The historical construction of the Thai nation-state was propelled by the need to stem off colonisation from European powers. Fears around European colonisation reached an apex with the British invasion and annexation of the Kingdom of Burma in 1826. The Thai monarchy was central to forging this new Thai state. In the late 19th and early 20th century a unified Thai-ethnic state was formed with a centralised governmental structure, defined borders and an ethno-religious ideology centred on reverence for the monarch. The Thai King was worshipped as a demi-god. Although the Thai elite was not exclusively from the royal family, all sectors of Thailand’s ruling class saw the need for a strong monarchy as a way to cement and unify this new nation.
Historical challenge to Thai monarch – the 1932 revolution
Thailand has witnessed a breakdown of hegemony before. In the 1920’s and 1930s a growth of democratic and republican sentiments led to the 1932 ‘revolution’ against the monarchy and the establishment of a semi-republican government. Although the position of King was retained, the monarch’s powers were heavily curtailed. For the next two decades, a contest of left and right ideologies was played out between Thailand’s new civil and military leaders. The end result was the defeat of the left and the imposition of a military backed government. Successive military governments increasingly relied on and promoted a Buddhist-royalist ideology.
The cult of the Thai King
The authority of the Thai monarch had been seriously challenged by the 1932 revolution. However, proceeding World War Two, a succession of Thai regimes built up the image of current reigning king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, as a way to assure their own legitimacy. The cult built around the image of King Bhumibol also acted to give legitimacy to the modern Thai capitalist system and to curtail threats coming from leftist critics and forces.
With the Sarit military regime of the late 1950s, a concerted effort was made by the Thai establishment to promote the institution of the monarchy. Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat led a coup in 1957 and served as Thailand's Prime Minister up till his death in 1963. In the book, A Coup for the Rich (PDF available here), Thai Marxist academic Giles Ji Ungpakorn quotes Thak Chaloemtiarana on the Sarit government:
The Sarit coup had little historical legitimacy compared to 1932 revolution...the development of the Monarchy saw rapid progress after 1957...While the prestige of the king increased, the government’s popularity grew... old ceremonies were reintroduced or reinvented.
Although since the 1932 revolution the monarchy in Thailand has had little real power, it has served the interests of Thailand’s elites to build up an image of the King as a powerful and benevolent force. Ungpakorn argues:
However the reinvention of the tradition of this institution, after 1932, has created an image of a Monarchy with much influence due to the fact that different factions of the ruling class benefit from the use and promotion of the Palace.
Reverence for the King
Since the Second World War, Thailand has been embroiled in a range of conflicts and crises. Coups, civil conflicts, civil war and mass protests have characterised the Thai political landscape. Yet, amongst all political actors, from left to right including semi-fascists and insurgent communists, loyalty for the King has remained virtually unquestioned.
The Thai King has been able to appear as a neutral and benevolent arbitrator, intervening in and resolving conflicts between various conflicting interest groups. In both 1973 and 1992 the Thai King was seen to resolve what seemed irreconcilable divisions between pro-democracy groups, who had mobilised hundreds of thousands, and elite political actors backed up by the military. Bhumibol’s popularity had arguably reached its pinnacle in 1992 where he was constructed, according to the Economist, as the champion of democracy:
His [Bhumibol’s] image perhaps reaches its zenith in 1992, after the army shoots dozens of pro-democracy protesters in Bangkok, when television shows both the army leader (and prime minister) Suchinda Kraprayoon and the protest leader, Chamlong Srimuang (now a PAD stalwart), kneeling in an audience with him. Shortly afterwards General Suchinda resigns, and the king is given credit for the restoration of democracy.
Thais of all political colours and ideologies have seen the King as a key component in keeping the nation unified and maintaining the democratic voice of the Thai people. Most of these views came from a carefully constructed myth.
The King and the Thai ruling class
The consensus around the monarchy has been central in forming legitimacy around Thailand’s political structures. This can be seen in the use of lèse-majesté laws. Although ostensibly used to protect the monarch, in reality these laws are used to squash any dissent against the conservative elite and the modern Thai capitalist system. A Telegraph article, published after the arrest of Swiss citizen Oliver Jufer on lèse-majesté charges, put forward the argument that such laws were used by elites for self-protection:
Analysts point out that feuding politicians often level accusations of lèse majesté against each other, and Giles Ungpakorn, a political scientist at the elite Chulalongkorn university in the capital, said: "The lèse majesté laws are not really designed to protect the institution of the monarchy. "In the past the laws have been used to protect governments, to protect military coups. This whole image is created to bolster a conservative elite well beyond the walls of the palace. It's an issue in Thai society and it's become more of an issue since the coup because the coup claimed legitimacy from the palace."
