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The Legacy of Prem Tinsulanonda: The Growth of State-Sponsored Mass Organizations

Originally published in Thai version on 101

General Prem Tinsulanonda left many legacies in Thai politics. However, this article will speak specifically about the expansion of the military's political power at the end of the anti-communist war through the mass groups of the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC).

 

2 Problems of Mainstream Thinking

The first problem lies in the understanding that the eight years under the leadership of Gen Prem helped change Thailand from a right-wing dictatorship into a semi-democratic system, leading to full democracy in 1988 when he voluntarily stepped down; Gen Prem reduced the military's political power and Prime Ministerial Order No. 66/2523 was the policy that used a political rather than military approach which led to the victory of the Thai state over the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT). This understanding is not entirely wrong but still not completely right either.

The second problem is the mention of ‘right wing masses’ or ‘state-sponsored masses’. Many people remember the massacre of students and civilians at Thammasat University on 6 October 1976. The violence at that time occurred not only at the hands of state officials but was also joined by a mass of thousands of people. The article “Corpse Desecration on 6 October: Who, How and Why?” by Puangthong Pawakaphan and Thongchai Winichakul[1] shows that what makes 6 October known and remembered by most people was the brutal and inhuman behaviour.  This comprised the public abuse of the lifeless bodies of victims whether by hanging, beating, stabbing, impaling, burning, urinating on, stripping the bodies of females, etc. What is important is that this behaviour was at the hands of normal people in a state of insanity, not at the hands of state officials.

After the 6 October incident, the right-wing mass movements, whether the Village Scouts, Red Gaur (Krathing Daeng), Nawaphon, etc., gradually disappeared. October 6 took the status of an ugly episode of history which the right-wing elites dared not confess that they had any part in. The role of ISOC, which was believed to be behind the formation of right-wing groups, also faded away until different people understood that that had given up sponsoring mass organizations.  But the truth is the opposite. They never abandoned the idea of sponsoring mass organizations.

Sponsoring Mass Organizations

Suthachai Yimprasert listed the well-known right-wing mass organizations in the 1975-1976 period. These comprised the Village Scouts, the Red Gaur (Krathing Daeng), Nawaphon, the Independent Vocational Students Club, Phet Thai, Chang Dam, Pithak Thai, the Student Teacher Federation of Thailand, the Patriotic Alliance, Patriotic People, the Alliance against All Forms of Dictatorship, the National Reform Movement, the Vocational Teachers Federation, the Thai Bats (Khang Khao), the Thai Orchids (Kluay Mai), the Thunderbirds (Vihok Sai Fa), Private Labour Unions and the Housewives’ Club.[2] But this list, excluding the Village Scouts, were informally established groups. They may have received supported of one form or another from the state, but there was no law that registered them. When the situation changed, these groups eventually dissolved.

In fact, there were still many more formal groups under the direct protection of the state. A report of General Saiyud Kerdpol, the founder and former director of ISOC, stated that there were more than twenty groups. ISOC documents list some: the Development and Self-Defence Volunteers, the Civil Defence Volunteers, the Village Peace and Development Protection Citizens, the People’s Assistance Teams, the Thai Self-Defence Volunteers, the Local Development and Crime Prevention Citizen Volunteers, the Armed Forces, the Voice of the Villagers Group, the Bang Rachan Group, the Local Protection Villagers, the Citizens’ Union, the Border Protection Citizen Volunteers, the Crime Prevention Volunteers and Disaster Relief Volunteers, and the Citizen Volunteers for the Prevention of Terrorism. Supervision and support of these groups was distributed under the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Defence and ISOC at the central and provincial levels.

After the far-right government of Thanin Kraivichien was overthrown on 20 October 1977 by the military government of the National Administrative Reform Council (NARC), the government of General Kriangsak Chamanan considered rearranging the system of the mushrooming state mass organizations because of duplication, the competition to grab budget, waste and ineffectiveness. In September 1978, the Kriangsak government issued a regulation of the Office of the Prime Minister for the Thai National Defence Volunteers as a new organization combining the members of all the groups above and dissolving all these groups except the Village Scouts, the Defence Volunteers, and the Development and Self-Defence Volunteers. The consolidation allowed more effective control and command, easier monitoring and better budget allocation.

Later in 1981, General Prem issued an order for a National Security Reserve Force, under the authority of the Army. He later moved it under ISOC with the view that most reservists had backgrounds as farmers, which were believed to be mass base of the CPT. The state therefore should prevent this mass group from being co-opted by the CPT.

Both these orders are examples showing that the elite at that time gave importance to establishing mass organizations.  But they are still not as important as Prime Ministerial Orders No. 66/2523 and 65/2525.

Prime Ministerial Orders No. 66/2523 and 65/2525.

In April 1980, less than a month after General Prem rose to the premiership to succeed Gen Kriangsak, he issued Prime Ministerial Order No. 66/2523 on the ‘Policy to Defeat the Communists’, and in 1982 he issued Prime Ministerial Order No. 65/2525 on the ‘Plan for a Political Offensive. Both policies may be described as the best correct approach for the Thai state to quickly defeat the CPT.

The success of both policies is often claimed by the military. Even the NCPO government refers to them, first as a reminder that Thailand survived the threat of communism because of the political approach of the military, and then to reiterate that even if today there is no communist threat, there remain threats to national security in other forms. The military, which has the duty to preserve national security, is still determined to use a political approach to solve internal security problems.

