Giles Ji Ungpakorn
The military domination of Thai politics, started soon after the 1932 revolution which overthrew the absolute monarchy, but its consolidation of power came with the Sarit military coup in 1957. The economic development during the years of military dictatorship in the 1950s and 1960s 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 were 50% higher. 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, resulting in victory, due to a high level of solidarity from other workers.
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 volunteer 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.
The Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) provided the necessary scaffold upon which to weave together left-wing ideology in the context of concrete social and political grievances and the need to organise among students and workers
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. This was the first mass uprising against the ruling class in modern history. 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. Yet, the movement failed to press home its advantage and overturn the state or even smash the power of the military.
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. The influence of the CPT increased rapidly, especially among activists in urban areas. But the CPT had been in wary of the 14th October urban uprising. It relegated urban struggles to a merely supportive role for the central strategy of armed resistance in the countryside. This was a huge mistake, the results of which are with us to this day.