ruled that they could not be released on bail and accused them of being involved in a communist plot to overthrow the government. The students were furious, and 2000 of them held a rally against the government on Tuesday (61).

Over the next four days, the rally grew to over 50,000 people and moved to the Thammasat soccer stadium. Most schools and universities in Bangkok closed, freeing more students and teachers to join the crowd. NSC representatives met with Prapas, who still refused to release the prisoners but promised a new constitution in less than two years. The student leaders were not satisfied. Another man was arrested to make a total of thirteen political prisoners, who began a hunger strike in support of the protesters. Thanom and Prapas, concerned over the escalation of the situation, met with the king, who “reportedly expressed grave concern” (Prizzia 63).

On Friday, October 12, the NSC issued a 24-hour deadline for the unconditional release of the prisoners and threatened “decisive action” otherwise. Within hours, the government offered to release the prisoners on bail. Initially the crowd cheered, but the student leaders persuaded the protesters to reject the offer because the prisoners’ release was not unconditional as they had demanded. Rather than give in to the students’ demand, the government chose to send in soldiers the following morning, October 13.

The students and other protesters, now 200,000 strong, prepared to march. The leaders organized the mob into functional groups to manage food, first aid, and other duties. The “tough engineering students” were sent to the front of the mob as the front line against the soldiers. Some protesters carried clubs or anti-tear gas equipment, while others brought “thick sacks for placing on barbed wire obstacles and for throwing over police dogs.” Leading them all was a group of girls who carried pictures of the king and queen. As with the Ramkamhaeng demonstrations, the students wanted to show their respect to the king despite their disgust with the government (Prizzia 65-6).

The king met with a group of NSC leaders, including some of the arrested activists. The government had released all the activists on bail despite the NSC rejection of the offer. People continued to flood into the rally from throughout Bangkok along with money, food, and other supplies. The crowd grew to 400,000, nearly five times the enrollment all of Thai universities combined (Prizzia 66-7).

Finally the government agreed to drop all charges against the activists and promised a permanent constitution by the following October. At this point about half of the crowd returned to Thammasat to celebrate the apparent victory. The other half remained in the streets, wanting a guarantee that the government would keep its promises. Unsure regarding their next course of action, this half marched to the palace “to request the king’s advice,” much like the subjects of Rama the Great had done centuries before (Prizzia 67, LePoer 11). They arrived there in the early morning of October 14. The king’s representative met with them and told them that the king thought that since their demands had been met, they should disband and go home. The demonstrators sang the national anthem and then prepared to leave (68).

The violence began when the police, trying to bring order to the massive departure, set up barricades that allowed the students to leave only in one direction. They refused to open another exit despite the students’ requests, causing resentment among them. At this point what actually happened becomes unclear. Some reports said that “the police began clubbing the demonstrators,” and another claimed that “a bag of ice thrown from the crowd hit a policeman square in the head.” Violence erupted. Some of the demonstrators fought with the police, but most tried to run. A report circulated among the students that the police had beaten three girls to death (Prizzia 68). When the fleeing students reached Thammasat and spread the news to the other group, the combined mob sought revenge. Fighting raged for two days. The army came in and used tanks and M-16s on the demonstrators, who tried to counter with clubs, Molotov cocktails, and a few pistols. When these efforts proved futile against the troops, they began burning buildings. At one point half a million demonstrators and onlookers crowded the scene (Prizzia 69).

On October 14, the king, although he still lacked official political power, invoked his moral power over his subjects to end the violence and chaos. Much like Rama the Great, he met with both student leaders and Thanom and his cabinet in the palace. His solution was a compromise. Thanom would resign his post as prime minister but remain head of the armed forces. Rather than going to trial, as some of the students wanted, he would secretly leave the country the next day along with Prapas and Narong. The rector of Thammasat University, Sanya Thammasakdi, would take over as prime minister. Sanya was “known to be sympathetic to the students’ position” and would become the head of the first civilian government in years. One of his jobs would be to write a new constitution. The king confirmed the news of the change to the nation via radio and television (LePoer 43). After the three departing leaders were out of the country, their departure was announced (44).

The students had won. A civilian government headed by the rector of one of their universities had taken control of Thailand from the military dictators. But over one hundred students lay dead and several hundred were wounded (Prizzia 69). As one student described the situation, “We have made a new Thailand but it cost us a lot” (Prizzia 71).

Cultural Significance

Obviously, by October 1973 some aspects of the Thai culture had become quite Westernized. The king had become a political figurehead similar to the British royal family, although like the late Princess Diana, he still yielded considerable influence over the people. The Thai were demanding democracy as well, even though its implementation rarely succeeded for long. This 1973 victory by the students gave the nation hope for a nation truly ruled by the people.

The Buddhist principles of detachment from the world and from emotion did not seem to play much of a role in the student movement. The students believed in the causes of freedom and democracy so passionately that they were willing to risk arrest, endure the hunger, thirst, and stress of the prolonged protests, and even fight and die for them. One could argue, however, that the Buddhist cyclical view of life may have played a role in their willingness to risk their lives; if they were killed, they would simply return to the world in another body.

The demonstrations also obviously conflict with the Thai ideal of interpersonal harmony and avoidance of conflict. By speaking out, either literally through writing or speeches or figuratively through their presence at the rallies, the students opposed the ideas not merely of their peers, but of their elders and authorities. There is nothing polite about having a gun battle with the police or setting their headquarters on fire.

However, despite all the Western influences demonstrated by the 1973 student revolution, it also reveals a major aspect of traditional Thai culture that had survived. The king, for example, was still revered by the people, even when they were divided against each other. The students sang the King’s Song during the Ramkamhaeng protests, and when they marched in October, they led the way with pictures of the king and queen to show their loyalty. When he decided that the bloodshed needed to end, he called in both sides and arranged a compromise, and it was settled. The three military leaders who had been running the government simply left the country as he asked. The students, although they had wanted them to go on trial, accepted the king’s decision. Few Western countries, even if they had a king or queen, would allow their monarchs that kind of power. But then again, even today few Western countries respect their highest officials as much as the Thai respect their king. Therein lies one of the greatest remaining differences between the West and Thailand.