The problem is that exaggerating the success of the two orders leads us to overlook other important factors that resulted in the defeat of the CPT. That is to say that at the time that Prime Ministerial Order No. 66/2523 was issued, there began to be signs showing internal conflicts in the CPT which were the result of two factors.

One was the conflict between the CPT leadership, which favoured China, and the students and intellectuals who joined the CPT after 6 October. The latter even began to leave the jungle before Prime Ministerial Order No. 66/2523 was announced. But after the Order was issued, the flow out of the jungle quickly accelerated because there was no need to be afraid of being found guilty by state officials.

The second is that China stopped assistance to the CPT as a result of Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia to overthrow the Khmer Rouge regime in January 1979. This led to China turning to make an agreement with the Thai government that they would be willing not to support the CPT, but would cooperate with Thailand and the US to oppose Vietnam and the Soviets by supporting the Khmer Rouge and other Cambodian forces, located along the Thai-Cambodian border to fight against Vietnam. This second factor resulted in July 1979 in China ordering the CPT’s ‘People’s Voice’ radio off the air immediately.

China's strategy also affected the CPT’s combat ability. The CPT had to close their own bases in Vietnam and Lao, CPT followers had to leave the two countries immediately, supply routes from China through Laos were closed, etc.

This situation meant that in 1982, just two years after Order 66/2523 was announced, the Army was able to successfully capture the stronghold of the CPT on Khao Kho even though the terrain was very difficult for the military. The state lost many troops and police in the area, and by October 1983, ISOC reported that the military had been able to destroy completely the CPT’s stronghold and the final victory over the CPT was announced.

This rapid victory would have been difficult to achieve without both factors mentioned above, especially considering that there were many reports from ISOC indicating that until 1981, the military suffered limitations and failures in using a ‘political approach’ to win the hearts and minds of the people, which was at the heart of the foundation of ISOC in 1965. (This issue will be discussed on another occasion.)

This article is not intended to discredit Order No. 66/2523, because the writer believes that this Order was very beneficial. That is to say, it shows the ability of the Thai conservative elite at that time to adjust and compromise, which gave an opportunity for students and people to return to society relatively smoothly. It was a policy that was announced to fit the circumstances. However, excessive praise makes us overlook the significance of the two orders that occurred at a time when the Thai state was already beginning to see the end of the CPT. The writer believes that the practical effect of the two orders was more to pave the way for an expansion of the military’s role in the era after the anti-communist war.

Both orders have the status of national-level policies that the Prem government commanded all state agencies to follow and authorized ISOC as the agent to coordinate state agencies and drive implementation of the policies. Even though in principle, ISOC was an agency under the supervision of the Prime Minister’s Office, and the director of ISOC is the Prime Minister ex officio, all other administrative positions in ISOC are dominated by the Army. Giving more authority to ISOC therefore directly meant an increase in the power of the Army.

When we read both orders in detail, we find that the Prem government was expanding methods to deal extensively with internal security threats. Order No. 66/2523 states that state officials have the duty to support the political participation of all groups of the people and 'support the establishment of democratic movements', i.e. the establishment of different mass groups in the name of developing the democratic system of government with the monarch as head of state.

Order No.65/2525 changed the mission from fighting against the threat of communism to fighting against the threat of ‘all forms of authoritarianism’. In the detail of establishing mass organizations as it appears in the topic of strategy in Order No.65/2525, it specifies that it is necessary “to create leading organizations that have unity with government officials and people and which have democratic principles at the core”, “to arrange training in knowledge and understanding of democracy for the mass media”, “to use the established leading organizations to give rise to democracy” and so on.

However democracy in the view of the military, is unlikely to mean the western liberal system but Thai-style democracy which emphasizes royalism.

Another significant point of Order No. 65/2525 is the specification of groups as the target for establishment by the state: businesspeople, labourers, farmers, students and the press.

Although the state formed mass groups before Prem's era, they were established only in rural areas with communist infiltration, in order for villagers to be representatives of development and security and the eyes and ears of the state. Right-wing mass groups in the city were a reaction in response to the students’ movement rather than coming from official policy. However, the orders of Gen Prem expanded the establishment of these groups to a more diverse population both in the city and the countryside like never before.

It is therefore no surprise that ISOC's website today[3] still shows the establishment and training of various mass groups, both permanent, such as the Volunteer Defence Corps, the Thai Volunteer Defence Corps, the National Security Reserve Force, the Villager Security Teams, the Development and Self-Defence Volunteers, and Disaster Relief Volunteers, and temporary, such as the Business Groups for National Security, Religious Groups, Big Bike Jai Rak Phaen Din Groups and Student and Media Training Activities by aiming to create loyalty to the core institutions of the nation and having these groups be the eyes and ears to keep watch on the movements of other groups which are seen as threats to the Nation.

Since the coup in 2006, when Thai society faced a crisis of increasingly intense political conflict, these groups have become active, together with the expanding power of the military to control society. This is the political approach of the military that still persists until today.

 

[1] Puangthong Pawakapan and Thongchai Winichakul, “Corpse Desecration on 6 Oct: Who, How and Why?”, Same Sky Books, 16.2 (July-December 2018).