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Thailand in 1992: The black days of May

Remembering Bangkok's bloody turmoil 25 years on

Crowds flocked to lay wreaths at Bangkok's Democracy Monument the weekend following the violence in May 1992. (Photo by Dominic Faulder)

A quarter of a century ago on May 20, 1992, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej finally stepped in to put an end to weeks of political turmoil in the capital Bangkok. Peaceful demonstrations and hunger strikes had turned violent on a hot Sunday evening three nights before, when opposition leader Chamlong Srimuang, a retired general and former Bangkok governor, was responsible for moving a crowd of anti-government protestors towards the administrative heart of the capital and the royal family's main residence. Chamlong had rallied upwards of 200,000 people to protest against his old foe, the former army chief General Suchinda Kraprayoon, who had taken over as prime minister without bothering to get himself elected -- going back on a promise not to do so. Chamlong was arrested the next afternoon during a military crackdown, as the capital fell prey to some of the worst political violence in modern Thai history. The belated royal intervention remains a defining moment in the last reign, but many on the streets at the time feared it would never come.

Troops rested on Rachadamnoen Avenue on Tuesday morning as the fire brigade hosed down smoldering government buildings including the public relations department where valuable historical documents had been burned overnight. (Photo by Dominic Faulder)

BANGKOK -- Just after 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday May 19, 1992, soldiers waving automatic rifles were clearing protesters against Suchinda Kraprayoon's government from Bangkok's Royal Hotel. The place had become a tourist's nightmare: 400% occupancy and a compulsory dawn checkout.

A couple of dozen disheveled journalists formed a captive audience. They had been rounded up and forced to sit on the first-floor landing. Hundreds of terrified people were being roughly herded down into what was by then the world's most infamous hotel lobby. Most had sought sanctuary in the old building from mounting violence outside.

Men were stripped to the waist and clutching shirts over their heads with both hands. Many were kicked as they crawled and cringed across the floor. They disappeared from the journalists' view down the sweeping staircase, and as often as not the oddly plastic rattle of a rifle butt banging a head could be heard. A sickly, middle-aged man was kicked in the chest as he was expressed from a room bursting with panic-stricken people. More sinisterly, intermittent shots came from behind the hotel for at least 10 minutes after the great roar of the military onslaught subsided.

The soldiers were for the most part older, seasoned men. The crude brutality of some disguised their grim discipline and purposefulness as they set about the task of flushing out the hotel floor by floor, instilling maximum fear in their cowering, unarmed quarry. People were walked and stamped on, punched, kicked, struck with rifles and pulled by the hair.

Doors were smashed, but no shots were fired inside the building. The soldiers were angry, cursing and ugly, but not out of control. There was no bayoneting, raping, hanging, or people falling out of windows. These may not have been the police and rightists who ran amok at nearby Thammasat University in October 1976, when students were hanged from trees and immolated, but the spectacle was appalling enough. The same sort of military discipline had been discernible at about 2 a.m. on Tuesday as a sustained barrage of gunfire suddenly subsided when officers in the darkness blew whistles.

Exhausted troops and protesters sit each other out after the turbulence of Sunday night. (Photo by Warisara Wutthikul /BB)

Back on Sunday afternoon at a peaceful mass rally organized by opposition leader Chamlong Srimuang at Sanam Luang, the large public field in front of the Grand Palace, violence had been unthinkable. How quickly things had changed. The hours before dawn that Tuesday had been regularly fractured by bursts of light automatic fire, occasionally punctuated by the more ponderous thumping of a heavy machine gun. The thunder of gunfire heralding the storming of the hotel rolled implacably along Ratchadamnoen Avenue from Democracy Monument, an awesome concert of sheer menace. Defy it and die.

In the hotel, the women demonstrators fared a little better than the men, and remained fully clothed. A couple were in tears and two others sensibly fainted. By the time the journalists were finally allowed downstairs, the women were all gone and the men had been herded outside. Over 1,000 were down on their haunches in the cold dawn light, heads bowed and hands securely bound behind their backs with shirts. The fearless souls of the night before seemed to have been reduced to so much plucked poultry awaiting a giant oven.

The defeated scenes outside the Royal that morning contrasted sharply with the drama and heroism of the night before. Outside along Ratchadamnoen, an overwhelmingly peaceable crowd had sat its ground, drumming empty water bottles and chanting to a steady beat. At about 10:30 p.m. on Monday, a heavy barrage apparently fired in the air failed to intimidate them. Jubilation erupted as the guns fell silent, but then it became apparent that some bullets had found marks. Wounded and dying were ferried into the hotel in a scene of macabre chaos. Young doctors struggled to provide first aid in the lobby on the marble floor, until valiant ambulance teams arrived to wild applause.

By 2 a.m. on Tuesday morning, an exhausted young doctor from Bangkok's Siriraj Hospital estimated that five people had been dead in the lobby for some time, at least five more would not have made it alive to hospital, and some 100 others had been wounded. The latter included three tourists shot within yards of the hotel. Two had made the mistake of coming to hear Chamlong speak, unaware that he had been arrested that afternoon.

As Monday night wore on, the crowd of protestors outside the hotel began to thin, leaving a militant core whose increasingly anarchic tactics were of the kind that give pro-democracy movements a bad name. Elsewhere in the city, traffic lights and police booths were being smashed in the rioting. Hijacked buses used to ram the military barricades were shot to a standstill.

