That General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the supreme military dictator of Thailand, has instructed his cabinet to read Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s book, The Governance of China, because its reforms apparently suit Thailand’s conditions, is a revelation, one recently reported by noted Thai journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk. We can be thankful that General Prayuth is not recommending Das Kapital or Mein Kampf, but instead mandatory reading for the Chinese Communist Party. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile attempting to understand General Prayuth’s early ideological development, which was indeed framed by communism and the Thai response to it.
Prayuth Chan-ocha was born in 1954, in the second phase of the Cold War. His education was pure military. He studied at the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School (AFAPS) in Class 12, at the Command and General Staff College (CGSC) Class 63, then later at the National Defence College of Thailand (NDC) 5020, where he completed his dissertation (on the potential threat from Cambodian migrants) from 2007-2008. He attended Infantry Officer Basic Course Class 51 and Infantry Officer Advanced Course Class 38. He also graduated from Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy with a bachelor of science degree. Prayuth came of age militarily in the third phase of the Cold War, around 1975, a time of great tumult in the region, including the fall of Saigon, Phnom Penh, and Vientiane to the communists.
Thai military ideology in the 1970s was still very much influenced by the legacy of Field Marshal Phibul Songkhram, who was Prime Minister from December 1938 to August 1944. Phibul re-created Thailand as a weak fascist totalitarian state in line with imperial Japanese influence as well as the national socialism of the Nazis and the fascism of Mussolini. As Craig Reynolds has pointed out, what was at the centre of this ideology was the cult of the leader, or ‘Great Man’ theory, with “Eamon DeValera, Stalin, Hitler, Gandhi, Nehru, Chiang Kai-Shek, Mao Zedong, and Zhou Enlai” all being idolized by Thais.
However, Phibul’s rule was more sophisticated than a simple cult of the leader, shaped by the Sino-Thai (his paternal grandfather being Chinese) historian, playwright, author, historian, and ideologue Luang Wichitwachakarn, his Foreign Minister, who was inspired by Goebbels and facilitated the Japanese takeover of Thailand. He is still highly revered by Thai nationalists, especially, somewhat paradoxically, for his anti-Chinese stance. Phibul left an ultra-nationalist ideology which has been carried into the present day, though with adaptations: the Twelve Cultural Mandates, issued between 1939 and 1942. While these were obviously inspired by national socialism, imperialism, and a dash of progressivism in line with adapting Thailand to modernism, they read like a checklist for totalitarianism. They include economic nationalism, instilling a fear of foreigners, how long Thais should sleep and when they should eat, how Thais should militarize themselves, and what language they should speak. Phibul even co-opted the People’s Party, Khana Ratsadon, which was founded in 1927, and was, in its later years under Phibul, comparable to the Nazi Party in terms of its intended reach, if not the level of organization or its policies. The Party was only dissolved in 1944, as Thailand found itself being invaded by the allies.
Thailand was never de-Nazified, and Phibul survived an attempt to have him shot (the Franco-British approach), and failing that convicted (the suggested US compromise), together with Luang Wichitwachakarn, for war crimes after World War II. In fact, Phibul returned to power and ruled Thailand from 1948 to 1957, his 12 Cultural Mandates largely intact. This was the setting Prayuth was born in, with one important development: the introduction of the promotion of the monarchy alongside the military, initiated by Field Marshall Sarit, from 1958 to 1963. Seeing the possibility of stabilizing Thailand through developing the potential of His Majesty to unite Thais, and using USAID money, this campaign put a photograph of His Majesty into every office and every home throughout the Kingdom and put respect for the monarchy, alongside the military, at the core of the education system. These photographs would have been everywhere the young Prayuth looked, though he probably would not have known they were provided by US funding.
However, what is, with hindsight, perhaps crucial, is the fact that the US lost the Cold War in Southeast Asia. It lost Vietnam, it lost Cambodia, and it lost Laos, all in the space of two years, when Prayuth was still in his early 20s. In other words, all the US military training and assistance which Prayuth received through his formative years in the academies was a preparation for witnessing a complete defeat. In the end, Chinese Maoist insurgency tactics, which had heralded the birth of fourth generation warfare, triumphed, in the face of US public opinion not permitting carpet bombing of, or the use of nuclear weapons on, Hanoi. It is certain that General Prayuth was trained in counter-insurgency tactics, which explains his reaction to the Red Shirts and to Thaksin in general – General Prayuth believes he is, at present, engaged in a form of fourth-generation insurgency, facing the classic dilemma that the more you respond repressively to a potential insurgency, the more it tends to win adherents.
