To conclude PPT’s “mini-series” on recent documents located by Andrew MacGregor Marshall, we now turn to some important British cables posted at Zen Journalist and which reflect on the mythology surrounding the events leading up to the bloody massacre of students at Thammasat University on 6 October. That mythology is that the king was supportive of the students who rose up against the military regime that had existed since 1958 and which had done so much to restore the monarchy.
As seen in a cable from 1963, the king, just 36 years old and close to the repressive military regime, seems to enjoy showing a “liberal” side to foreign guests. However, his comments on students are telling:
Essentially, he sees student demonstrators as trouble. He is reported as saying that he “told the Thai students he would not allow them to demonstrate here.” The king sees student demonstrators as either paid or manipulated (with echos of how the amart speak of those who vote for pro-Thaksin Shinawatra parties). Indeed, Thai students as the sons and daughters of the elite, do remain reasonably quiescent until about 1972.
Without going into detail (see this excellent documentary), by October 1973, demanding constitutional rule, a student revolution brought down the military government. The king is usually portrayed in a positive light during these events, with the recent hagiography King Bhumibol Adulyadej. A Life’s Work manages to transform the king as supporter of the military regime into a political savior and democrat. It was the opening of palace gates to students fleeing the military’s guns that made the legend of the student-supporting king. But it didn’t take the king and palace long to abandon the students, reflecting the 1963 position, considering them communists or duped by communists. Almost immediately, royalists and the palace began supporting extremist and rightist military groups as they mobilized against the “liberal” forces unleashed by the student uprising. Lese majeste accusations began to mount and trials were held. As Ben Anderson (link opens a PDF) described the mounting fear for royalists and palace as communist forces made gains in neighboring countries,
The stage was set for the 6 October massacre of students by royalist thugs and forces close to the palace such as the Border Patrol Police.
It is from this point that the British cables of 1976 become interesting and enlightening. The first of these is from 9 October 1976 (the link downloads a PDF) when the smell of blood and burned bodies had barely cleared at Thammasat, and British diplomat Malcolm Macdonald met the king and the Embassy reports on the meeting. It is clear that Anderson’s assessment of the king as a rightist is vindicated. He says the students were politicized and intent on overthrow the government and “the establishment.” We read this as a reference to the ruling class and the monarchy. He claimed they were influenced from “outside” and he feared the links the students had developed with unions and this challenge saw him state that he preferred a military government. The result was that, for some time, he had formed the view that a military government “was inevitable.” He explains that he knew of the coup in advance and had not objected. Thereafter he sets out the path of politics that was to be exactly as his chosen Prime Minister Thanin Kraivixien later expressed it:
The next cable is from 13 October 1976, by British Ambassador David Cole. This file is so large that we are unable to load it so the originals will need to be viewed at Zen Journalist, which is often blocked in Thailand (Update: A version is available here).
The cable defends the military. Ambassador Cole makes the claim that the coup was not “premeditated by the military” is contradicted by the king’s statement cited above and by a later claim citing Kukrit Pramoj. His claims that the right-wing groups like the Red Gaur, Village Scouts and Navapol had nothing to do with the military brass appears contrived. However, the prediction that a far right government would be “disastrous for Thailand” seems reasonable. Interestingly, lese majeste is at the heart of the coup justifications, both in repeating the bogus claim that a student looking like the crown prince was theatrically hung by students. Lese majeste is also mentioned in military thinking:
Cole then turns to the role of the king and states: Indeed, from the cable of the 9th, we know that the king did more than acquiesce. Then Cole turns more directly to the palace and its involvement: As in 2006, when the role of the palace was clear, the king and the coup leaders tried to cover his tracks and those of other royals, even when they were obvious. While Cole predicts that the monarchy will be the biggest loser from the coup, this was be but a short-term setback as the king and his propagandists set about rewriting the history of this event.
The third cable is from about a month after the coup. On 5 November 1976, Cole writes about the current political situation. Again, this cable, reporting the Danish Ambassador, shows clear palace involvement, with the king planning for post-coup political arrangements well in advance of the coup: In short, nothing changed all that much for the palace in deciding events in 1976 and in 2006. They were involved and were enthusiastic about being involved.