The King and Thai hegemony
The myth of a neutral monarch who intervenes to resolve disputes amongst conflicting actors has been central to maintaining social cohesion in Thailand. This building of such a consensus can be understood in terms of theories around hegemony- that is, how a set of ideas become dominant in a capitalist society, and how such ideas aid the maintenance of social cohesion as well as acting to defer threats or challenges to the capitalist accumulation process.
Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci's theory on hegemony sees that the dominant framework of ideas in any one society as a social construct that acts to sow legitimacy in the superstructure of society, including political structures, and in the mode of production, the base structure. Ideas that make up the hegemonic order, that are viewed as ‘common sense’ and ‘natural’, are critiqued as a manufactured discourse.
The ‘common-sense’ view that the Thai monarch is a reluctant but benevolent political actor no longer holds sway for a growing proportion of the Thai population. King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s support for a military coup against the widely popular Thai Rak Thai government in 2006 led to a qualitative shift in opinion about the royal house. There now clearly exists a crisis of legitimacy threatening the existing Thai political system.
Crisis of hegemony
A crisis of hegemony occurs when the dominant set of ideas in society fails to incorporate and resolve conflicts between groups within civil society. Thailand’s hegemonic crisis needs to be understood in the context of a growth of aspirations and political consciousness amongst Thai’s plebeian masses, and the current deformed class conflict that has engulfed this country for the past few years. Thailand is a deeply class divided society, with some the widest income and wealth gaps in the world. In 2001 the Thaksin-led Thai Rak Thai party was elected to power on the promise of a redistribution of wealth, and a policy of making the rural poor stakeholders in society. Thaksin is a populist billionaire, who was adept at uniting the concerns of the poor within a nationalist pro-capitalist framework. A large sector of Thailand’s ruling class accepted Thaksin’s strategy and Thaksin was even able to court support from the royal house. Thaksin is rumoured to of ended shady business deals with the widely despised Crown Prince, Maha Vajiralongkorn. However, the relationship between the Thai elites and Thaksin began to breakdown. It is this breakdown of elite support for Thaksin’s populist agenda that is at the root of the current crisis, including the crisis of hegemony.
The King and Thaksin
Thailand’s elite increasingly viewed Thaksin’s programmes of universal healthcare, cheap loans to the poor, and investment in infrastructure in deprived areas, as extravagant. Near messianic support for Thaksin from the rural poor, deeply concerned elements of Thailand’s ruling class. These elite actors saw Thaksin as acting to usurp the popularity and ideology built around the King. An Economist article in late 2008 articulated these concerns:
Besides justified concerns about Mr Thaksin’s abuses of power, one of the royalists’ worries is that he was building, through populist policies such as cheap health care and microcredit, a patronage network and popular image that challenged the king’s. Another fear is that Mr Thaksin’s alleged generosity to Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn in the past was intended to build up influence with him once he succeeds to the throne.
The 2006 coup and subsequent banning of the Thai Rak Thai party (and reconstituted versions of Thai Rak Thai) can be seen as an assertion of Thai ruling class power. The royalist ‘yellow shirts’ clearly articulate this elite agenda, demanding that the Thai political system be largely based on appointment rather than representative democracy. The yellow shirts are officially known as the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and are made up largely of professional ‘middle-class’ Thais as well as members of Bangkok’s ruling millionaire elite. The aim of the yellow shirts, royalists and Thailand’s elite is to disenfranchise the majority of the population and assure that a populist Thai Rak Thai style party is effectively barred from ascending to power.
Growing republican sentiments
Growing numbers of Thais now see the royal house as intervening directly on the side of the elite. The King’s open support for the coup against Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai government caused a sense of disconnect for a layer of Thai society with the royal house. Red shirt leader Darunee Charnchoensilpakul articulated the growing anger at the royal house when she condemned the 2006 coup and the monarchy at a rally in 2008. Her decrying of ‘the one’s’ support of coups would of resonated with large numbers of Thais. Darunee was sentenced to 18 years in jail on lese majest charges on 28 August 2009.
