Thai Politics: Pay no Attention to the Man behind the Curtain

Thailand's Prayuth Chan-ocha pays his respects in front of a portrait of Thai King/Image: REUTERS

It has been nearly two weeks since the latest Thai parliamentary elections, and the only thing we know for certain is that we really know nothing at all. The Electoral Commission has announced recounts in Khon Kaen, and another round of polling will take place in districts among Bangkok, Lampang, Phetchabun, Phitsanulok, and Yasothon provinces. Confusion and anger mount amid questionable voter registrations, sweeping disenfranchisement, fluctuating vote counts, and blatant manipulation of election law by the government.

It is not that this election is unique in being tainted; tampering with the polls is endemic to Thailand. But even in this context, it has been a highly irregular election. For the first time in a generation, this poll is not defined exclusively as a struggle between “Red Shirts” aligned with deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and “Yellow Shirts” royalists supported by the army.  This goes around, the Yellow Shirt-linked Democrat Party broke with Prayuth’s military government, while Red Shirts of the Pheu Thai party received support from non-Thaksin pro-democracy groups, like the new and youthful Future Forward Party. But what is especially striking to Thais is that no clear winner has been divined among pro-democracy and authoritarian camps.

Outfitted with a pliant National Legislative Assembly and a ready decree of absolute authority in Article 44, the military Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has had nearly five years in office to ensure his transition to civilian leadership.  Despite promising a resumption of democratic practices, Prayuth and the NCPO have instead throttled public assembly, forced through a favourable constitution, harassed and disbanded political parties, and used his position as Prime Minister to campaign while other candidates were prohibited. Given this audacious interference and manipulation in the lead up to the election, even the most hopeful democracy advocates understood that unseating Prayuth at the polls would be a steep uphill climb. Yet Prayuth still has not secured a decisive victory, even with the cooperation of the Electoral Commission. How could playing by similar rules as previous successful military rulers produce such an unforeseen outcome? A likely answer is that the changing shape of Thai politics is actually a reflection of the personal character of the king.

To see through this fog, we must disregard the conventions of Thai political analysis and discuss the role of the royal institution in civil government. This has its dangers; addressing this sensitive topic can bring sedition and lèse majesté charges. But there is a logic to these severe punishments. For nearly a century, Thailand has operated under the fiction that the monarchy sanctions constitutional limitations on its own power, and would never be sullied by common politics. The truth is very different. Thai kings have long been active in protecting their interests in the public sphere in apparent denial of their role in a democratic system with the king as head of state. In this environment, these onerous penalties serve to quash any questions about the propriety of royal influence in government.

Democracy with the King as the Head of State

The official position of the Thai monarchy is that it operates above politics. Eugénie Meriéau has documented that this position was first put forth by King Prajadipok (Rama VII) and included in the charter that followed the dissolution of the absolute monarchy in 1932. This position has been preserved up to the present. In the most recent constitutions, the government of Thailand is defined as a “Democracy with the King as the Head of State.” On the surface, this resembles the formulations of other constitutional monarchies in which the responsibility to govern is assigned to the Parliament, while the state itself is situated in the person of the monarch. But for the Thai monarchy, this does not mean that the king’s authority waned. Instead its authority has survived by becoming more personalized. King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), for example, was masterful at exerting influence through political operatives in what Duncan McCargo labels “Network Monarchy.” This allowed him to pursue his interests while maintaining the pretense of acting within the charter.

So we see that in Thailand, the monarch has retained a high degree of personal status that translates into significant social power that was never annulled. David Streckfuss explains that royal status has had a powerful effect on Thai constitutionalism, allowing for a sacred sphere around the person of the king that cannot be violated. Instead of removing the monarchy’s political authority and vesting that in a democratically elected body, it allowed the king to participate without clear parameters or direct responsibility for any outcomes. Thai constitutions over the last sixty years have allowed their kings to be as politically influential as they could manage—the monarchy essentially operates as an sovereign authority entrepreneur.

The Person of the King as a Model for Thai Politics

The laws protecting the monarchy from scrutiny hinder clear analysis. Journalists and academics have been forced to explain the dynamics of Thai governance without addressing one of the major actors. What appear as oddities in this election are only oddities because the most candid explanations are prohibited, and then are substituted with long-established Thai motifs of corrupt politicians, honest bureaucrats, and a dutiful military. But if we look at how King Maha Vajiralongkorn would protect his interests, given his particular character and in the present context, the 2019 elections become more sensible.

