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The Future of Thai Monarchy

Kavi Chongkittavorn

Introduction

At Suvarnabhumi Airport's Terminal C and D, international passengers can see a huge golden-framed picture showing a gathering of 28 Kings, Queens and royal members from around the world who came to Bangkok (“City of Angels”) to congratulate the world’s longest reigning King in June 2006. It was an exceptional occasion to make all the royal families of the world sit together, according to seniority, under one roof. The group photo is a testimony to the popularity and aura of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej who has been on the throne since 1946. In Thai households, official buildings, shopping malls, hotels and schools today, it is common to see His Majesty’s face on posters, billboards and on the walls. For centuries the Thai monarchy warded off foreign invaders and most importantly survived repeated attempts by Western colonial powers to usurp them. In Southeast Asia only the Thai monarchy survived colonialisation while its neighbouring countries (Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Malaysia) Succumbed when these powerful forces began their reign of King Bhumibol, has been consolidating itself ever since. Only recently in Cambodia, the monarchy was reintroduced after a reign of horror under the Khmer Rouge (1975-78) when the royal institution was abolished. 

The Thai monarchy is currently confronting new challenges emanating from rapid transformation inside the country in the past three decades. Increased levels of education and awareness, overall economic development, and new technologies are all bringing demanding new voices into politics and the social scene. They are coming from the younger people both in urban and rural areas. Their knowledge and appreciation of traditional Thailand, in whatever form or structure, is marginal, especially those that are framed under the ideas of constitutional monarchy. Thesevalues and norms are becoming increasingly less attractive with the repeated political turmoil in Thailand in recent times. In more ways than one they have challenged established elite and traditional power-sharing arrangements that used to be the foundation of the current Thai political system. Of late they have also attacked the “Thai bureaucratic polity”, or amarnyathipatai, as being dictatorial and elitist in nature.

In the past four years Thai society has become polarised between various contending social groups, known locally as the yellow-shirt and red-shirt groups. While these groups profess loyalty to the monarchy, they differ greatly in their political preferences. The divide widened after the conviction of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra - who is considered the leader as well as the major financial supporter of the red-shirt group - in October 2008 on corruption charges and abuse of power. In late March and early April 2009 Thaksin openly challenged the legitimacy of the Privy Council and its supervisory roles and indirectly criticised the monarchy for meddling in day-to-day Thai politics.  During the first two weeks of April 2009, Thaksin increased his attacks through the foreign media, accusing the King of interfering in Thai politics and explicitly linked him to the September 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin from power(FT, 20/4/09). During the protest in 2007 by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) or the yellow-shirt group, their leaders constantly urged the King to step in to end political impasse. It was customary for Thai  opinion leaders to seek the King’s political intervention in time of crisis. But this time it was to no avail. Previously, both politicians and demonstrators had also used the royal institution for their own self-interests; attempts were made from time to time to drag the King into the political quagmire. At a time when large-scale bloodshed seemed possible in Bangkok over Songkran (April 12-13, 2009), Thaksin immediately beseeched “His Majesty” to intervene again to end the showdown. It was an unwarranted provocation from Thaksin who wanted to implicate the King as the real king-maker of Thai politics. Fortunately the latest riots ended without the kind of violence everyone anticipated, thanks to Prime Minister Abhist Vejjajiva’s rejuvenated leadership and his stringent rule to engage security forces and protesters. It was good that the King did not intervene as everybody expected, despite repeated calls by Thaksin and his red-shirt group during the riots. On April 21st , the King made his first appearance on TV, and through front page photos published in most Bangkok-based daily newpapers the following day, showing him accepting an invitation of the governor of Confrerie du Guillon (“Brotherhood of Guillon”) to become a member of the Geneva-based wine-drinking society. The message was succinct: the King was alive and well. He was also drinking wine. Obviously the King is trying to do away with the much-stated stereotype of him meddling with Thai politics. After all elected politicians and Parliament have to settle their own political problems in democratic ways. Never before in Thailand have debates on the role of the Thai Monarch and its future been so intense and direct. Of course the Thai people are still discreet whenever they talk about the royal famliy. But they do talk about them. During coronation day on May 5, 2009, half a million Thais, wearing white T-shirts (not yellow, red, or blue), showed up at the Royal Plaza to celebrate the anniversary of the King’s 63-year-old reign. It was the largest gathering for such an occasion. Whenever the King was admitted to Siriraj Hospital for health reasons thousands of common folks lined up to offer their best wishes.

Can the Thai monarchy survive the current turmoil with a divided nation? This paper attempts to answer this question by examining the relations between the Thai monarchy and key institutions, including military, bureaucracy, media and rural masses.

The King and his “Reserve Powers” in Thai Politics

King Bhumibhol became the monarch at a very young age. In his early years, the King travelled widely throughout the country to get to know his people and allowed them to get close to him and to know him. During his reign Thailand has seen at least 18 Constitutions, 19 coups, 27 prime ministers and 56 governments. So the King knows his constitutional role and duties well and that he must not be involved in politics but that he must play a non-partisan role in the country’s political process and development. But the public often thinks that the King is behind all political manoeuvres. Obviously, these hearsays have further increased the King’s political aura.

As a constitutional Monarch, according to former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun, the King possesses three discretionary powers: “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn”. The King exercises these prerogatives through private audiences he grants to the prime minister of the day. What transpires during these meetings remains confidential. However, former Prime Minister Thakin Shinwatra often divulged parts of his consultations with the King. Six months before the September coup of 2006, Thaksin had an audience with the King at Klai Kangwon Palace in Hua Hin. He came out saying the King was not on the same page with the Privy Council, which at the time was criticising Thaksin and his behaviour. Thaksin had broken a century-old taboo. Sometimes the prime minister of the day would highlight one or two issues that the King addressed and share it with the public so that they would be aware that the king was concerned about certain issues. But there would not be any personal matter.

