The Crown and the Army: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy

Cover Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Forty-three years. That is the sentence levied upon a Thai woman in her sixties who was found to have posted audio clips on Facebook and YouTube that allegedly insult the monarchy. Such a shocking forty-five year long sentence was issued because the court found the defendant guilty of twenty-nine different charges of slander. This inordinate verdict has been decreed under the infamous section 112 of the Thai criminal code, the “lèse-majesté” law, under which anyone who defames the monarchy can risk up to fifteen years in prison. Protecting the monarchy against any kind of criticism is a cornerstone for the militaristic elite currently at the government in Thailand, who use the figure of the King as a symbol against demands of transparency and democracy. 

The military junta, which seized power in 2014, is intensively employing this draconian law to crack down on the ongoing protests that have been raging since the early months of 2020. The Thai protests are centred around four demands: the resignation of the current prime minister, a series of constitutional reforms that would restrict the Crown’s role in Thai politics, the abolishment of the previously-mentioned section 112, and the separation of King’s personal wealth from the royal budget, which is funded by taxpayer money. Despite huge participation in the demonstrations, there are still large swathes of the population who are in favour of the monarchy, shown by counter protests that have pledged support  to King Rama X and the recent formation of a pro-monarchy political party

As noted by Jack Fong, professor at the California State Polytechnic University, the most conservative and nationalist part of the Thai society supports a strong monarchy as an essential element of the Thai national identity. For them, the King is a figure “above and beyond” politics, a connection with a glorious past of the ancient Ayutthaya Kingdom, which was a leading power in South-East Asia lasting for more than 400 years.

The royalist’s ranks include, as reported by the independent scholar Chris Baker, many in the strong state bureaucracy and, most importantly, the army, which portrays itself as a protector of the country and the King against internal and external threats. During the Cold War, the external threat was the communist insurgents, nowadays, this role has been taken by the internal threat represented by a corrupt and self-interested political class. This oligarchy is also supported by a wealthy urban middle class, who supports the monarchist network, further reinforcing an elitist conception of democracy. 

The opposition between a powerful elite, centred around the Crown, and a majoritarian, but powerless segment of the population has generated chronic political instability in Thailand. Since the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932, there have been twelve successful coups d’état staged by the army, usually with the intent of replacing one autocratic government with another or to oust a democratically elected government. 

The latest coup in 2014 is the most recent development of the old struggle between two factions of Thai society that see the Crown in a radically different way. For the monarchist elite, the Crown is the key figure in the Thai national identity, the source of the sovereignty who deserves to be protected and revered, even if that’s with the use of force. On the contrary, the democratic – and probably majoritarian – part of the society see the King as a mere figurehead, in line with the European royals, who should be accountable to the law and transparent. The 2014 coup was yet another one of many military interventions to secure the interests of the monarchist elite.  The current protests lie in opposition to these pro-monarchist sentiments and are the product of these long simmering opposite ideologies of the role of the monarchy.

In 2006, the military deposed the elected government led by Thaksin Shinawatra, a multibillionaire tycoon from the telecommunication sector, accusing him of corruption and tax avoidance. Even after Thaksin’s departure, the pro-Thaksin People Power Party (PPP) won in 2007. This event led to protests from pro-royalists groups and, ultimately, more judicial actions against the PPP that led the Parliament to elect the monarchist PM Abhisit Vejjajiva in 2008. 

Vejjajiva’s  government was fiercely opposed by the then pro-democracy movement- known as the “red shirts”- who faced brutal repression by the government, culminating, according to Human Rights Watch, with the killing of at least ninety-eight people between April and May 2010. In the following 2011 elections, Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, and her Pheu Thai Party won the majority of the seats in the Parliament, bringing the “red shirts” to government again. After these elections, the monarchist opposition reorganised itself, campaigning against the government and the very concept of electoral democracy, paving the way for the 2014 coup. 

Red shirts, 2010 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported by academics Kanchoochat and Hewison, in 2013 several pro-monarchy opposition forces joined together; giving birth to a political interest group boldy named the People’s Committee for Absolute Democracy with the King as Head of State (later prudently renamed as the People Democratic Reform Committee, PDRC). This lobby group adopted many of the rhetoric instruments that have defined Thailand’s nationalism; seeing the monarchy as an almost sacred institution, the true centre of the Thai identity. 

During the months that preceded the 2014 coup, the PDRC campaigned against what they defined as “parliamentary dictatorship”. They described the elections and the representative democracy as a means of oppression against the minorities, a tool to further the agendas of corrupt politicians, and as a threat to the prerogatives of the King.

On May 22nd, 2014, this long period of tensions erupted in the coup, where the monarchists took the power again and granted legislative power to the neo-constituted National Council of Peace and Order (NCPO). This was chaired by the retired Royal Thai Army general Prayut Chan-o-cha, whose declaration in the aftermath of the takeover effectively reinstates the “monarchist” conception of the power:

“It is the power that comes from His Majesty the King. 

His Majesty presented the power to us to form the government.

Today the power that I have was presented to me by the King” 

Just four days later, the then-King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) endorsed the government “to restore peace and order”. Since then, “peace and order” have been restored through the imposition of martial law, an expansion of the police’s powers and, in 2017, a new constitution. 

This new constitution, approved after a referendum during which any kind of debate was forbidden, has been modified by the NCPO to accommodate the requests of the current King Vajiralongkorn (Rama X) to have more power in some areas. For example, the monarch can now sign executive orders without the countersignature of on specific matters, a move that has been criticized as reminiscent of the absolute monarchy. The most important modification, that cements the military grip over the country, is the creation of a 250-member non-elected Senate, that military-monarchists interests will be able to fill as they please.

The former NCPO leader and now PM Prayut Chan-o-cha (Photo: World Travel & Tourism Council, Flickr)

Under these new rules written by the current regime for its own benefit, and endorsed by the Crown, it is not surprising that- despite the formal dissolution of the NCPO after the disputed 2019  elections- the current PM is the former head of the military junta, all thanks to the votes of the military-appointed upper house. Today’s protests and the widespread use of repressive laws to apprehend dissidents are the results of an ongoing struggle to reduce the role of the military and the monarchy in a country that seems to have still a long way to go in achieving a stable democracy. 

Gian Luca Traverso

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