Compared to the traditional narratives of Thai politics, it seems strange that Prayuth made so little of such great advantages in this election. His military government has held power for five years, shaped the political discourse, and could call for elections whenever it was to their greatest benefit. Yet, the sitting Prime Minister has still faced marked resistance. One reason for this is that his authority depends upon unquestioned loyalty from the army forces stationed in Bangkok. However, his power base has deteriorated since the coup in 2014. Paul Chambers notes that forces loyal to Prayuth, particularly the Eastern Tigers of the 2nd (Queen’s) Regiment, have been removed from Bangkok by Rama X and replaced by the Divine Progeny of the 1st (King’s) Regiment,  who are loyal to new Army Chief Gen. Apirat Konsompong and King Maha Vajiralongkorn himself.

By reassigning the Bangkok regiments, Rama X is taking a very active role in shaping the Kingdom as he wants it; and what he wants is stability in the Dutch colonial sense of ‘rust en orde’. Moreover, Rama X appears willing to support whoever can deliver this, be they army, politician or bureaucrat. Neither the Queen’s or King’s guard faction is dictating the direction being taken, but some faction of the Army is likely to be the most useful tool of state moving forwards. As such, it appears that Prayuth is being given the first opportunity to establishing rust en orde in Thailand. However, he has proven ineffective in the past, and is for this reason being kept on a short leash. If he fails to create stability, General Apirat could be Rama X’s next pawn, which may be why troops loyal to Prayuth have been systematically moved out of Bangkok and been replaced by troops loyal to Apirat and the King. If Prayuth fails to create sufficient order, a new coup putting Apirat in Prayuth’s place could well receive royal consent.

Even though Rama X seeks a stability that assures the extension of Chakri line, his tactic is to restrain other political players by sowing chaos. Let’s not forget that before Rams IX’s passing, and while there were questions about who would succeed him on the throne, then Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn maintained close ties to Thaksin. This earlier relationship was likely in play with Princess Ubolratana’s recently aborted bid to be Prime Minister, and her recent appearance at Thaksin’s daughter’s wedding just prior to the election. These high-profile episodes created confusion as the public questioned whether the King was giving his support to the Red Shirt political machinery. This may have been a gambit to feel out his options, it is hard to know. But some gambits succeed and others fail, and for the moment the King appears to have backed off support for Pheu Thai. Of all the contenders, it seems the pro-democracy groups have the least chance for continued existence. The leader of the Future Forward Party is facing sedition charges that could place his party’s parliamentary gains in jeopardy, and its commitment to delivering real power to the populace would be a threat to Rama X’s plans to centralize his power.

All of this invents very different dynamics of statecraft than Thailand has had for the past sixty years.  Rama X appears to prefer more direct action, calculating that his interests in imposing order are best served through spontaneity and chaos, while his father Rama IX projected stability and harmony. Rama IX was far more methodical, and only activated his networks once he had his ducks in a row. This delivered more stable regimes and orderly transitions, which in turn further enhanced his authority. But Rama X has neither the patience nor the breadth of influence of his father. Instead he seems inclined to set a number of things in motion and see which is most effective. This is a far more chaotic route to order, so it is hard to tell who is winning the political game, or if “winning” is even the best way to evaluate it when the king is moving the pieces? Does it make any more sense to say that the black bishop or white castle is winning on a chessboard?

Will the Chaos ever Stop?

What I lay out here is just one set of possibilities. There are many others, but any discussion of the 2019 elections requires bringing the royal institution into the equation. This chaos may not be solely of Rama X’s design. It could be push-back among against his tactics and persona among the military, politicians, and bureaucracy. Or it could be a matter of growing opposition to the military-monarchy clique among the Thai public, especially the pro-democracy youth. Perhaps Rama X has not obtained his father’s barami, prestige and adulation; and so the chaos would be an issue of his political limitations, not strength. These questions have to be asked.

Still, I view this new dynamic as a sea change in Thailand. Rama IX dealt with political anxiety first by masking it, then by assuaging it from behind the curtain, and over time by eliminating it from permitted public discourse altogether by promoting Thainess—the elite control of public discourse centred on nation, religion, and monarchy. Rama X, though, seems uncommitted to the effort required for working behind the scenes to achieve this goal. He is taking a more active, trial-and-error approach that would provide a more lasting and self-perpetuating solution. What is interesting his is that that the nature of Thainess itself would have to change from a sanctioned cultural code to a rigid doctrine of fealty to the King’s command. How well this would this sit with the Thai public, we will have to wait and see.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Dr. Kevin Downey

Dr Kevin Downey is a Freelance Academic Editor, primarily for the German Southeast Asian Center of Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance, a constitutional and international law think tank located in the Faculty of Law at Thammasat University. He was also a Lecturer in the Faculty of Political Science at Thammasat University - Tha Pra Chan from January 2013 to December 2018. He can be reached at kevin_downey@ymail.com

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