Monarchy, military and democracy – a look at the power dynamics in Thailand

People queueing up to pay their final respects to respected king Bhumibol in Bangkok in January, 2017. (Picture: Wikimedia Commons)

State power in Thailand has been divided between 3 key actors in recent political history: the monarchy, the military, and the democratically elected government. Now with the change of the monarch, continued rule of the military junta and a promised general election for next year, how will governance in Thailand play out in the immediate future?

A year of national mourning came to an end in late October, when intricate funeral proceedings were held for King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Bangkok. The mourning period was honoured by wearing muted colours, and a ban on political activity was enforced by the military government. 12 million Thai nationals have been said to visit the throne hall with the king’s remains in the last year to pay their respects.

From an outsider’s perspective, the respect the king commands in Thailand may be hard to understand. Within Thailand, however, the king was a revered figure and a unifying force in turbulent Thai politics over his 70-year reign. He had a role as a moral authority whose say weighed heavily on public discourse, and an image of a compassionate king. While he had limited political power, the monarch has been called the primary source of legitimacy and an ultimate arbiter in crisis. The influence of the monarchy was greatly built on the person of King Bhumibol, making it a challenge for the successor – his less popular son Maha Vajiralongkorn – to uphold.

The coronation of the new king, delayed until the royal funeral, should soon be given a date. King Vajiralongkorn has not earned the same respect as his father, and seems to be somewhat of an eccentric character. Rumours of womanizing and gambling have circulated about him for years, and 3 scandalous divorces have made people question his suitability to the throne. Within Thailand strict lese majeste laws forbid open criticism of the royal family, making it in effect illegal to discuss the succession in a critical manner.

Despite constitutional limitations, King Vajiralongkorn seems to be asserting himself in politics, as this spring he demanded changes to a new constitution which had already been accepted by referendum. The changes restored royal influence over selection of regent. Compared to his father who signed the previous constitution silently, Vajiralongkorn held a prominent ceremony to note its entrance into force, perhaps to link the charter to the historical transition of power within the monarchy.

Prime minister of Thailand, Military General Prayut Chan-ocha at an international conference.
(Picture: Wikipedia)

Meanwhile Thailand has been under military rule for 3 years since a coup in 2014, making it the longest period of military control in decades. The junta has passed various laws from traffic safety to clearing up street food stalls, making their presence known in everyday life. They work under the claim of bringing stability to the country, but arrests of critics, enforced censorship in media, and expanded government surveillance over the internet have led to strict limitations on free speech. According to an interim constitution in 2014, the leader of the junta General Prayut has no legal accountability over his actions, even when they violate human rights.

The junta seems to have invested in an alliance of military and monarchy, one indicator of which is increasingly strict enforcement of lese majeste laws. The military gains its legitimacy from the king’s approval, making it important to be on good terms with the royal family. King Vajiralongkorn has a military training himself, and is thought to have a good working relationship with the institution.

While military rule in the country is problematic, democracy in Thailand has not been smooth sailing either. To date, only one democratically elected parliament has managed to stay in power for the full term of 4 years. One reason is that the Thai population is deeply divided between two political camps, which became known internationally a few years ago as the red and yellow shirts. The red shirts are supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, a controversial former prime minister who became hugely popular among the rural population due to his developmental policies, and whose party has won majority in every election since 2001. Meanwhile, the yellow shirts are royalists, the political elite and urban middle class. They criticize Thaksin’s party Pheu Thai for corruption and abuse of power, and wish to push it out of politics. Some want to create a system of partial democracy, where elections are combined with appointing officials to parliament.

The polarization between these two camps, each with their own propaganda machines, has led to a vicious cycle repeating itself since the start of the millennium. The victory of Pheu Thai in elections is followed by often violent protests by the opposition and eventually a military coup. A new election is then promised, but political divisions remain. Short of spiralling into civil war, this period has been the most violent in Thai political history. Thaksin has now been in self-imposed exile for years to avoid a prison sentence, with his sister Yingluck acting as prime minister until 2014. Recently she faced a court case on negligence and has also left the country this August. There have been speculations that the court cases were politically motivated.

Recently general elections, also delayed due to the king’s funeral, have been set for November 2018. However, this time a new constitution – adapted last April – will limit the power of political parties due to a new electoral system. It is likely to reduce the seats of major parties like Pheu Thai and make future governments more fragmented. Additionally, the 250-seat senate will be appointed by the military, strengthening military hold on power and making it extremely difficult for other parties to gain a majority in parliament.

The Democracy monument in Bangkok, a rallying point for protesters, saw a small explosive go off on the night before the new constitution was signed last April, signalling of tensions below the surface even during the political ban. (Picture: Wikimedia Commons)

The king’s funeral was supposed to kickstart political life with the lifting of a political ban in the country, but it was announced in early November that the ban will remain until “order has been restored”. New political parties cannot be established and freedom of association is limited, making the ban another problem for party politics before the election.

Even with the election promised for next year, Thailand’s political system will be a guided democracy at best. The military has secured its role through the constitution, and will continue to influence Thai politics as the country moves into a new reign. Other aspects remain more uncertain: what will be the role of the new king and the results of the eventual elections? The king has already intervened in the formulation of the constitution, and it seems the military is backing him up through strict enforcement of lese majeste laws. Whether these two actors will create a mutual alliance remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the Pheu Thai party continues to have a strong voter base but will struggle to retain its dominance in elections, especially now with no strong leader within Thailand. The new constitution is built to support political fragmentation rather than large parties, perhaps creating similar weak and short-lived coalition governments which dominated the 1990s. Protests have often followed elections, and it is not ruled out that that would happen again next year if opposing sides do not manage to reconcile. The interplay of the institutions of monarchy, military and government may be reshaped in the wake of a transition of the king, leaving the future of Thai politics hard to predict.

Minttu Hänninen

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