Dynamics of Thai Politics*

Borwornsak Uwanno
Associate Fellow of the Academy of
Moral and Political Sciences
The Royal Institute Thailand

Secretary General
King Prajadhipok’s Institute
Former Secretary General to the Cabinet
of the Kingdom of Thailand

          The dynamics of Thai politics have been influenced by four major constituent parts or groups of the Thai social and political setup: the monarchy the military and civilian bureaucracy the urban middle class in Bangkok and large cities who have bargaining power in the system of market economy and the majority of people in rural areas who have not such power.  The power relations among these four groups have been affecting the socio-political dynamics in Thailand from past to present including the rise and fall of its governments under the democratic system.  Understanding these power relations is essential for the understanding of the “dynamics” of Thai politics.

          The Monarchy

          The monarch has been the main pillar of Thailand’s government and administration for as long as a thousand years.  Thai and foreign historians alike concur that Thailand was an absolute monarchy only in name because in practice few monarchs had absolute power.  The monarch’s power was constantly “checked” “competed” and “seized” by the nobility who in theory were “mere dust under the King’s feet” but in reality amassed their own wealth and forces leading to several instances of the seizure of the throne throughout the country’s long history.  As King Chulalongkorn or Rama V wrote in one of his writings the Siamese noblemen were the maker of many Kings.

          In fact even the transformation of the role of the Thai monarchical institution into a constitutional monarchy in 1932 has been regarded by some analysts as “transformation of the royal prerogative” from the King by military and civilian officers most of whom had been granted royally-sponsored scholarships to study abroad.  Those who study the history of Thai politics under the democratic system would know that during the period between 1932 and 1957 which coincided with the reigns of King Rama VII and King Rama VIII and the early part of the present reign both military and civilian Governments regarded the monarch as Head of State only in symbolic terms.  The major shift that restored the status of the monarchy as the main pillar of Thailand’s government can be attributed to at least three factors.

          Firstly after the overthrow of the Government under Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsonggram by Field Marshal Sarit Dhanarajata in 1957 the coup leader – in an effort to differentiate his regime from Field Marshal Pibulsonggram’s Government which treated the monarch only as a symbol – presented for the King’s assent a royal command asking officials and people to stay calm and cooperate with his regime in resolving the country’s problems.  Then the royal command was declared to the public.  This marked the first time in Thailand’s political history that such course of action was undertaken and set precedent for subsequent power seizures by the National Peace-Keeping Council (NPKC) in 1991 and the Council for Democratic Reform in 2006.

          Field Marshal Sarit’s was an act of submission intended to show to the people that the coup leaders as the holder of absolute political power submitted to the power of the King and restored him to the revered position of Head of State.  It was an ingenious idea.  Since the political change which ended absolute monarchy the monarch had but little role.  To seize power and then issue statements to the public therefore had significant psychological effect on the people.  Consequently initial statements issued by coup leaders all reaffirmed their reverence for the King.

          In this connection it would be incorrect to take the issuance of the royal command after the power seizure by the military on 19 September 2006 as the first ever.  Also it would be a misinterpretation to regard such issuance as reflecting the King’s support for the power seizure which was a fait accompli.  Indeed every power seizure affected the monarchy as much as it did the Constitution and the government.  For when the power seizure was accomplished the coup leaders could issue their own laws without having to seek royal assent.  They could also proceed with the administration and appointment of high-ranking officials which used to require the King’s approval.  In effect the King had no power.  In addition all political changes in Thailand from the past until 1932 were undertaken by noblemen who had arms.  Consequently all power seizures placed the monarch in the most vulnerable position.

          With Field Marshal Sarit changing the convention of the constitution into one which gives high reverence to the monarchy the monarchy since 1957 has re-emerged as the main pillar of the government of Thailand.

          Secondly since ascending the throne more than 60 years ago His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej has been dedicating himself to his multifarious duties.  He has initiated over 4000 royal projects throughout the country in areas ranging from water resources irrigation agriculture environment occupational promotion human development and improvement of the quality of life to traffic and improvement of the well-being of the poor and hill tribes.  These contributions have not only earned him an international recognition as “Development King”.  They have brought the King close to his people as never before and turned the monarchy into a social institution.  In other words the King is not only the constitutional Head of State but also an integral part of the Thai society.   As in a family Thai people love and revere His Majesty the King as their kind “Father”.

          The multifarious royal duties which His Majesty the King has undertaken for more than 60 years and his experiences with scores of successive governments have made him “the center of unity of all Thais” and enhanced the particularly important status of the monarchy in Thailand today.

          Thirdly thanks to his long reign His Majesty the King has had to witness a number of political crises.  With his respected status as the center of unity of all Thais and his experiences he has unavoidably had to be involved in resolving the country’s political crises and also been used by different groups who like to refer to the monarchy to score their own political points.

