Courting Disaster: Can Thailand’s Monarchy Survive Democracy?

Courting Disaster: Can Thailand’s Monarchy Survive Democracy?
Monument to King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand. Spotted in Phitsanulok, Thailand, Nov. 2006 (photo by Wikimedia user Chris0).
When King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand celebrated the 60th anniversary of his accession to the throne in June 2006, millions of Thais descended on Bangkok to join in the festivities. The king seemed to be at the height of his popularity. Beyond his considerable talents as a musician, painter and inventor, he had dedicated his reign to improving the welfare of the country’s most disadvantaged. Seeing the sight, foreign journalists had to concede the king was beloved by all Thais. In short, the legacy of Bhumibol’s reign seemed all but assured. Indeed, there was much to celebrate in mid-2006 not just for the king, but for the country as a whole. Over the previous decade, Thailand had survived the economic crisis of 1997 and come out roaring. It had paid off its debts to the International Monetary Fund years before scheduled and emerged as Southeast Asia’s economic powerhouse. Politically, it had fought its way out of decades of dictatorship and was now a vibrant democracy with one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. Its press was recognized as one of the freest; in its Press Freedom Index of 2004, Reporters Without Borders ranked Thailand a very respectable 59th out of 167 countries in the world. Even the number of cases under Thailand’s draconian “lese-majeste” law had slowed to an all-time low, averaging fewer than two cases per year between 1999 and 2004. And so it was a surprise to many to witness the spectacular level of political instability in Thailand in the four years following the royal celebration. The events that unfolded included a coup overthrowing the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and abolishing the 1997 constitution; the Constitutional Court dissolving the Thaksin-aligned ruling political party not once but twice, unseating two prime ministers in the process; the seizure of Government House, the Thai equivalent of the U.S. White House, for 193 days by the anti-Thaksin People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) in 2008, which culminated with protesters taking over the international airport; a military-brokered backroom deal that put the opposition Democrat Party back in power and the huge protests by Thaksin’s supporters that followed; and a crackdown by the Democrat Party-led government against demonstrators from the Thaksin-aligned United Front Against Dictatorship For Democracy (UDD) that left nearly 100 dead and thousands injured in April-May 2010. Most disastrously, the palace had been accused of backing the coup and openly siding with the PAD, whose supporters are known as yellow shirts, as opposed to the red shirts of the UDD. Criticism of the monarchy went viral on the Internet, overwhelming government censors, who closed more than a million websites, and the number of “lese-majeste” cases skyrocketed to never-imaginable heights, from 30 cases in 2005 to 478 in 2010. The country’s rankings for press freedom plummeted to 153rd out of 178. But Thailand had not hit rock bottom yet. Between late 2013 and the time of writing, a royalist yellow shirt alliance led by former Democrat Party leader Suthep Thaugsuban and his People’s Committee for Absolute Democracy With the King as Head of State have obstructed new elections, taken over government buildings and openly called for a people’s revolution to force the caretaker government of Thaksin’s sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, to resign so that a “neutral” prime minister can be appointed by the king under Provision 7 of the constitution. Except for the youngest princess, who posted photos of herself wearing the latest uprising’s paraphernalia and declared that she, too, was a rebel, the monarchy has remained silent through the crisis. The 87-year-old king is in frail health, and the queen is thought to be bedridden. Meanwhile rumors are swirling about factions within the palace positioning themselves for a battle over succession. In response, red shirt supporters of Yingluck Shinawatra in the country’s north and northeast threatened to separate from Thailand and form their own countries. Frustration suppressed over the past few years was finally made public when the leader of an independent red shirt faction said to a foreign news team:
I’m fighting the system that has dominated Thailand for a long time. Suthep is only the figurehead. I’m fighting the one who is really behind the mob. That is the king. I’m fighting him. Because every time the [yellow shirt] alliance sets up the mob, the king is always behind it. Others would not dare say [this]. But I dare. Why can’t [the king] remain under the constitution, like in England, Japan or Sweden? At present he acts like he’s above the constitution, suppressing Thai people. That’s why Thai people are still poor.
