The antidemocratic roots of the Thai protesters

Demonstrations represent struggle between royalist bureaucrats and electoral democracy

December 26, 2013 7:00AM ET
Thai anti government protesters hold portrait of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej as they rally at Government Complex in Bangkok on December 9, 2013.
Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty Images

Protesters in Thailand are demanding the end of electoral democracy, saying it is a dictatorship by the majority that came to power buying votes and is ruling the country through corruption. They are calling for a rule instead by “moral” people whom they would select without a popular election. They represent a threat to Thai democracy that remains fragile after a decade of turmoil.

The protests, which began in late November, are only one battle in Thailand’s protracted political struggle since the violent protests of 2006 that ended with a military coup. As in 2006, most of today’s protesters are wealthy and educated elites in Bangkok and supporters of the Democrat Party, the main opposition in Thailand’s parliamentary system.

Earlier this month, the protesters stormed into and occupied government offices and police headquarters for a few days, hoping that the chaos would lead to a violent crackdown, forcing a military or royal intervention to establish rule by handpicked “uncorrupt” people. But the government avoided confrontation and allowed the protesters to occupy state offices. On Dec. 8, when violent confrontation seemed unavoidable, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved the parliament and called for elections early next year.

Thai elites and the opposition allege that the prime minister’s 2011 electoral victory was fraudulent and her rule is corrupt. These are baseless charges. First, Shinawatra won the 2011 election running against the incumbent Democrat Party under an Election Commission that was appointed by the military regime that overthrew her older brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in 2006. Second, even according to the commission’s report, the Democrats massively outspent Yingluck’s Phue Thai party during the campaign. The military used allegations of corruption and vote buying as reasons for toppling the elected government in 2006.

The current protests represent the same anti-democratic forces. Seven years after the coup regime enacted the current constitution limiting the power of elected officials and instituted mechanisms for holding the government in check by an unelected group of “virtuous” individuals, which the protesters now call the People’s Council, Thai democracy has only gone backward. As in 2006, the current protesters — many of them representing the same groups and interests — propose rule by a council of 200 people representing various groups within the protests and another 100 “moral and good” citizens appointed by the protest leaders.

The Phue Thai party, which is financed and directed by Thaksin, has won every election since 2001, only to see elitist opponents try to overthrow it. Amid acute political polarization, a crisis of Thai democracy now looms even larger. In fact, as shown by recurrent and at times violent confrontations, a Thai civil war is no longer an unthinkable scenario. The sharp polarization that led to the current political crisis in Bangkok began in 2005, when the royalist elite and Democrat Party supporters launched an effort to change the parliamentary system. There have been several violent clashes since, including occasional large protests in Bangkok from 2006 to 2010. In 2010, about a hundred people were killed protesting the military-backed government of the Democrat Party. Now the roles of the two sides are reversed.

Royalist ‘democracy’

The inaptly named Democrat Party, the oldest party in Thailand, has always been the political machine of the royalist elite. Its main agenda is to restore the power of the monarchists. In the 1960s and 1970s, the “democrats” opposed military rule in order to create a viable political opportunity for the monarchists to return to power. Since the 1980s, they have lost national elections and blamed their losses on a corrupt system of electoral democracy and opposition politicians. In 2006 they supported the royalist-backed military coup that toppled Thaksin. In 2009 they took power through a secret arrangement between the royal palace and military.

Regardless of how the current battle ends, more protests are likely. On the one hand, the current political system, which has been in place since the 1980s, is a limited parliamentary democracy under the domination of the royalist elite. The government is elected, but its rule is limited and checked by the informal influence and interventions by the palace and the royalist elite. Officially, the monarchy has no political power or governmental function. However, in reality, it wields enormous power and influence over Thai politics. For example, annual appointments of military chiefs have to be approved by the palace. Similarly, appointments to key positions in the government bureaucracy also need approval from the palace.