The vast crowd at Sanam Luang in front of the Grand Palace on Sunday afternoon was entirely peaceable. (Photo by Dominic Faulder)

A petrol tanker hijacked by militant protestors was pushed past the hotel -- the great equalizer to throw in against overwhelming military armor. Anticipation of a devastating blast sent people scurrying for the furthest reaches of the hotel, but the big bang never came. There had been other scenes of panic just before midnight on Monday when smoke from the streets filtered in and set off the alarms. Fear was stoked by a rumor that all power to the hotel would be cut.

Deep in the night, the public relations department, the tax and lottery offices, and other government buildings finally went up in blazes kindled by diligent firebugs around midnight. The excesses of a militant few left some witnesses disturbed, not least because their actions played into the hands of military hardliners who would claim they were suppressing anarchy. But that may well have been the objective of the militant factions. The most extreme acts of violence were not the work of peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators drawn from the ranks of students and an emerging politically-conscious class, but something organized from far darker strands. The same dichotomy had clearly emerged on the Sunday night before during the first bloody confrontation nearby on Paan Faa (Heaven's Gate) Bridge.

Public buses driven at the military were fired upon and left burning on the street. (Photo by Dominic Faulder)

Ratchadamnoen on that morning of May 19 was a stilled battlefield as the fire brigade hosed down scorched buildings. So many vehicle windows had been smashed that the surface of the street crunched underfoot. Packed with a layer of shattered glass, it looked like bloodstained snow in parts. Among the debris and razor wire, lottery tickets were littered like confetti from a crazy wedding. An overturned BMW was recognizable only by its alloy wheels. Aluminum panels on gutted Land Rovers had melted. Bullet holes flecked the windscreen of a burned red and cream public bus, and wisps of smoke slipped from its wheels. The dreaded fuel tanker had come to rest against a lamp post. Another was sitting across the road looking wrecked but relatively benign in the quiet of day.

In the shadow of the hotel, scores of exhausted soldiers lolled on the pavement, helmets off. An officer and half a dozen men suddenly rounded on photographers. Films not safely squirrelled away were pulled from cameras and out of pockets. Argument was quite futile. By 7 a.m. it was time to slip away through a battered city waking to learn of fresh horrors on its killing streets.

The popular unrest was contained more successfully during the course of Tuesday, but that night it returned, spreading across the city into the suburbs. There was shooting along Sathorn Road, towards the south of the city center, where bodies were found floating in the canal. Events were moving beyond mere political violence. Under cover of the unrest, more personal scores were being settled, and squatters were being burned from their homes. The city was descending in a spiral of anarchy and chaos. There were rumors of death squads and assassination lists. On Wednesday morning, tires were burned outside the Royal Hotel, sending black plumes into the sky, and there were false reports that the building had been set ablaze.

Army Chief General Suchinda Kraprayoon’s decision in April to go back on his word and become prime minister without being elected triggered a political revolt in Bangkok. (Photo by Warisara Wutthikul/BB)

Both Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn and his second sister, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, were out of the country. They had issued appeals for reconciliation and an end to the violence, but there was silence from the palace itself. This continued to be a focus of speculation. Correspondents in Bangkok were being asked if King Bhumibol Adulyadej would say anything. Was he being held incommunicado? Was he aware of how serious the situation had become? There was a growing sense that if the crisis ran much longer any kind of royal intervention would come too late. On Wednesday afternoon, there were troop deployments in the Ramkhamhaeng area of the city, a northeastern suburb with a massive university that had become increasingly restive.

That night, King Bhumibol was finally seen on television. Dressed in a light-colored business suit, he sat on a sofa in the Chitralada Villa of Dusit Palace, his sprawling main residence, and delivered a stern rebuke to the two retired generals sitting on the carpet in front of him: Chamlong, leader of the opposition on the streets, and Suchinda, the unelected prime minister. Their feud threatened to destroy the country, he said, rebuking the firebrand Chamlong in particular. Also present were former premiers Sanya Dhammasakdi, president of the privy council, and his deputy, Prem Tinsulanond.

The scene was filmed by a palace crew with rickety equipment. King Bhumibol's 11th-hour intervention was barely audible on the tape, but the image of rebuke was stunning: enough was enough -- the country was more important than power grabs and personal political vendettas. A line had finally been drawn in the sand, and the situation was defused -- at least for the time being.

The dramatic images from the palace were not released for transmission until about 9 p.m.; when they went out, the world was riveted. In the previous three nights of political violence, over 50 people had been killed, hundreds had been injured, and the whereabouts of thousands were unknown. More than 40 journalists had been hurt, some seriously -- it was a near-miracle none were dead.

On Thursday morning, May 21, everything was quiet. Troops fanned out across the trampled grass of Sanam Luang, picking up spent shell casings before boarding trucks and returning to their barracks.

Troops picked up spent shell casings from Sanam Luang on Thursday morning, and returned to their barracks following King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s intervention on Wednesday night. (Photo by Dominic Faulder)

King Bhumibol Adulyadej also intervened in 1973 when the military violently suppressed student demonstrations, but not in 1976 and 2010 when there were major political upheavals.The often-disputed official death tolls during these violent political bouts were -- 1973: 70; 1976: 49; 1992: 52; 2010: 91. The cremation ceremonies for the late king will take place from Oct. 25-29, a little more than one year after his death.

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