Thai Military Coup Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The 1957 coup demonstrated the lack of progress Thailand had made since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1933 in developing a stable democratic state. The coup emphasized the continued role of the army as the ultimate authority and source of power in the kingdom.

Summary of Event

In the early morning of September 17, 1957, the commander in chief of the Thai army, Sarit Thanarat, used military force to seize power in Thailand following a year of political instability. While the coup removed Luang Phibunsongkhram—an increasingly ineffective and corrupt prime minister with dictatorial inclinations—the inability of the Thai political system to effect his removal without extralegal measures underscored the weakness of democratic institutions in the kingdom. Thai Revolution of 1957 Revolutions and coups;Thailand Nationalism;Thailand [kw]Thai Military Coup (Sept. 17, 1957) [kw]Military Coup, Thai (Sept. 17, 1957) [kw]Coup, Thai Military (Sept. 17, 1957) Thai Revolution of 1957 Revolutions and coups;Thailand Nationalism;Thailand [g]Southeast Asia;Sept. 17, 1957: Thai Military Coup[05560] [g]Thailand;Sept. 17, 1957: Thai Military Coup[05560] [c]Government and politics;Sept. 17, 1957: Thai Military Coup[05560] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Sept. 17, 1957: Thai Military Coup[05560] Phibunsongkhram, Luang Phao Siyanon Pote Sarasin Sarit Thanarat Thanom Kittikachorn

Thailand, known as Siam until 1939, had undergone several coups and attempted coups since 1933. In that year, a conspiracy of army officers overthrew the absolute monarchy and instituted a subtle military dictatorship behind the facade of a constitutional monarchy with democratic forms. In 1938 and again in 1948, Field Marshal Phibunsongkhram (known as Phibun) took power as the prime minister. Phibun’s rule in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s sought to emulate the ultranationalistic government of Japan. Phibun ended threats of a royalist revival, to the point of banning the display of images of the king in public, and instead mandated that his own portrait be displayed throughout the nation. In 1944—during the last year of World War II, when an eventual Allied victory was all but certain—he resigned as prime minister under pressure but maintained his position in the army. After the Allies dropped war crimes charges against him, he began to rebuild his power bases.

In November, 1947, Phibun again seized power, and on April 8, 1948, he again made himself prime minister. In Phibun’s new government, General Phao Siyanon became head of the Interior Ministry, which controlled the paramilitary national police. Phao had amassed great wealth, and hence political power, primarily through the opium trade in the Shan states. Behind a facade of democracy, Phibun had Phao’s henchmen arrested and killed large numbers of potential opponents. Civil as well as military opposition continued, but Phibun survived attempted coups in 1948, 1949, and 1951.

Beginning in 1951, Thai-U.S. relations[Thai U.S. relations] U.S.-Thai relations[U.S. Thai relations] facing growing communist activity in the region, the Thai army received increasingly large amounts of military aid from the United States. American support allowed the army to grow in size and power, independent of civilian government. In 1955, after a trip to the United States, Phibun returned to Thailand publicly enthusiastic about instituting real democracy. He was probably motivated in part by fear of Phao, whose control over the police might tempt him to seize power for himself. Phibun therefore sought to use popular support as a hedge against such a possibility. He called for parliamentary elections for February, 1957. Phibun’s party, the Seri Manangkhasila, won a bare majority of 85 of 162 parliamentary seats, despite widespread fraud.

The elections of March, 1957, were considered dirty even by Thai standards. Phibun’s lack of genuine widespread popular support eroded his remaining standing with the army. As a result of unrest in the capital of Bangkok among the urban educated classes, who were outraged by the blatant fraud in the election, Phibun declared a state of national emergency and ordered Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, his friend and commander in chief of the army, to restore order. Sarit emerged as the strongest member of the new government. He had become wealthy largely through his control of the Government Lottery Bureau, and his wealth allowed him to build political support and spend lavishly on the women in his life. Sarit used his wealth and power to gain a reputation with the middle classes of Bangkok. Rather than crush dissent on the streets, he openly sympathized with the demonstrators and even appeared at rallies at Chulalongkorn University, saying that the elections were full of fraud.

