A tale of two newspapers: Death of Thanom

While a story in The Nation states "It is a Thai custom not to speak ill of anyone who has just passed away," [we cannot locate the original text of this article] that did not keep The Nation from printing several critical stories about deceased dictator Thanom Kittikachorn.

While The Nation has story after story with headlines like THANOM KITTIKACHORN: 1911-2004: Democracy’s bitterest foe [see full text of original article below], Thais recall life under totalitarian leadership, and Legacy of autocracy [we cannot locate the original text of this article], the Post had only one article (besides a small death notice the day before) that included a photo of a weeping family member.

As the international press trumpeted Disgraced former Thai PM Thanom dies at 92, the Post seemed hesitant to describe Thanom negatively, stating merely that he was "Dubbed a tyrant by families of pro-democracy students crushed in the uprisings..." This was in an article several pages inside the front section that assured in a subheadline that "Kin hope to lay to rest bitterness of uprisings."
Also Post readers have no editorial or opinion piece on the passing of one of the last giants of twentieth-century Thai political life.

Perhaps the Post will have a longer article or special over the weekend, but this initial lack of coverage is indicative of the continuing dulling of Post political news reporting.

Family to publish Thanom's memoirs - Kin hope to lay to rest bitterness of uprisings [we cannot locate the original text of this article] - Bangkok Post, June 18, 2004
...Dubbed a tyrant by families of pro-democracy students crushed in the uprisings, Thanom, 93, died in hospital in Bangkok on Wednesday from heart failure and acute blood infection.
Khunying Songsuda Yodmanee, Thanom's daughter, said her father loved to write about his life, but he had asked that his work be kept private for fear of offending others.

THANOM KITTIKACHORN: 1911-2004: Democracy’s bitterest foe - The Nation, June 18, 2004
Through oppression, rampant corruption, political domination and greed, Thanom's empire inadvertently gave birth to a collective spirit of freedom that won on Rajdamnoen, lost at Thammasat and reappeared in May 1992...
Thanom consistently dismissed any responsibility for the 1976 incident and maintained that he did not give the order for the 1973 shooting.


[2015 note: Like many Thai newspaper articles from the early days of the Thai internet, this article is no longer online. Below is the complete text of the original article.]

THANOM KITTIKACHORN: 1911-2004: Democracy’s bitterest foe

Published on Jun 18, 2004

Until the last days of his life, Field Mar-shal Thanom Kitti-kachorn insisted he was not democracy's worst enemy, and that he was a victim of a political conspiracy. He sounded sincere in his strenuous yet largely ignored efforts to rehabilitate his name, and must have passed away wondering why the labels "tyrant" and "dictator" were so hard to shake off.

Historians may continue to debate key factors that triggered the 1973 popular uprising and the October 6, 1976 Thammasat massacre - the two related political upheavals closely associated with the strongman who had the demeanour of a kind-hearted grandpa.

But the conspiracy-theory advocates will have to overcome one damning piece of proof of how Thais in the Thanom era felt about his military regime - the gathering of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators on Rajdamnoen Avenue on October 14, 1973.

Those were the days when "democracy" turned from an abstract university textbook word into something Thais seriously yearned.

Through oppression, rampant corruption, political domination and greed, Thanom's empire inadvertently gave birth to a collective spirit of freedom that won on Rajdamnoen, lost at Thammasat and reappeared in May 1992.

There had been military dictators before his time, but it was not until Thanom's reign that Thais uncovered their "people power" which shook the formerly untouchable monopoly on power that the top soldiers and the elite enjoyed.

For the friends and relatives of the people who fell victim to his wrath, Thanom, who passed away on Wednesday night was simply a dictator whose tyrannical rule continues to haunt them today.

He is remembered for the shooting to death of more than 77 pro-democracy protestors, mostly students, in the October 1973 uprising, an incident that led to him being driven him into exile. The number of people killed has never been independently confirmed and the figure is still disputed.

The bloody episode repeated itself when Thanom was permitted to return to the country three years later, wrapped in a yellow robe as a Buddhist monk.

His return triggered a mass protest that set the stage for the return of the ultra-right-wing, whose mobs raided the Tha Prachan campus of Thammasat University on October 6, 1976, slaughtering dozens of students and quietening the previously vociferous democracy movement.

Thanom consistently dismissed any responsibility for the 1976 incident and maintained that he did not give the order for the 1973 shooting.

After three decades of low-profile existence, the Kittikachorn family last year decided to tell its version of the October 14, 1973, pro-democracy uprising.

"Disclosure: October 14", a book compiled by well-known historian Thepmontri Limpaphayom marked the first time on public record that the "dictators" - Field Marshall Thanom Kittikachorn, his son Lt-Colonel Narong and Narong's father-in-law Field Marshal Prapas Charusathien - had their say about the upheaval.

The book stated there was a major power play, and students were being used. But accounts from various other sources confirmed that his government had ruled with an iron fist and was corrupt beyond control.

"Violence at the hands of the state was a regular occurrence during Thanom's rule. It was a government tainted with blood and a lot of innocent people were killed...more than under the previous dictator, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat," said Prajak Kongkiriti, a political scientist at Thammasat.

Anti-government protesters were rounded up. Press freedom was dramatically curtailed and the closing of printing presses was a normal occurrence.

To avoid confrontation, editors and publishers turned to light-hearted entertainment news as food for thought for the public. Civil society was stuck in infancy.

