Thailand and the American war in Vietnam

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The year “1968” conjures up images of radicalism, especially opposition to the American war in Vietnam. When considering Thailand, it is important to understand that the “Seventies” movement in Thailand was linked to the struggles of the “Sixties” internationally. This link between the Sixties and Seventies occurs in two ways. Firstly, the wave of student revolts and the activism among young people in Western Europe and the United States, the “1968 movement”, were an inspiration which ignited the left-wing struggles in the early 1970s in Thailand. Libertarian left-wing ideas from the Western movement entered Thai society by way of news reports, articles, books, music and the return of Thai students from the West, especially art students in the first instance. Secondly, the victory of Communist Parties in Indochina after the U.S.A lost the war in Vietnam had a massive impact in igniting struggles for a new society in Thailand. These Asian Communist victories were also directly linked to the “Sixties” movement in the West in a dialectical manner. The radicals in the West were inspired by the struggles against imperialism in South-east Asia and other areas of the globe and the anti-war movement, which was an important part of the latter period of the “Western Sixties”, helped to destroy the ability of the U.S. to continue with the war.

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What did the Thai “Seventies” look like? The first picture in one’s mind should be half a million people, mainly young school and university students, but also ordinary working people, protesting around the Democracy Monument on 14th October 1973. This resulted in the overthrow of the military dictatorship. It was the first mass popular uprising in modern Thai history. The 14th October and the following struggles, victories and defeats that make up the “Thai Seventies” have continued to shape the nature of politics and society to this day.

The military domination of Thai politics, started soon after the 1932 revolution. But its consolidation of power came with the Sarit military coup in 1957. The economic development during the years of this ruthless military dictatorship in the 50s and 60s took place in the context of a world economic boom and a localised economic boom created by the Korean and Vietnam wars. This economic growth had a profound impact on the nature of Thai society. Naturally the size of the working class increased as factories and businesses were developed. However, under the dictatorship trade union rights were suppressed and wages and conditions of employment were tightly controlled. By early 1973 the minimum daily wage, fixed at around 10 baht since the early 1950s, remained unchanged while commodity prices had risen by 50%. Illegal strikes had already occurred throughout the period of dictatorship, but strikes increased rapidly due to general economic discontent. The first 9 months of 1973, before the 14th October, saw a total of 40 strikes, and a one month strike at the Thai Steel Company resulted in victory due to a high level of solidarity from other workers.

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Economic development also resulted in a massive expansion of student numbers and an increased intake of students from working class backgrounds. The building of the Ramkamhaeng Open University in 1969 was a significant factor here. Student numbers in higher education increased from 15,000 in 1961 to 50,000 by 1972. The new generation of students in the early 1970s were influenced by the revolts and revolutions which occurred throughout the world in that period, May 1968 in Paris being a prime example. Before that, in 1966 the radical journal, “Social Science Review”, was established by progressive intellectuals. Students started to attend development camps in the countryside in order to learn about the problems of rural poverty. By 1971 3,500 students had attended a total of 64 camps. In 1972 a movement to boycott Japanese goods was organised as part of the struggle against foreign domination of the economy. Students also agitated against increases in Bangkok bus fares.

In June 1973 the rector of Ramkamhaeng University was forced to resign after attempting to expel a student for writing a pamphlet criticising the military dictatorship. Four months later, the arrest of 11 academics and students for handing out leaflets demanding a democratic constitution, resulted in hundreds of thousands of students and workers taking to the streets of Bangkok. As troops with tanks fired on unarmed demonstrators, the people of Bangkok began to fight-back. Bus passengers spontaneously alighted from their vehicles to join the demonstrators. Government buildings were set on fire. The “Yellow Tigers”, a militant group of students, sent a jet of high-octane gasoline from a captured fire engine into the police station at Parn-Fa Bridge, setting it on fire. Earlier they had been fired upon by the police.

The successful 14th October 1973 mass uprising against the military dictatorship shook the Thai ruling class to its foundations. For the next few days, there was a strange new atmosphere in Bangkok. Uniformed officers of the state disappeared from the streets and ordinary people organised themselves to clean up the city. Boy Scouts directed traffic.

Success in over-throwing the military dictatorship bred increased confidence. Workers, peasants and students began to fight for more than just parliamentary democracy. In the two months following the uprising, the new Royal appointed civilian government of Sanya Tammasak faced a total of 300 workers’ strikes. A central trade union federation was formed. New radical student bodies sprang up. On the 1st May 1975 a quarter of a million workers rallied in Bangkok and a year later half a million workers took part in a general strike against price increases. In the countryside small farmers began to build organisations and they came to Bangkok to make their voices heard. Workers and peasants wanted social justice and an end to long-held privileges. A triple Alliance between students, workers and small farmers was created. Some activists wanted an end to exploitation and capitalism itself. The influence of the Communist Party of Thailand increased rapidly, especially among activists in urban areas.

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One important area of activity for students was the struggle against U.S. imperialism. The military dictatorship had been a close ally of the United States, sending token numbers of Thai troops to support the U.S. in both Korea and Vietnam. In 1973 there were 12 U.S. military bases in the country, with 550 war planes and thousands of troops stationed on Thai soil in order to help the U.S. war effort in Indo-China.

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In 1968 I was taken on a school trip to visit U Tapao airbase near Sattahip and Pattaya. This was one of the key USAF bases used for the B52 bombing raids in Vietnam. On the sides of these giant monsters of murder were painted a number of red bombs, one for each bombing raid which had been carried out. Around the base were wooden shacks where women from poverty-stricken villages lived. They were sex workers servicing the US soldiers.

The Thai government was also involved in CIA sponsored clandestine operations in Lao and Cambodia. My school girl friend’s father was a soldier who had been killed in Lao. She wore a black skirt instead of the usual blue, which was normally the required school uniform colour.

The presence of such a large number of U.S. forces, plus what was seen as the economic dominance of U.S. companies in the local economy, seemed to confirm the Maoist analysis by the Communist Party of Thailand (C.P.T.) that Thailand was a “semi-colony” of the U.S.A. After 1973 there was therefore a growing campaign to kick out U.S. bases.

This campaign against U.S. bases, which later on received a boost from the defeat of the U.S.A. in Vietnam and the resulting new geo-political consequences, led to Prime Minister Kukrit’s demand in March 1975 that the U.S. withdraw all troops from Thailand. This was backed up by a massive anti-U.S. base demonstration on 21st March 1976. The U.S. finally withdrew its troops from Thailand shortly after this.

The Thai elite’s fear of a rising left-wing movement eventually led to the 6th October 1976 blood bath at Thammasart University and the return of an extreme right-wing military regime.

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