Under the Thai Constitution the King does have formal powers and responsibilities. In exercising this function he is conscious of his non-political role. All legislations vetted and approved by the National Assembly mus be signed by the King. Sometimes, the King delays his signature---considered a rubber stamp, which could be interpreted in various ways. This discreet but powerful signal is strictly advisory. Whenever the King speaks, either on his birthday or with the Cabinet members or court judges, it is scrutinised and listened to with great attention. of course there is no guarantee that the King’s thinking is being heard and properly understood.

Contrary to conventional belief, the King has not come out so often to intervene in Thai politics. He has only intervened in a few cases. But when he did, it was always important. Whenever Thai politics is caught in a quagmire, Thais automatically think that the King will fix it. Nobody knows exactly when this notion became embedded in the Thai psyche, but the most famous scene occurred in May 1992 when the political protagonists -- General Suchinda Kraprayoon and Chamlong Srimuang -- who were previously at each other’s throats, kneeled before the King. The dramatic event was broadcast live on TV. Within a second, peace was restored. That memorable image represented the high point of the Thai King and his barami, or reserved power, in ending instantaneously all political conflicts. Deep down, whenever politicians quarrel, or military leaders become restless, Thais bank on the King and his magic power to heal all rifts. This strong sentiment derives from the public belief that Thai political leaders often lack the kind of moral authority to end a political crisis, as they are focused on their own vested interests and constituencies. In this case the King has always been perceived as an impartial person. It is a catch-22 situation. The King is needed when politicians are unable to solve differences among themselves; but whatever measures were taken would be viewed as intervention. The fact that the King is there to help out in times of trouble enhanced his political maturity.

Thai Monarchy and the Military

Every year, 48 hours before the King’s birthday on 5 December, all the leaders of the Thai armed forces dress in full military regalia to perform the trooping of colours at the Royal Plaza to honour the King and pledge allegiance to him and the throne. This colourful annual ritual symbolises the submission the military to the king’s sovereign authority and political will. The Thai military culture has been built on the foundation of respect for the monarchy. In fact, it has been deeply embedded in the Thai psyche. The most important duty of the Thai military, besides defending the country from external threats, is to protect the throne -- everything else is secondary. To outsiders it is hard to understand that all Thai military actions must be carried out in the name of the King and must be honourable and just as His majesty is honourable and just. The King is the symbol of national unity.

Since most of the coups occurred during his reign, criticisms are naturally aplenty about His majesty’s role in politics. in fact he does not have any executive power, but he has high symbolic power over the military and society as a whole. The military is clearly subordinated to the King. However, that does not prevent the military from playing an active political role. The rise and fall of a government could directly affect the morale of the armed forces and their budgets. In the past when the top military leaders wanted to interfere in any political conflict, they could do so easily by ordering their junior commanders to stage a coup. Quite often, in responding to a political crisis in the past three years, pressure groups,as well as the public at large, have requested the military to intervene. The military has also realised that managing the country under a coup is a tough job, especially to gain  diplomatic acceptance. The 2006 coup tarnished the Thai military and democratic development greatly because it showed that the military had not really returned to the barracks. Indeed when Thailand changed from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy in 1932, about 95 per cent of all prime ministers and cabinet minister were former general-rank military officers.

In the coming years the traditional role of the Thai military in protecting the throne would become even more important due to the issue related to succession. The King’s health has been the subject of intense speculation in the past four years, which has caused great concern among Thai people. At present the relations between the monarchy and the military are very solid. Army Chief General Anupong Paochinda has built his career protecting the royal family as part of  The elite Royal Queen’s Guards. He has proved beyond any doubt, despite being a classmate of fugitive Thaksin at a military cadet school, that he is a professional soldier who has successfully resisted the calls to stage a coup since he assumed the position in October 2007. The First Region’s Army Chief, General Prayuth Chan O-cha, who expects to succeed him next year, has also been a staunch supporter of the monarchy.

Monarchy and he Rural Mass

In June 2006 during a week-long demonstration by the rural poor who ad gathered at Chatuchak Park, I met a group of rural farmers from Udon Thani, who held a number of placards with the portrait of Thaksin in full military regalia. I was surprised to see such a proliferation at the protest site. It was the first time something like this had occurred. I wondered what had happened to all the smiling faces that were a common sight whenever people waited to see the King and all The kindness he has bestowed on his people for over six decades. Normally, during such demonstrations, portraits of the King preferred choices. Since then I sensed that there was a sea change in the perception of rural Thais who used to be beneficiaries of the royal-sponsored projects that covered the whole gamut of their life-cycle.

After Thaksin became the prime minister in early 2001, he initiated a series of populist policies that directly benefited the rural masses, especially in healthcare, debt-relief, and education. With his business background and acumen he was able to mobilise funding from both official and non-official sources to back up his elaborate populist schemes. As part of the so-called “political marking”, he constantly came up with new social schemes for the rural areas such as one tambon (“district”) one product, one village one free scholarship, one village one million baht fund, among others. Some of these promoting his philosophy of economic sufficiency and sustainable development all along. He has done it without political overtones. Throughout his reign, but not in recent years, the King-- often accompanied by the Queen and his son and daughters -- traveled to remote villages to get to know his subjects. Their Majesties’ entourage would comprise doctors, educators and agricultural experts to provide advice and expertise to villagers directly. More than 3,000 royal-sponsored projects are currently in operation throughout the country.

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