Thanom wrote in his autobiography, "Dictatorship or Democracy", that he "provided maximum rights and freedom of the press, as long as it was within the framework of the law". He did not mention Article 17, a draconian law that permitted the government to bypass lawmakers and take unilateral action like closing down printing presses or execution without trial.

Foreign policy during his reign saw Thailand align itself in the US camp. The country was an active participant in the Cold War that saw Thai troops in Vietnam and a number of American military bases set up on Thai soil.

His supporters insist he was a devout Buddhist, an honest powerbroker who was able to bridge the differences among the various bickering factions within the Thai Army.

Thailand's old hands said he mastered the art of compromise that left a long-lasting legacy that provided a source of stability within the Thai Army.

Even during the last years of his life, the country's top brass continued to visit his home and offer their respects on his birthday and other important dates, while the late dictator continued to be the guest of honour at numerous military functions.

These admirers also often point to the fact that he hardly ever interfered with the working of the country's bureaucrats unless it directly involved the security of the nation.

Thanom saw himself as a man who devoted much of his life to the state and who wholeheartedly served the monarchy.

"Those who know me vaguely or have never met me might see me as a dictator. But the truth is I love democracy, like all other democrats," wrote Thanom in his autobiography.

But history will continue to be unkind to the controversial leader who made a concerted effort to clean up his image, distancing himself from a brutal episode of Thailand's modern history.

On the surface it appears the late strongman had made some headway. But for the victims and their relatives, as well as the majority of the general public, the scars that the late field marshal left behind will remain deep.

During the last days of his life, much of society seemed to have forgiven the man who led an undeniably dictatorial and corrupt regime, but he must have learned that nothing has been forgotten.

Democracy always outlasts its enemies - The Nation, June 18, 2004
Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, who died on Wednesday night, was the last in a line of Thai military strongmen in the traditional sense, dictators who saw themselves as the rightful guardians of the nation against calamitous threats, real or imagined. They were the products of the kind of myths that could elevate politically-savvy military men to the status of heroes destined to come to the rescue at critical moments in a nation's history. For Thanom, who came to power at the height of the Cold War, his self-appointed mission was to defend Thailand against communism.
Thanom, like other military dictators before him, wielded virtually unlimited political power, presiding over a regime festooned with an elaborate form corruption woven from political power and strands of personal interest....
Following his disgraceful exit from politics, Thanom lived another three decades to witness the youthful and idealistic brand of democracy that was crushed by military might on two other occasions, in 1976 and 1992. He has also seen this democracy spring right back to life after each attempt to root it out.
Thanom's death severs the last link to an era when military dictators ruled by whim. Unfortunately, Thailand's struggle for a fuller democracy continues to have no shortage of new enemies.


[2015 note: Like many Thai newspaper articles from the early days of the Thai internet, this article is no longer online. Below is the complete text of the original article.]

EDITORIAL I: Democracy always outlasts its enemies

Published on Jun 18, 2004

Thanom’s death closes a dark chapter in our past, offering a lesson to all would-be tyrants

Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, who died on Wednesday night, was the last in a line of Thai military strongmen in the traditional sense, dictators who saw themselves as the rightful guardians of the nation against calamitous threats, real or imagined. They were the products of the kind of myths that could elevate politically-savvy military men to the status of heroes destined to come to the rescue at critical moments in a nation's history. For Thanom, who came to power at the height of the Cold War, his self-appointed mission was to defend Thailand against communism.

Thanom, like other military dictators before him, wielded virtually unlimited political power, presiding over a regime festooned with an elaborate form corruption woven from political power and strands of personal interest.

Military strongmen like these may have ruled with an iron fist - writing and tearing up constitutions as they saw fit, suppressing civil liberties, jailing whatever opponents they didn't kill and enriching themselves and their associates, all the while wallowing in their own imagined glory - but they tended to leave the mundane business of administering the country in the capable hands of a well-educated corps of bureaucrats who were relatively untainted by corruption.

Politically, Thai citizens may have cowered under the jackboots of these dictators, but all the while the country continued to progress economically and socially, opening itself to the global marketplace of ideas, including Western liberalism, socialism and even communism, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

An irrepressible desire for democracy electrified university students and academics, forcing Thanom to experiment with what he must have thought were relatively safe ways of letting off the steam - a certain degree of academic freedom here, a bit of freedom of expression there. Inevitably, people began to demand more of the other types of civil liberties. From a small trickle came a flood of political awareness that emboldened many to question the legitimacy of dictators and led to the exposure of corruption linked to Thanom and his cronies. By the time Thanom decided to roll back civil liberties it was already too late. His failure to deliver a new constitution to pave the way for free and fair elections and his order to have the leaders of pro-democracy movements arrested triggered the October 14-16 uprising in 1973, an event characterised by spontaneous popular moral indignation over the dictator's arrogance.

Three days of brutal crackdowns by the military, the killing of more than 70 unarmed pro-democracy protesters and a rare intervention by His Majesty the King were what it took to bring the downfall of a military regime deluded by its imagined invincibility. The rest is history.

Following his disgraceful exit from politics, Thanom lived another three decades to witness the youthful and idealistic brand of democracy that was crushed by military might on two other occasions, in 1976 and 1992. He has also seen this democracy spring right back to life after each attempt to root it out.

Thanom's death severs the last link to an era when military dictators ruled by whim. Unfortunately, Thailand's struggle for a fuller democracy continues to have no shortage of new enemies.
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