The Last Gasp of Royalist Democracy

From the Series: The Wheel of Crisis in Thailand

Photo by Takeaway, licensed under CC BY SA.

Since the mid-1970s, except for a few years under military regimes, Thailand has functioned politically under what I term “royalist democracy,” a system in which an elected parliament is formally in charge but de facto elected governments are kept in check by unelected, dominant royalist conservatives. The latter group’s power remains strong in the bureaucracy, especially that of the military. Ideologically, the Thai elite does not trust democracy because, in their view, citizens are too ignorant for self-government. In a democratic regime, they argue, people would fall prey to corrupt, even evil politicians. Rule by the virtuous elite (which is to say putatively enlightened authoritarians who genuinely care for their subjects), rather than democracy from the West, is thus deemed suitable for the country. Royalist democracy, formally known as “democracy with the monarchy as the head of the state,” and sometimes also called Thai-style democracy, relies heavily on a charismatic monarch, without whom the royalist domination would have no legitimacy.

Changes, however, are afoot. Thailand’s political economy has changed dramatically since the mid-1980s. The rural and semi-urban regions of the country have changed most and most rapidly. Rural people and the lower middle classes, who traditionally form the lowest strata of this hierarchical society, have grown better off and more urban, educated, and politically astute. It now seems that electoral democracy, even with the continued presence of allegedly corrupt politicians, is more responsive to changing needs. As some say, electoral democracy is “edible,” for it brings concrete benefits, improvements in material life, and better opportunities, especially to the rural and semi-urban folks who make up the majority of the country’s population. This is particularly clear in the North and the Northeast, sites of rapid and massive recent change. Democratization and decentralization have weakened the authority of a highly centralized bureaucratic state, firmly in place since 1893. Ultimately, what recent political upheaval shows is that electoral democracy is incompatible with—perhaps even antagonistic to—royalist democracy.

Thaksin Shinawatra did not create the conditions of change described above. Rather, his party was the most successful in Thai political history in electoral terms because they recognized these changes and took advantage of them. Since 2001, Thaksin’s party (under different names) has won every election by a landslide. Doubtlessly, their policies and political behaviors have been by turns good and horrible, not at all different from any other politicians in the world. But these policies are designed to benefit the lower strata of society in order to shore up support from ascendant political factions. The upper class in Bangkok, on the other hand, has access to resources, opportunities, state mechanisms, and mass media outlets for their benefit without the need to rely on elected politicians. Their interests are at stake under the policies of Thaksin's administration because their share of resources is being redirected to serve the majority of the population. Historically speaking, therefore, the rise of Thaksin is neither his own achievement nor that of his party. Rather, it represents a larger and more fundamental shift in politics and society towards electoral democracy.

Since 2000, most major political conflicts, including the latest coup in May 2014, are a manifestation of this structural conflict. The stark battles among elites highlighted by many political pundits, including Thaksin’s struggle with the palace, reflect this fundamental and deeper conflict. Electoral democracy is on the rise while royalist democracy is in critical condition. The status quo and the establishment are seriously threatened. Meanwhile, the charismatic King Bhumibol Adulyadej is aging and has serious health problems, casting the fate of royalist democracy into further doubt. The questionable popularity of the crown prince looms like a storm cloud over the end of Bhumibol’s reign.

While the stated reason for the latest coup was to remove corrupt politicians from power, only a small number of politicians, all from the same political side, were in fact targeted. All were released from interrogation quickly, except for those few who defied the junta’s authority—and of course for the Shinawatras, who remain the Orwellian invisible enemy of the establishment, like communism during the Cold War.

In truth, the junta’s primary targets are people who have fought to defend electoral democracy because they recognize the sort of structural changes I have described. Such people do not necessarily support Thaksin. Many of them also identify royalist domination as an obstacle to democratization and criticize the royalists for trying to derail democracy. A crucial issue is therefore the lèse-majesté law, which has been abused by the royalists to silence critics in the name of protecting the monarchy. These critics demand reform of the law and an end to its abuses.

The first month of the coup was a witch-hunt for critics of royalist anti-democracy. Intellectuals fled or were detained for interrogation. Those who turned themselves in were ordered to “readjust their attitudes,” and were released only on the condition that they refrain from political activity, from commenting pointedly on their Facebook pages to traveling overseas without permission from the junta. Big Brother is watching them! Small “flash” protests popped up from time to time, including events where groups of people silently read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in public places. The military does not miss the blunt critique in actions like this and has responded with further detentions.

The junta has abolished elections at every level of administration. The military has pushed for a return to the domination of a bureaucratic state at every level of administration and for stronger centralized governance around the country. In their view, a good government is ruled by bureaucrats and technocrats. The legislative assembly, chosen and appointed by the junta, is comprised mainly of military offers and senior bureaucrats. A new constitution, still to be drafted, is likely to be the most undemocratic and bureaucratic of the past forty years.

The junta, however, ignores the roots of conflict and overtly represents and carries out the royalists’ ideas and political agenda. Their reconciliation efforts are meant to eliminate critics and opponents. They drive social conflict even deeper and closer to the breaking point. Their views on the causes of political and social problems are archaic: corruption, disorder, laziness, lack of discipline, selfishness, Western influence, and so on. Their solutions are superficial. One of the junta’s main campaigns, for example, is to “return happiness to the Thai people.” How? Military bands play in public spaces in Bangkok, and uniformed officers sing and dance as free tickets to the movies are passed out. World Cup games are shown on television for free.

By now, the flash protest readings of Nineteen Eighty-Four are over. They have been replaced by public screenings of Charlie Chaplin’s film “The Great Dictator.” “Big Brother,” indeed, has come to look more and more like the “Great Dictator.”