History, Domestic Instability
Thanom, Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, Geneva Conference, Thai military, ballot stuffing
The Thai government faced significant challenges in the immediate postwar period, including rampant inflation and shortages, widespread corruption, and inexperience among civilian officials. These conditions paved the way for a return to military rule, and in November 1947 a group of military officers seized the government. The new military regime was presided over by Phibun as prime minister.
Phibun’s government, like the military regimes that followed it, made close relations with the United States and other Western nations central to its foreign policy. The government sent a small force to assist UN forces in the Korean War in 1950 and accepted massive U.S. military aid, which further strengthened military rule.
Thai representatives took part in the Geneva Conference of 1954, which temporarily ended the First Indochina War. Later that year, Thailand became a founding member of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), which established its headquarters in Bangkok. This alliance formed to provide defense and economic cooperation in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.
Increasingly shunted aside by his military lieutenants, Phibun attempted to win popularity and legitimacy by staging elections in 1957. However, the widespread accusations of corruption and ballot stuffing that followed the elections served to further discredit the government. When Phibun and his interior minister Phao Sriyanond attempted to defend their beleaguered regime, General Sarit Thanarat, backed by considerable popular support, staged a military coup that ended Phibun’s rule. Sarit temporarily went abroad to seek medical attention, handing power over in early 1958 to a coalition government headed by his deputy, lieutenant-general Thanom Kittikachorn. In October Sarit returned to stage yet another military coup. He suspended the constitution, declared martial law, and banned all political parties. Sarit declared his intention to carry out a new “revolution” in Thai society, restoring authority and discipline through measures such as improved public education and rural development.
Both Sarit and Thanom (who became prime minister following Sarit’s death in 1963) were alarmed by growing unrest and insurgency—mainly motivated by poverty—in rural Thailand, especially in the impoverished northeast and the south. Even more worrisome to them was the decline of pro-Western regimes in Cambodia and Laos, territories the Thai military considered natural wards of Thailand. The military believed these territories had to be saved from the Communism that was threatening to overcome Indochina with the Vietnam War, which had begun in 1959. This war pitted the Communist North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front (a Vietnamese nationalist group based in South Vietnam) against the South Vietnamese, who were eventually assisted by the United States.
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