Thai protesters rally for repeat of 1973 uprising

Anti-government protesters hold up three-finger salutes at a rally by the Democracy Monument in Bangkok on August 16, 2020.

Exactly 47 years after the October 14, 1973 revolution that ousted a military-backed government, history is threatening to repeat itself at a mass student-led rally on Wednesday.

However, while the rallies in 1973 and 2020 may share the same date, location and objectives, the outcome of the latter is still far from certain.

Known as the “Day of Great Sorrow”, the October 14, 1973 event was the bloody culmination of student protests against the so-called “Sarit-Thanom-Praphas” dictatorship which ruled the country for 16 years after Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat staged a coup in 1957.

On Wednesday, a student-led rally will be held at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument to commemorate the 47th anniversary of the uprising which toppled the dictatorship of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn.

The protesters are calling themselves “Khana Ratsadon” or the People’s Party, after the instigators of the 1932 Siamese Revolution, which ended absolute monarchy and ushered in constitutional monarchy. They said the date was chosen to mark a turning point in Thai history, when unarmed students and their supporters lost their lives fighting against tyrants.

The protesters have three demands: the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his government, changes to the Constitution as proposed by rights group iLaw, and reform of the monarchy – an almost unprecedented reference to this taboo subject in the history of Thai political protests.

General Prayut has ruled the country for the past six years after ousting the Yingluck Shinawatra government in 2014 and then returning as prime minister after the 2019 general election.

Wednesday’s rally is being organised by a large network of students including the Free Youth movement and the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration, who began protesting against the Prayut administration in July.

The organisers, who have called for a strike and for students to skip classes to attend the rally, plan to march from Democracy Monument to Government House on Wednesday.

The 1973 rally and the one on Wednesday share one common purpose – to oust a military-backed government and secure a more democratic Constitution plan.

However, the 1973 protesters did not demand reform of the monarchy.

Dozens were killed during the 1973 uprising after police and troops opened fire on protesters. The bloodshed was only halted when HM King Rama IX stepped in as final arbiter, using his considerable stature to end a political crisis that threatened to break out into widespread violence.

Now, though, the student-led movement is demanding that royal power be curbed.

Protest leader Arnon Nampa has stood firm on the movement’s controversial push for the monarchy to be reformed, saying they won’t back down during rally speeches on Wednesday.
“We have come too far now; we will fight until we win. We will neither retreat nor surrender. All of us are aiming for a complete democracy,” Arnon told press last week.

Fellow protest leader Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul said other rally participants were aware of the group’s stance on the monarchy and would decide their level of support accordingly.

“If you ask me whether [our fight] will end with this rally, I think it has yet to [end]. But I hope it will,” said Panusaya, who was the first to break the royal taboo when she issued a 10-point manifesto for monarchy reform in August.

The 10 demands include scrapping the lese-majeste law, reducing public spending on the Royal Family and abolishing the Privy Council (King’s advisers) along with other “unnecessary units”.

‘Don’t touch the monarchy’

The call for monarchy reform has triggered a backlash from establishment figures. Among them is former National Intelligence Agency director Pumarat Thaksadipong, who warned that the protesters must learn a lesson from 1973 and refrain from insulting the monarchy, or else risk loss of life.

“Student leaders in 1973 never spoke out to defame the monarchy. They were grateful for the concern extended to them by royalty, who helped end the situation quickly. If this hadn’t happened, who knows how many students and people would have been killed or injured,” Pumarat wrote in his media column.

Thamrongsak Petchlertanan, a political scientist at Rangsit University, reckons Wednesday’s rally won’t lead to the toppling of a military-backed government, as occurred 47 years ago, but will see the new generation’s ideas spread to other sectors of society.

Eventually, the military will come out the loser in this battle between the student movements and “military state”, he said.

He foresees two scenarios:

“Eventually, dictatorship will gradually fall and step aside, even if a coup is staged to prolong its power. But if [a coup] does occur, we will see a repeat of the 1973 people’s uprising which will show clearly that you [the military] are the obstacle in the country,” he said.

“But if there is no coup, the student movement will bring strong pressure for change via the House of Representatives,” he added.

Run-up to 1973 uprising

A watershed in Thai political history, the 1973 popular uprising ousted Field Marshal Thanom’s dictatorship and saw him flee Thailand together with his son Colonel Narong and Field Marshal Praphas Charusathien, collectively known as the “three tyrants”.

The event highlighted the influence of Thai university students in politics that had grown since the 1950s, when students inspired by leftist ideology began demonstrating against the government’s pro-American policies. The uprising also involved thousands of ordinary working-class people and occurred on the crest of a rising wave of workers’ strikes.

The chain of events leading to October 14 began when Thanom, who took power from Field Marshall Sarit in 1963, staged a coup against his own government in November 1971 to prolong his power. Thanom dissolved Parliament, suspended the 1968 constitution, and established a junta.

In December 1972, an interim constitution was enacted and Thanom reappointed as prime minister.

Public discontent grew with Thanom and his regime – successive military governments had ruled Thailand for more than 10 years and the field marshal been prime minister four times.

On April 29, 1973, a military helicopter crashed in Nakhon Pathom Province, killing six high-ranking police and military officers. It turned out that they were part of a group of more than 50 officers on an illegal hunting trip in Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary. Lurid reports of the hunters cooking and eating the animals they killed at parties aroused nationwide public outrage over military abuse of power.

Rama IX resolves conflict

On October 6, the confrontation reached a climax when student leader Thirayuth Boonmee and 12 other activists were arrested in Bangkok for handing out leaflets calling for a democratic constitution. Demonstrations quickly swelled in the capital as students demanded the 13 prisoners be released.

On October 13, around 500,000 protesters marched from Thammasat University to Democracy Monument, in the largest anti-government demonstration in Thai history. The government agreed to release the prisoners and draft a new charter within 12 months.

However, student leaders went to the Palace to seek advice from King Rama IX.

According to the book “King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work”, King Rama IX gave separate audiences to the prime minister and student leaders on October 13, when he urged the two sides to resolve the conflict peacefully.

But the situation worsened on October 14, when police opened fire on the protesters with tear gas and guns, leaving at least 77 people dead and 857 others injured. The government brought in tanks, helicopters and infantrymen to support the police. Clashes occurred in several spots from Ratchawithi Road near Chitralada Villa, where the Royal Family was residing,

Ratchadamnoen Avenue and Thammasat University. Protesters ran for their lives, many jumping for cover into nearby canals. Some fled to Chitralada Villa and were given refuge inside the Palace compound.

In the evening, the soldiers finally withdrew, and the King announced on television and radio that Thanom had stepped down as prime minister and privy councillor Sanya Dharmasakti had been appointed as his replacement.

On October 15, the three tyrants fled the country, Thanom to the United States and Praphas and his son-in-law Narong to Taiwan.

After the bloodbath, a new constitution was drawn up and democratic elections finally held in January 1975.

In 2003, on the 30th anniversary of the revolution, Parliament resolved to designate October 14 as “Democracy Day” to commemorate the student protesters and those who lost their lives in the uprising.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk

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