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Thai election

Military's unkept promise from 1992 looms over Thai elections

How a general's manipulation of the political process led to violence

Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon was able to bow out of politics in 1992 while ensuring he would not be held accountable for the loss of life that occurred on his watch. (Photo by Warisara Wuthikul)

BANGKOK -- As Thailand goes to the polls today, the long shadow of an earlier general election looms over the ballot boxes: In April 1992, a fresh, military-drafted constitution enabled then army chief Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon to become prime minister without having to face voters.

Suchinda's short-lived, 50-minister cabinet was the largest in Thai history. It brimmed with the kind of corrupt, scheming politicians that his coup in February 1991 was meant to remove.

The public uproar was immediate. Peaceful protesters took to the streets and hunger strikers embedded themselves outside parliament. An angry mob heckled Suchinda's policy speech from outside the chamber and forced him to slip away through a back exit.

A political neophyte used to issuing orders, Suchinda was unable to control his unruly cabinet of venal elected politicians. Public demands for his resignation eventually led to the "Black May" bloodshed during which troops fired on unarmed civilians. At least 52 lives were lost, and more than 40 journalists were among hundreds injured in the three-day fracas.

After a dramatic last-minute intervention by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Suchinda resigned -- but not before ensuring he would not be held accountable for the loss of life. Some weeks later, the king reappointed Anand Panyarachun as prime minister. Anand, a popular businessman and former diplomat who had served as an unelected but effective prime minister in 1991, organized fresh elections in less than four months.

A popular uprising in 1992 against an unelected military prime minister led to at least 52 deaths and thousands of arrests. (Photo by Dominic Faulder)

Anand also transferred 16 of the most senior military officers responsible for the May violence to lesser or inactive posts -- a sanction by a civilian prime minister not carried out before or since in Thailand. Even so, Anand was criticized for not initiating prosecution of the most culpable officers. The elected civilian governments that followed also demurred from punishing the military.

After its disgrace in 1992, the military pledged to professionalize and step away from politics permanently. But it returned in 2006 with a coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire businessman whose highhanded ways and corrupt government had antagonized the old ruling elites.

Gen. Surayud Chulanont, a retired army chief and supreme commander, then stepped out of the privy council to serve as unelected prime minister for 16 months. During his term, the constitution was yet again redrafted -- there have been about 20 charters since Thailand nominally became a constitutional democracy in 1932.

Ironically, Surayud was one of the officers commanding forces in Bangkok in 1992 and had gone on record afterward saying the military should no longer involve itself in politics.

Yet another coup was staged in 2014, by Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha. His junta set out to end serious political strife and steward the impending royal succession, which came in 2016 with the death of King Bhumibol.

General Suchinda Kraprayoon, Thailand's unelected prime minister in 1992, with senior members of his cabinet. (Photo by Warisara Wuthikul)

But the military refused to stand down after that, or after a lavish royal cremation a year later. Once more, the constitution was rewritten, this time in a form that is even harder to amend without a coup. A 20-year strategic plan was also put in place that government servants must follow on pain of dismissal.

"What we have seen since 2006 is an absolutely tragic U-turn," said Chris Baker, a leading historian. "We have seen the return of the military in spades equipped not just with their old authoritarianism but with an anti-democratic ideology."

Indeed, there has not been such a prolonged gap between elections as a result of military rule since the period from the 1950s to the early 1970s when Thailand was governed by a succession of field marshals.

Prayuth's nearly five years in power exceeds the combined appointed governments of Sanya Dhammasakdi (1973), Anand (1991 and 1992), and Surayud (2006). Thaksin's first government in 2001 was the only elected one in Thai history to last a full four-year term. He was also the first prime minister to gain re-election -- and with an increased majority.

Paul Chambers, a leading analyst of the Thai military, recently described the current election to reporters as "a spectacle" that should be seen as "part two" of the junta's attempt to entrench its power "through the appearance of democracy -- part one was the coup of 2014."

Baker, meanwhile, considers this election the "most exciting" he has ever seen. "Frankly," he said, "we haven't got the faintest idea what is going to come out by next week -- or whenever we know the result."

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