King Bhumibol, the world’s longest reigning monarch, has been the linchpin for this royalist democracy. Since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, royalists have been trying to return to absolute dominance in politics. Their real opportunity for revival came in the 1960s, under the pro-monarchy dictatorship of Gen. Sarit Thanarat and the U.S.-government-supported anti-communist efforts in Thailand during the Cold War. The decline of the military since the popular uprising against its rule in 1973 paved the way for the royalists’ return to political dominance. However, the popularity of Thaksin’s Phue Thai party posed serious threats to the royalists’ power. Unable to topple Thaksin’s government alone, the royalists secretly negotiated with the military to intervene.

Since the 2006 coup, which also saw the military’s return to politics, the royalist elites have remained a dominant force in Thai political system, in large part thanks to the charismatic Bhumibol. The revered king maintains his power through so-called hyperroyalism — a cultlike political culture rooted in the promotion and exaltation of the king and the royalist political ideology — with a draconian lese majesty law that criminalizes offenses against the monarch, fortifying the institution from any outside challenge.

While electoral democracy is an aspiration for Thai people in general, the royalist elite despise elected politicians and prefer democracy under guidance of chosen people. The core royalist elites, including some of the public faces of the current protests, shamelessly proclaim that they are wealthier and educated — therefore entitled to more power over the poor, who pay less in taxes and are often less educated.

Despite the officially ceremonial role, the Thai monarchy has been politically active, though never formally, through the monarchists, who act in the name of the palace. The royalist elites believe that the Thai people are not suited for democracy, that majority rule would bring decadence and an end to Thai civilization and that the government instead needs guidance by moral people.

Opposing them are growing social movements that favor electoral democracy and more democratization.

Succession struggle

Thailand has changed dramatically over the past three decades. The economic boom since the late 1980s radically transformed the country, especially rural society. Farming households became semiurban, with ways of life and earnings from urban-based trade and service sectors. Farm production is closely linked to the global market, fueled by better finance and market opportunity. People in rural areas became better educated and capable of competing in the modern market. A large number of formerly rural migrants have moved to urban areas like Bangkok and become lower middle class.

In tandem with this economic transformation was the steadier electoral democracy that serves this demographic group more effectively than the highly centralized and inefficient monarchical bureaucracy. Thaksin, who ruled Thailand from 2001 to 2006, turned the agrarian transformation into his political fortune, providing unprecedented economic opportunities such as development projects and funding for the new semirural population. Thaksin’s government also introduced a welfare system, including low-cost universal health care.

The royalist elite saw this style of politics as populism and vote buying. However, the transformation of the rural population out of extreme poverty and illiteracy not only was a boon for the country but also paved the way for Thaksin’s political popularity.

So successful, in fact, were Thaksin and his party that they became a threat to the royalist elite on two levels. First, his government strengthened democratization in the country. Second, Thaksin’s popularity, power and wealth made him a factor independent of the circle of military and aristocratic elites — the traditional kingmakers — who will decide the future of the throne.

The trigger that may make the fundamental conflict explosive is the uncertainty over the succession to Bhumibol, who is so frail that the end of his 66-year-long reign could come at any time. Bhumibol’s 60-year-old son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, is the official heir apparent. Whether he will take over the reins of the Thai monarchy depends on the outcome of the current power struggle; the ailing king’s final decision, amid rumors that the successor could be another family member, like the king’s daughter or the prince’s son; and on the prince’s ability to perform the royal duties of the palace.

Ultimately, while many foreign observers credit the Thai monarchy for the country’s stability, it has become a destabilizing force and an impediment to democratization.

It is unlikely that the dramatic socioeconomic changes that propelled Thailand’s popular electoral democracy will reverse course. But the royalist forces continue continues to ignore and resist calls for change. As elections loom next year, uncertainty over succession makes the structural tensions even more explosive.

Thongchai Winichakul is a professor of Southeast Asian history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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