The authorities in Thailand are not so worried about the odd republican dissident. What deeply concerns the political elite is the growing support coming from Thailand’s disfranchised masses for a republic and even for some form of ‘revolution’. The Economist’s report of a red shirt protest in 2008 highlighted this concern:
At a pro-Thaksin rally in July a young activist ranted against the monarchy, calling the king “a thorn in the side of democracy” for having backed so many coups, and warning the royal family they risked the guillotine. She was quickly arrested. What shocked the royalist establishment was not just the startling criticism of the king—but that the activist was cheered. “It is more and more difficult for them to hold the illusion that the monarchy is universally adored,” says a Thai academic.
Growing republican sentiment and opposition to the royal house has organised around the ‘red shirt’ movement. The red shirts, named after the colour of the tops they wear at protests, are predominantly supporters of the now banned Thai Rak Thai party and of Thaksin Shinawatra. The red shirts’ base is the the rural poor, predominantly from the North-East of Thailand known as Isaan. Although increasingly republican, the actual political philosophy of the red shirts is not clear. Prominent activist in the red shirts include right wing populists as well as left wing academics such as Giles Ungpakorn. With a plurality of political perspectives amongst republicans, what structures would be likely to replace the monarchy if the red shirts were to achieve their goals is unclear.
The King of Thailand is old and unwell. His reign will end in the coming years as he succumbs to ill health and age. The Crown Prince is deeply unpopular amongst most Thai people and so the continuation of the Chakri Dynasty has been held it doubt for many years now. The Chakri Dynasty is the current ruling royal house of Thailand. Added to this, the growing republican sentiments coming from many Thais further strengthen the argument that some form of republic will replace the current ‘constitutional monarchy’ after the death of King Bhumibol.
For left wing republicans in Thailand, the increasing possibility of a republic being formulated in coming years is fraught with dangers. Republics can take many forms and a future Thai republic could easily be one based on authoritarian and military rule. Precedents for this already occur in Thai history.
After the 1932 revolution, a contest of power and ideologies centred around two historical figures: Phibun, a major general in the Thai miliary and an admirer of European fascism, and Pridi, a civilian with strong left wing tendencies. Phibun was able to ascend to power, where he built up a cult around himself. Phibun ruled as a republican dictator, with a weak and irrelevant monarch in the background.
The Thai ruling class has shown itself to favour authoritarian rule and military backed governments over capitalist liberal democracy. With the deep political fractures present in the country, and the appearance of the poor as a self-conscious agency on the Thai political landscape, Thailand’s elite will continue to rely on strong authoritarian leaders and the military to maintain their power and wealth.
In the future, the Thai elite may come to see the royalty as a hindrance rather than as a central pilar of their legitimacy. The crowning of Prince Vajiralongkorn, after the future death or abdication of the current king, could lead to a seismic shift of elite support away from the monarchy. If a future monarch has little popular support then the royal institution would no longer server the purpose of legitimising elite power and the Thai capitalist system. A future strongman in the style of Phibun, with a constructed cult of personality, could well grace the Thai political scene once again.
The alternative to such a scenario is the ascendancy of the plebeian masses. However, at the present time large numbers of the rural poor still give allegiance to corrupt right wing populist Thaksin Shinawatra. While highlighting his populist social polices, his supporters tend to ignore his human rights abuses and the neo-liberal agenda of his TRT government which included privatisation of key state assets. A BBC article in 2008 highlighted the rural poor’s perception of Thaksin:
The affection for Thaksin Shinawatra has held up remarkably well in the north-east, a poor and arid region known as Isaan. Local people say his populist policies, like universal healthcare and the village loan scheme, brought big improvements to the quality of their lives. His darker sides - abuses of power, human rights violations, arrogance - were brushed aside as less important. (Emphasis mine)
In the current crisis, the Thai urban working class has not yet shown itself to be an independent force. Some corrupt state sector union bosses did call for strikes in support of the reactionary yellow shirts, but to my knowledge these calls were not met with any significant action or support by public-sector workers. Thai organised labour has shown itself to be a potential powerful force when, in 2004, 200,000 electrical sector workers mobilised against the TRT party’s plans for electricity privatisation. The corporatisation and privatisation of state assets was part of Thaksin Shinawatra’s neo-liberal agenda, which he supplemented with generous social programmes for the rural poor.
The red shirts represent the nascent of growing republicanism. However they are a cross-class and ideologically contradictory organisation, whose members range from ardent supports of pro-capitalist billionaire Thaksin to some who adhere to the need for a socialist workers revolution. The red shirts in their presently confused and contradictory form do not offer a clear solution to, or vision beyond, the current impasse.
The only thing that is clear is that a paradigm shift has occurred in public opinion, that the reverence built up for the Thai king over preceding decades has broken down. Where Thailand will go from here depends now on the forces on the ground.