Many observers say that civil war in Thailand is no longer a remote possibility. What happened to the outpouring of love for the monarchy? How could the king’s nearly assured legacy be so seemingly squandered in so few years? Or has the 82-year-old question of Thai constitutional monarchy finally come due: Who is sovereign—the people, as expressed through elections, or the monarchy and the elite connected to it, as expressed in appointed parliamentarians or other appointed bodies established to limit the power of elected politicians? The questions themselves tell us much about the intertwined destinies of constitutional monarchy and democracy in Thailand. Thailand has long touted the fact that it was the only country in Southeast Asia not to have been subjected to Western colonialism. Nevertheless, its kings borrowed from neighboring colonial models to create a powerful centralized rule. During the reign of King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910), the feudal system officially came to an end with the abolition of slavery, and certain of the more archaic governing practices were discontinued. Administratively, Chulalongkorn eliminated feudal structures and established a “modern,” centralized bureaucracy, making the absolute monarchy powerful in a way that no pre-modern monarch could have ever imagined. This type of royally imposed, top-down centralization, with its strong continuity with the past, has had far-reaching implications. To begin with, the continuity of rule between feudal lords and bureaucratic masters allowed traditional beliefs promoting elite privilege and virtuous rule to become entrenched. Bureaucrats, with their modern education and positions as “servants of the king,” claimed a right to rule over poorly educated and “uncivilized” subjects. The state-sponsored Buddhist hierarchy preached acceptance of one’s position in life. Primary school was made mandatory to impart the importance of “nation, religion, kingship.” In short, this rather uninterrupted continuation of past power dynamics has pre-empted or at least delayed a real bottom-up nationalist movement from emerging. The intention of those overthrowing the absolute monarchy in 1932 was to place the monarchy under the constitution. The first constitution of Siam said that the “highest power” in the country “belonged to all citizens,” with no reference to the monarchy in the same provision. Neither did the constitution grant the king a sacred or “inviolable” status. But by 1949, the monarchy had regained many of its assets and much of its former power, most importantly, the right to appoint parliamentarians to the upper house. The phrase “the democratic regime with the king as head of state” appeared in the constitution for the first time that year. By the 1960s, the phrase had become something of a trope, as part of “Thai-style democracy,” which emphasized that Western democracy was inappropriate for Thailand. Instead, Thai-style democracy should have a strong leader, be arranged hierarchically and be focused on the unity of the nation. The shift began in earnest in 1958, when Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat took the reins of power in a coup and wiped away all vestiges of democracy. Hundreds of politicians, journalists and other intellectuals were imprisoned indefinitely; the parliament was eliminated and the constitution abolished. Sarit legitimized his regime by placing the monarchy at the center of the state ideology, combining elements from two historical models of the Thai monarchy. On one hand, the king has been projected as playing the role of the “dhammaraja,” that is, one who rules based on the Buddhist virtues of the ruler rather than as a semi-divinity. This notion required that the king be seen as engaged in serving society and wisely making hard choices for the betterment of his people, and indeed, Bhumibol was depicted as tirelessly working for the people’s welfare. Since becoming politically active in the 1960s, the king made frequent and highly publicized trips into rural areas, eventually setting up hundreds, if not thousands, of royal projects throughout the country dedicated to alleviating rural poverty. In the aftermath of the economic crisis of 1997, the king developed his anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist “sufficiency economy” philosophy that promoted smallholder food production, sustainable agricultural techniques and being satisfied with “enough.” On the other hand, following the massacre of students at Thammasat University in 1976, there was a heightening of the “devaraja,” or god-king, model, whereby the king was seen as a lord of the land who “owned” all the possessions of the kingdom, and the lord of life who had the power of life and death over all in the land. This was accomplished through a remarkable amendment to the lese-majeste law, which changed the penalty from a maximum sentence of seven years in prison to a three-year minimum and 15-year maximum sentence for each count of the crime. Thailand drifted even further from the world’s other constitutional monarchies. With even greater emphasis on the centrality of the monarchy after 1976, the average annual number of lese-majeste cases doubled in comparison with the previous 15 years. Thai monarchists have often argued that the country borrowed the United Kingdom’s model of kingship. On paper, this might be true. The constitution gives the king the power to review and