Already weak after the elections, Phibun’s hold on power was further diminished in the late summer of 1957. The government response to a severe drought in the northeast was inept, while a scandal involving timber sales exposed the deep corruption of Phibun and Phao. As the emboldened parliament began to investigate the problems in the cabinet, open criticism of Phibun became more common. Sarit and two of his military supporters then resigned from the cabinet, ostensibly in protest over the corruption; actually, Sarit wished to draw a distinction in the public mind between himself and Phibun. Sarit’s resignation was followed by the resignations of several other key members.

On September 13, 1957, Sarit enlisted the support of fifty-seven army officers to demand the resignation of Phibun and the removal of Phao. A massive rally on September 15 further demonstrated the public’s support for Sarit. On September 16, Phibun failed in a legal maneuver to have the nation’s highest court order the arrest of Sarit, an attempt that showed Phibun’s intentions without gaining the results he desired. At four in the morning on September 17, Sarit placed army tanks on the streets of Bangkok, and the army seized power in a bloodless coup d’état. Sarit suspended the constitution and parliament, removing Phibun and Interior Minister Phao from power. Phibun fled into exile in Japan, where he remained until his death in 1964.

Sarit claimed that his coup was for the people of Thailand and against his former friend Phibun. Sarit disbanded the parliament, the legitimacy of which had been badly tarnished by the “dirty elections,” and installed the diplomat Pote Sarasin as interim prime minister. Pote, a former ambassador to the United States, was at the time the secretary-general of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). His appointment served two main purposes. First, he had been in the United States on a diplomatic mission, leaving him untainted both by the corruption in Phibun’s government and by the coup. Second, he was trusted by the United States, an increasingly important ally of Thailand. The king, although possessing little power in government by this time and not having acquired the mass appeal he would later command, approved of Sarit’s actions; the royal family in general had largely been unhappy with Phibun since his rise to power.

New elections were held in December, while Sarit was in the United States for treatment of cirrhosis of the liver. While no party won a simple majority, Sarit had formed the poorly named National Socialist Party, a coalition of elements that approved of the coup. Thai political parties tended to have short lives, existing mainly to back a single candidate; they tended to split and recombine with the political winds. The National Socialist coalition, the creation and tool of Sarit, emerged the victor. Sarit stepped aside, ostensibly because of health problems, and handed the responsibility of forming a government to Thanom Kittikachorn, his deputy in the army. The new government soon became ineffective due to political squabbling and intrigue. Much of the dissension came from the leftist elements in the coalition, who opposed Thailand’s close relations with the United States. The inability of Thanom to bring stability led Sarit to remove him from office upon Sarit’s return from the United States in what is sometimes labeled the Coup of October, 1958. Coup of October, 1958 (Thailand) Thai coup of October, 1958 Sarit then assumed the office of prime minister.

Significance

The success of the coup in 1957 and the subsequent five years of rule by Sarit after his second coup in 1958 made plain the perseverance of traditional concepts of paternalistic rule. Sarit showed his own authoritarian tendencies and soon abolished all political parties and jailed critics. Sarit’s government failed to build real democratic institutions in Thailand. The Thai army, struggling to suppress internal leftist subversion while attempting to prevent communist influence in Laos and Cambodia, became increasingly dependent on the United States. Sarit, using the motto “Nation-Religion-King” to establish the unifying theme of his administration, brought stability and economic growth to Thailand, which allowed Thailand to withstand the communist challenge. Thai Revolution of 1957 Revolutions and coups;Thailand Nationalism;Thailand

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">LePoer, Barbara Leitch, ed. Thailand: A Country Study. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1989. This official U.S. government resource for information on Thailand provides a time line of events during the 1957 coup as well as some analysis of Thai culture and politics that accounts for the persistence of the army in politics since 1933.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tanabe, Shigeharu, and Charles F. Keyes, eds. Cultural Crisis and Memory: Politics of the Past in the Thai World. New York: Routledge, 2002. A study of the persistence and adaption of Thai cultural norms during Thailand’s rapid modernization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wyatt, David K. Thailand: A Short History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982. A standard scholarly account of Thai history from the origins of a Thai identity through the creation of Thailand at the end of the twentieth century.

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Japan Begins Attacks on Southeast Asia

Thai-Burma Railway Is Completed with Forced Labor

SEATO Is Founded

Collapse of the Laotian Government Leads to Civil War

Association of Southeast Asian Nations Is Formed

United States Invades Cambodia

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