          With regard to political crises His Majesty the King acted in accordance with the Constitution to help defuse conflicts which had escalated into confrontation and bloodshed as evident by his interventions in the 14 October 1973 incident and in the Black May incident of 1992.  In so doing he has always been conscious of and strictly adhered to the role of a constitutional monarch.  His appointment of Sanya Dharmasakti as Prime Minister after the resignation of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn was countersigned by the Vice-President of the National Legislative Assembly who was acting President of the National Legislative Assembly at the time.  Furthermore the subsequent dissolution of the National Legislative Assembly which Field Marshal Thanom had set up after all but eleven members had resigned and the establishment of a National People’s Assembly to select members of a new Legislative Assembly were all done upon the recommendations of the then Prime Minister.

          His Majesty the King’s adherence to the principle of a constitutional monarch can be seen most clearly when a serious political confrontation arose between the Government of Police Colonel Thaksin Shinawatra and the People’s Alliance for Democracy.  Then respected academicians and the media were calling for the invocation of Article 7 of the 1997 Constitution which means a request for His Majesty the King to exercise the royal prerogative to dismiss the current Prime Minister and appoint a new one.  His Majesty turned down such request which he regarded as wrong.  In his much quoted remarks of 25 April 2006 the King said that it was unconstitutional and that the way out of the impasse had to be found through constitutional means that is through the decisions by the Constitutional Court the Administrative Court and the Courts of Justice.  The King’s action wrote one foreign analyst proved that the rumour of the King being behind the political events in Thailand was false.

          After the power seizure was accomplished on 19 September 2006 the coup leaders sought an audience with His Majesty the King to report their action and the situation to him as Head of State. According to the administrative customs established by the Constitution the King had as his royal prerogative the right to be informed.  He however was in no position to object or support such fait accompli by the military.  Had he objected it a second political crisis could have ensued.  Had he supported it that would have given legitimacy to the coup leaders.  Adhering to the administrative customs by acting in accordance with the recommendations of those with real authority was thus the best course of action.  Therefore the King’s assent to the royal command which General Sonthi Boonyaratglin the leader of the Council for Democratic Reform presented and countersigned was the most neutral act and was in line with the country’s administrative customs.  The rumour that the coup had royal backing was incorrect.

          Rumours which draw the monarchy into involving in political conflicts have often been floated when such conflicts occurred.  The conflicting parties in shoring up their own advantage over the other side would seek to use the monarch who is the center of unity of all Thais to justify and legitimize their own actions or to undermine their opponents.  One disadvantage of constitutional monarchy is that the King and the Royal Family are not in a position to publicly deny any such references.  Those who instigate the rumours were thus able to continue reaping political gains by spreading rumours.  Nevertheless as a saying goes action speaks louder than words.  Those who have wanted to use lese-majesté charges against their opponents have had hard time achieving their aims because almost every lese-majesté case from past to present has been granted royal pardon either before or after the ruling by the court.  Even before the political change which ended absolute monarchy the King had granted royal pardon to those writers who criticized him saying: “The expression of thoughts is the voice of the brain. The expression of loyalty is the voice of the heart.”  A distinction must be made between the two.

          Indeed if the King had other means short of making verbal clarifications to prove all other rumours false by his action then the political impartiality of the Thai monarchy would become much more evident.

          To sum up the Thai monarchy has a particularly significant status as main pillar of the country’s government because the King is the center of unity of all Thais and has social bonds with them as their Father.  It is so also because he maintains his political impartiality and strictly adheres to constitutional means and because he is “the supreme mediator” who resolves the country’s political crises in accordance with the customs of constitutional monarchy.  However with such achievements come problems.  References to the monarch are used by political groups to justify themselves whereas the monarch is not in a position to refute those claims unless opportunities avail themselves for the King to prove them wrong through constitutional and legal means.

          Rural Majority

          More than 80 per cent of Thais are poor and live in different parts of the country.  Most of them do not have bargaining power in the system of market economy.  Nor do they have access to the country’s resources most of which belong to those in the country’s richest group who account for 20 per cent of the population.  The statistics on income distribution in 2006 compiled by the National Economic and Social Development Board best reflect this situation.  20 per cent of the richest population owned 53.6 per cent of the gross national income while 20 per cent of the poorest owned a mere 3.8 per cent.  The gap between them was 14.66 times.  The inability to get access to resources and to bargain in the market-based economic system coupled with disadvantages in other areas such as education have made the majority of people in rural areas “dependent” upon assistance from other groups in the society.

          The dependency system which existed prior to the reign of King Rama V was land-based feudalism under which the peasants and the rich and powerful noblemen respectively exchanged “loyalty” and “patronage”.  After the system was abolished towards the end of King Rama V’s reign and particularly after Thailand became a democracy most poor people who were once peasants were cut off from the patronage of rich noblemen.  Noting the gap which had resulted His Majesty the King moved to close it by initiating over 4000 royal projects to provide them with support.