endorse legislation. From time to time the king has not signed an act into law, sending it back to the parliament where the king’s non-endorsement could theoretically be overruled and the bill made into law. But in more recent years, the parliament has rarely challenged the king when he has declined to endorse a measure. In certain situations, the king has appeared to respect the constitution. In 2006, at the time of the protests against Thaksin, the PAD called on the king to appoint a prime minister under Section 7 of the constitution, which reads: “Whenever no provision under this constitution is applicable to any case, it shall be decided in accordance with the constitutional convention in the democratic regime of government with the king as head of state.” The king rather testily responded, “Asking for a royally appointed prime minister is undemocratic. It is, pardon me, a mess. It is irrational.” The king, however, did establish himself as the last resort in times of political strife in 1973 and 1992. Although many praised the king for stopping the violence, others have wondered whether such interventions ultimately subvert the democratic order. Having set the precedent, the monarchy seems to undermine its nonpartisanship by not intervening in later crises. When pro-Thaksin UDD protesters were under fire by government forces in 2010, calls for the king to intervene went unheeded, causing some to feel resentful of the palace. The crux of the matter, though, comes down to what influence the monarchy exerts outside of the constitutional framework. There is little doubt that between 1957 and 1997 this influence was decisive. No coups could be successful without getting a green light from the palace. In 2005, Duncan McCargo published his influential article on “network monarchy” in Thailand, making the case that the Thai monarchy is not merely the royal family but an entire network of relationships stretching into the Privy Council and the top ranks of the military. McCargo writes that:
The monarch intervened actively in political developments, largely by working through proxies such as privy councilors and trusted military figures; and the lead proxy, former army commander and prime minister Prem Tinsulanond, helped determine the nature of coalition governments, and monitored the process of military and other promotions. At heart, network governance of this kind relied on placing the right people (mainly, the right men) in the right jobs.
Much of what has shaped and driven Thai politics has depended on how “politics” has been defined. Politics in a modern context might broadly be defined as the exercise and constraints of public power by any individual, group or force. The advocates of Thai-style democracy in the 1960s argued that politics is what politicians do. Since politicians are greedy and corrupt, they will act only in their own narrow self-interest. As such, Thai society should be a “society without politics,” one ruled by a virtuous and strong leader. Such a leader would naturally be “neutral” as he—or she—did not engage in the dirty world of politics. Other neutral people would be civil servants, privy councilors, the military or technocrats. Within this context, it is often said that the king is “above politics” and he should not be “dragged down” into politics by unscrupulous parties. In being “above” but outside the world of politics, any incursions he might make into that world would be nonpartisan and would not serve any interests but the unity of the nation. Probably the most important event in Thailand’s history as a constitutional monarchy was the advent of the 1997 constitution. Using a very deliberative process of public consultations, this 16th constitution detailed the rights of citizens and importantly included a fully elected senate. For this reason, it was dubbed “the people’s constitution.” As a concession to the royal elite, the entire system of elected parliamentarians was to be subject to powerful new independent bodies such as the National Counter-Corruption Commission and two new courts: the Administrative Court and the Constitutional Court. It in turn allowed for the entrance of Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai Party. Thaksin revolutionized Thai election politics by focusing on a platform of populist programs that appealed to the majority of voters, including a universal health care scheme, loans to poorer segments of society who could never secure a loan through banks and a moratorium on repaying agricultural debt. Most of all, Thaksin had figured out that securing the votes of the north, northeast and lower income groups in the center and Bangkok would be enough to secure a majority of seats in parliament. He was re-elected in 2005 with an outright majority in the House of Representatives, the first time any party had achieved such a feat in Thai electoral history. For the old elite, and perhaps the palace in particular, Thaksin’s capitalized approach to development seemed to be an affront to the self-sufficiency model long promoted by the king. His “customer service” approach to politics diminished the traditional prestige of bureaucrats. His attempts to exert civilian control over the military galled the generals. His monopolistic, crony-driven, “corruption by policy” approach only seemed to enrich Thaksin and his friends. His attempts to undermine the independent agencies established by the 1997 constitution made many fear that