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The 13th Constitution, officially promulgated on 22 December 1978, allowed for the prime minister and members of the cabinet to not necessarily be elected members of parliament.

It was this provision which enabled General Prem Tinsulanonda, (Pictured directly below) the army commander since October 1978 and defence minister since May 1979, to be sworn in as prime minister on 3 March 1980, succeeding the out-of-favour General Kriangsak Chomanand.

General Prem was viewed as the perfect choice to lead Thailand to a better future. With Vietnam perceived as a threat, following their invasion and overthrow of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, and with the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) still active in various regions, Prem's non-elected status did not really upset the majority of Thai people.

Although a professional soldier, the 59-year-old Prem's undoubted abilities in dealing with civil problems, made him a favourite with the palace.

This close connection with the ruling dynasty would prove invaluable when Prem's first real test of power came 13 months later.

Although a firm, disciplined leader with no taint of corruption or whispers of unusual wealth about him, Prem did appear to be concentrating a substantial amount of power about his person by retaining his positions of defence minister and army commander.

 

Holding a political post (prime minister) while also being a senior civil servant (army commander) had been one of the reforms of the mid-1970s, designed to prevent the rise of yet another dictator. Yet Prem was subjected to mute criticism over his positions, with many believing he would retire as army commander in October 1980, when he reached the age of 60.

In late August, General Arthit Kamlang-ek and a number of other senior officers asked the palace to approve a postponement of Prem's retirement as army commander for a further 12 months.

It is suggested that General Arthit was aiming to succeed Prem and prevent the appointment of his senior rival General Sant Chitpatima, the deputy army commander, to the top post.

Although it attracted internal as well as external criticism, Prem was granted a 12-month extension to his term as army commander. The move would sow the seeds of yet another attempted military coup.
One of those most vocal in his criticism of the extension was Democratic Party leader Chuan Leekpai. (Pictured top)

Some students staged small protests, but these quickly fizzled out when the Red Guar's leader Sudsai Hasdin (Pictured alongside) made oblique public threats.

A clique known as the Young Turks, middle-ranking army officers who all graduated from Chulachomklao Military Academy in 1960 and were opposed to General Arthit, also voiced opposition to the extension. The Young Turks were primarily led by Colonel's Manoon Roopkachorn, his brother Manas, and Chamlong Srimaung (Bottom picture) .

While Prem could point to significant success in accelerating the collapse of the CPT insurgency, noting the literally thousands of guerillas emerging from the jungles and surrendering to the government, the economy itself was in recession.

This led to rumblings of discontent from within the ruling coalition, with some political leaders upset they were not benefitting in the time-honoured way for supporting Prem. The usual corruption scandals which are the bane of almost every Thai government also weakened Prem's hold on power.

The final straw for many was when it was announced, early in 1981, that Prem would seek yet a further extension as army commander. A number of ministers resigned and Kukrit Pramoj -who had hoped to succeed Kriangsak as prime minister ahead of Prem- pulled his party out of the ruling coalition in protest.

Prem reacted by forming a new coalition and appointing Sudsai Hasdin and a senior general to the cabinet. These actions provoked fears of a return to the extreme right in Thai politics.
The actual sequence of events which led to the attempted coup are still debated among some Thai history scholars.

It is believed the coup itself was not meant to remove Prem, but aimed at scything away the many allegedly corrupt and venal military men who were supporting him in the parliament. Included among these was the deputy prime minister General Pramarn Adireksarn.

The Young Turks were also angry at the appointment of corrupt, but politically adept, officers into major military positions ahead of more senior and deserving men.

Two of the coup leaders, General Sant Chitpatima and Colonel Manoon Roopkachorn, approached Prem on 31 March and asked him to prorogue parliament, suspend the constitution, and take control of the government.

There are claims Prem agreed, and the coup leaders marshaled their forces in Bangkok to aid in the takeover.

It is then alleged Prem was pressured into reneging on the idea. Despite this, the Young Turks, mostly veterans of the armed conflicts in Laos and Vietnam who considered themselves true soldiers, determined to go ahead with the coup.