Given the instability and disunity which was highlighted by the 14 October 1973 massacre, with an estimated 250,000 thousand protesters involved the previous day, what was important for many Thais circa 1975 was that the US military speedily leave Thailand so that the country could come to terms with its newly communist neighbours. In March 1975, 27,000 US personnel began leaving Thailand, with the withdrawal complete in mid-1976. What remained were the economic and technical aspects of cooperation, as well as one of the largest CIA listening posts in the world – and even now, there is a widespread belief that the CIA is still at work at every level of Thai society, even to the extent of backing Thaksin.
Underlining the depth of anti-US Thai nationalist sentiment was the Mayaguez incident in May 1975, when the United States used U-Tapao airfield without Thai civilian government consent (though consent was obtained from the Thai military) as a staging base to rescue the American freighter detained by the Khmer Rouge. A major incident and the only engagement between the US and the Khmer Rouge, it was seen as an affront to Thai sovereignty and ignited anti-American demonstrations outside the US Embassy in Bangkok. It was this incident which accelerated the US pull-out, and it must have affected the young nationalistic Prayuth. However dimly remembered, together with the perceived US abandonment of Thailand after the 1997 financial crisis, it still underpins anti-US sentiment today.
Just over one year later, the October 6 Thammasat University Massacre set Thailand’s subsequent history in stone by introducing a ‘Right Kill Left’ mentality. US influence in the form of military training and weaponry returned, and after the initial shock of the student uprising, this was not a war which Thailand was likely to lose. While the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) had the occasional symbolic victory, such as the downing of a helicopter or the ambushing of a patrol, the main societal effects were a further militarizing of society, the collapse of human rights, such as they existed, and the erasing of any historical distinctions between nationalists and royalists. For General Prayuth, this was strengthened by his blooding in the Eastern Tigers, the Queen’s Guard.
However, the CPT insurgency did make one thing clear – the Chinese could, at will, interfere in Thailand. It was only when General Prem Tinsulanonda flew to Beijing in the 1980s that Chinese assistance to the CPT was withdrawn. What happened between the amnesties of the 1980’s and the present day was the quiet rise of China as a global power. And, China’s growth through soft power is itself still guided by the original handbook on when and when not to fight, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, embraced by Chinese communism since the Chinese Civil War.
General Prayuth is a therefore product of his own history, though the fullness of that history cannot be taught within Thailand. He is a complex embodiment of the military nationalism of the 12 Cultural Mandates and neo-absolutist royalism, tinged with xenophobia in general and anti-Americanism specifically, together with a rejection of a strong human rights and responsibilities-based social contract. His anti-Cambodian dissertation reflects a strong distrust of neighbouring countries, related to the fall of Phnom Penh and the fear that the wealth inequality of Thailand could cause the Killing Fields to happen in Bangkok.
His own ‘12 Core Values’ demonstrate this legacy by appealing to Thai authoritarianism. Moreover, the ‘perfection’ of the 12 Core Values and rejection of any level of dissent against the Values grounded in human rights – even by schoolchildren, which the state has accused of insanity for their rejection of parroting the values – reveal Thailand’s totalitarian tendencies, embodied in one man.
The extent to which General Prayuth’s behaviour and policies reflect a deep respect for a ‘stability at any cost’ Chinese-style communist outlook is now also open to question. The plans for the morality commission in the first drafted constitution were similar to Vietnamese and Chinese committees, and the planned appointed senate follows Hong Kong-style ‘guided democracy’ in its allocated composition.
More worryingly, his rejection of the main two political parties, and their rejection of him as we head into a referendum on his second attempt at a constitution, may give him the somewhat monomaniacal idea of starting his own party, one which may well look more to Chinese-style communism for its ideology than rightist forms of nationalist socialism, with the role of the Thai monarchy becoming more symbolic than interventionist. Though it is hardly likely that General Prayuth is a puppet of the Chinese, three decades after losing the insurgency in Thailand, Chinese-style Thai communism may have a new champion.