Thaksin’s hold on power would become unassailable. After months of political unrest, the Thai military in 2006 overthrew Thaksin’s government, abolished the constitution and arranged for a Constitutional Tribunal to dissolve his political party. The king appointed one of his privy councilors as prime minister. A new constitution stipulating a half-appointed and half-elected Senate was put up to a referendum in 2007. The 2007 constitution gives courts immense power, especially in appointing senators and the members of the independent agencies. Unlike other government officers, judges take an oath to the king himself, rather than to the constitution. The network monarchy approached the 2006 coup like all past coups in Thai history: The coup was endorsed by the monarchy; the coup-makers justified the coup publicly by citing the corruption of politicians and threats to the monarchy; an amnesty was given; and then, it was believed, the coup would be eventually forgotten. But the network monarchy had not taken seriously enough the seismic shift in Thai political consciousness. The 1997 constitution and the coup that ended it had stirred a new and pervasive political consciousness. The perceived role of the palace in the coup and of its partisanship, manifested for example in the queen’s presiding over a funeral of a PAD follower, gave rise to what is known as the Awakening, or “eyes having been opened” (ta sawang). Through Internet social networks and by word of mouth at protests, the Awakened have had their eyes opened to the role of the monarchy and have engaged in full-blown historical and political critiques of the institution. Expressing themselves in coded language to evade arrest, members of the movement have no illusions about the palace’s repeated attempts to thwart popular sovereignty through the judiciary, the Privy Council and some members of the royal family. And that’s why the present attempts to use the appointed Senate or the independent agencies are so disastrous to the monarchy. The yellow shirt alliance protesters may succeed this time in dislodging the caretaker government and getting their neutral prime minister appointed, but even if they carry out their reforms to try to limit the influence of Thaksin in Thai politics, the pro-monarchists are hastening the monarchy’s movement toward catastrophe. In the reign of King Bhumibol, rule of law has been debased again and again through coups, the actions of extra-constitutional figures connected to the palace and the abuse of one of the most severe lese-majeste laws seen in the world in centuries. Nevertheless, there was a point under this constitutional monarchy that the old royalist elite could have relented and allowed democracy, however flawed, to work itself out. In doing so, the monarchy would have secured its legacy. Instead, the network monarchy, now extended to the courts, independent agencies and the Senate, has defined the enemy as those who are defending democracy. As a result, the constitutional monarchy in Thailand is a broken and oppressive form, bent on forcing into submission the majority who really do believe in democracy and popular sovereignty. No matter how this latest conflict is resolved, the crisis of the monarchy remains. The more the royalists draw on the monarchy to legitimize naked attempts to thwart democracy, to claim exclusive loyalty to the throne, and to use the lese-majeste law against perceived enemies, the farther the star of the monarchy will fall. The timing could not be worse, as the king is in poor health and there is no good succession scenario. Vajiralongkorn was designated crown prince in 1972 but his continuing romantic escapades and extravagant lifestyle have made his suitability questionable. Many hoped that his most recent marriage, which produced a male heir, might rehabilitate his image. Meanwhile, although recent Thai constitutions have allowed for a female to assume the throne, the more popular Princess Sirindhorn is still unmarried at 59 and has no children. The king has thus seemingly lost his chance to abdicate and oversee the beginning of the new reign, even as rumors abound on various alternative succession scenarios. Upon the king’s passing, the network monarchy, through the Privy Council, may attempt to amend the succession law and place Princess Sirindhorn or another member of the royalty on the throne. If attempted, half of Thailand’s population will rise up in protest as it will go against the present king’s choice of his successor. If, however, Vajiralongkorn ascends to the throne, the other half will balk, feeling he lacks sufficient virtue. Whatever ultimately transpires, the prestige of the monarchy will be fatally diminished. In the end, and for better or worse, the monarchy will finally have to take its proper place within a democratic constitutional monarchy. David Streckfuss is an independent scholar and honorary fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who contributes regularly to The Bangkok Post and The Wall Street Journal. His book, “Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason, and Lese-Mejeste,” was published by Routledge in 2011. He is presently writing a book on the global experience of lese-mejeste through the ages. Photo: Monument to King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand. Spotted in Phitsanulok, Thailand, Nov. 2006 (photo by Wikimedia user Chris0).

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