The End of the Endless Exception? Time Catches Up With Dictatorship in Thailand

From the Series: The Wheel of Crisis in Thailand

Photo by Takeaway, licensed under CC BY SA.

Carl Schmitt (2005, 1) famously states, “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” Declaring the situation as no longer normal, Schmitt (2005, 13) says, “reveals most clearly the essence of the state’s authority.” Giorgio Agamben (1998, 97–98) expands on this notion, writing that in the state of the exception, “fact and law are [become] completely confused,” and that the distinction between “questions of fact and questions of law . . . has literally no more meaning.”

When General Prayuth Chan-Ocha declared the coup on May 22, 2014, he was once again, ushering the state of the exception into Thai political history. The state of the exception finds itself in familiar terrain in Thailand. Since 1947, the state of the exception, so to speak, has been the rule. We might focus on three key features that have typically characterized Thailand’s state of the exception:

First, politics in Thailand is defined narrowly as what elected politicians do—rather than as the exercise of public power. The coup was justified on the grounds of stopping possible violence between political movements and cleaning up political corruption. If the cause of social conflict was politics, then politics had to be dismantled. As such, the military regime has embarked on a grand depoliticization program, eliminating the Constitution, all local and national elections, and all national popular representative bodies (the House of Representatives and Senate). Along with the elimination of politicians and political movements is the cancelation of “the public.”

Second, kwamphenthai, or Thainess, has been reinserted in the place of popular politics. This is a euphemism of sorts signifying the socio-political hierarchy of legitimacy that has long dominated Thai conservative political discourse. At the apex of the hierarchy sit the twin sovereigns of coup leader and monarch. Free of the taint of politics, both represent moral leadership. They are, in rather sacral fashion, able to pierce through the veils of illusion and see the real reality of things. For the educated, cleanly living, devoutly Buddhist, proper Thai-speaking Bangkok establishment, the state of exception means things are back to normal. The degree that moral leadership can free Thai society of the corrupting effects of politics is the degree that Thai society can experience true happiness.

Insomuch as this hierarchy functions, it necessarily relegates the vast majority—perceived as rural, uneducated, corruptible, and less Thai—to the lower tiers. Unable to access the true nature of things, the masses are prone to confusion and susceptible to the demonic trickery of the un-Thai (Thais who have essentially renounced their Thainess by criticizing the monarchy) and anti-Thai (evil foreigners who fail to understand the coup). Fortunately, the wise military government has issued many directives prohibiting the dissemination of information that may confuse people. If the sovereign will of the people is to ever again be invoked through elections, rest assured that what it is voting for will be a token, with the lion’s share of power safely in the hands of appointed, moral leaders.

Third, moral purification becomes a central thrust of the Thai state of the exception. Such calls remind the depoliticized masses of the loathsomeness of the recent political past, the need to continue rooting out every vestige of corruption, and the importance of submitting to the sovereign in order to realize the greater happiness of society. But because purification is never complete, the state of the exception is re-invoked with every new sign of corruption.

The language that the state of the exception speaks is essentially legalistic. It may well be that the one who declares the state of the exception is sovereign, but the form and contours of that state are expressed in laws. Each new declaration of the state of the exception injects a whole new set of laws into the corpus of Thai law, completely overturning any semblance of “normal” rule of law. If coup apologists can be trusted, coup decrees have precedence over even the so-called “highest law” of the constitution since the former can eliminate the latter. Even existing laws can escape the normal realm of law and become super-infused. The lèse-majesté law and its incomparable punishment is a product of the 1976 coup. It is the ultimate example of Schmitt’s “indeterminate concept” through which the (il)logic of the state of exception, the inversion of rule of law, and the ideology of dictatorship can all converge and focus state power (see Hewison in this series). A source claims that police have only investigated about 1,300 out of 20,000 standing lèse-majesté complaints. It will take decades for the police to investigate, extending the reign of the state of exception indefinitely.

The question now is whether this latest declaration of the state of exception can resonate with Thai society as a whole as perhaps it did in the golden age of military dictatorship. While offering dictators a rather attractive package to consolidate legal power, it nonetheless attaches to it considerable risks. The long run-up to the coup required such a blatant manipulation of events and institutions that it stripped them of legitimacy and made them look increasingly absurd. To fully obtain power, the seizure of power must appear necessary. The more necessary the coup appears to be, the more power it can legitimately take. Yet, the regime has appeared both paranoid and silly, stabbing rather blindly at any perceived threats. It has banned protests, Hollywood-inspired salutes, and seditious distribution of sandwiches or reading of Orwell’s 1984 in public. In a leaked report, the regime even deemed a comedy skit on monarchy by a British comedian a national security threat.

The military now pursues a perfect democracy devoid of politics: an attempt to set into place a permanent state of the exception where “un-normal” times become normal. Even more than in 1958, the military almost six decades later hopes to create a neo-absolutist state where democracy is forever banished and replaced by a “democracy” that has few if any elements that define democracy anywhere else.

But it is a gamble, and a risky one at that. It is built on the crumbling structure of Thainess, on a monarchy for which there is no succession scenario that the institution can survive unimpaired, and on the notion that recent history and experiences with democracy can be excised from the nation’s collective mind. But this is not the same Thailand as 1958, 1976, or 1991. And neither are the Thai people the same. Democracy in Thailand may not be inevitable, but its chances are considerably higher than successfully putting the genie of political consciousness back in the bottle. Perhaps the endless state of the exception is finally coming to an end.


Agamben, Georgio. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Schmitt, Carl. 2005. Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Edited and Translated by George Schwab. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.