          With an economic system as described above electing representatives has not only have the political meaning of electing someone to speak for oneself.  It also has an economic meaning of being an exchange as existing in the system of patronage.  “Vote buying” is simply not giving away money and getting votes.  Rather it means “paying back” for the kindness of the persons elected in giving support to the people in their constituencies.  Hence when the populist policies were implemented for the first time by the first Thaksin administration and most poor people felt that they gained “access” to resources which they once did not have the popularity of the Thai Rak Thai Party soared.  That happened even though most of these policies which amount to borrowing future money to pay for today’s expenses could put the development of the country at risk in the long run.  Nevertheless for most people who did not have adequate knowledge once they “tasted” the pleasure brought by such policies they would naturally like it.  This situation would present for subsequent governments the challenge of how to manage access to resources by most poor people without resorting to populist policies which would place the country’s future at risk in the long run.

          It is obvious that under such political and economic conditions a majority of the members of the House of Representatives would be elected by poor people in rural areas and that the emerging government would have to depend on the majority support of those representatives.  On this it has been said that in Thailand rural people are the ones who “form a government” but the government once formed works under political pressure from the middle class who have a “louder voice”.  Consequently past policies were mostly dictated by the middle class.  As Nithi Eawsriwong a respected Thai academician puts it the rural people are the “support base” while the urban middle class who have a forceful voice are the “policy base”.

          This geo-political situation changed when the previous Government recognizing the importance of the “support base” applied populist policies which made its “support base” its “policy base” as well.  Unfortunately the weaknesses that exist in the Thai system of governance allowed the “distribution of opportunities to gain access to resources” to be turned into a distribution of opportunities for corruption and personal gains.  Then people began to feel that there were widespread corruption and malfeasance from the top to bottom levels of the Government which became a rationale leading to the eventual seizure of power.

          Middle Class

          Most Thai sociologists agree that the Thai middle class who have the power to bargain about wages and prices of goods and services in the market-based economic system emerged prior to the overthrow of absolute monarchy in 1932 through their “dependence” on certain privileges accorded by the State.  Such privileges as being appointed to work as tax collectors being granted concessions or permission to conduct businesses became sources of wealth and allowed the middle class to obtain a certain level of independence from the State.  Such made their situation different from their peers in western countries who had to “fight” with the State to earn their rights freedoms and political participation and have thus cherished what they have earned under the democratic system.  For the western middle class undermining democracy means hurting the middle class and therefore could not be allowed to happen.  For them democracy is both means and ends.  For the Thai middle class however democracy is seen as one of the “options” to protect their rights and political participation.  As long as the Thai state has other options that can protect their rights and participation even if these are not democracy the Thai middle class would be ready to accept them.  As one saying goes “democracy is means to achieve ends which are peace and well-being.”

          Nevertheless the Thai middle class also share certain similarities with their western peers.  They highly value their rights freedoms and political participation and they detest corruption.  The previous Government eventually lost its power because of the waning support from the middle class.

          The political structure based on the 1997 Constitution which provided for the elections of senators precluded representatives of the middle class and the bureaucracy who had once been appointed by pre-1997 Governments to sit in the Senate and opened ways for the rural majority to elect their representatives to the Senate.  At the same time the previous Government – itself already plagued with serious weaknesses in terms of good governance – also tried to curb further the expression of the middle class through avenues outside the political structure by using business and political means including controlling both government and private media to prevent “the voice of the middle class” from getting out to the society.  Such increased restraint on the “voice” and “political participation” of the middle class both by the 1997 Constitution and by actions of the previous Government led to serious political conflict – causing the middle class to come out to “chase away” that Government.  The contention in Anek Laothamatas’ “A Tale of Two Democracies” that “the rural people form governments whereas the middle class overthrow them” once again came true.

          Military and Civilian Bureaucracy

          Thai bureaucrats have since the early days had their roles in Thai politics.  Whereas they contributed to “strengthening” the authority of the King when the King achieved total power as during the reign of King Naresuan the Great they were also ready to “compete” and “seize” power when the King’s authority declined as when absolute monarch was overthrown in 1932.

          However when Thailand became a democracy and the King a constitutional monarch the competition for and seizure of power once effected by the shift of power became ones that came through ballot boxes.  The past 17 coups d’etat successful or failed testified to this fact.  According to Chai-anan Samutvanich in Thailand “political power and state power are not the same.”  Political power belongs to the Government but state power belongs to the bureaucracy state enterprises and government agencies.  In the West those who can control political power also have complete control of state power.  Thai Governments especially weak coalition ones whose lifespan were about one year each might have only political power under its control without any real control of state power.  The military and civilian bureaucracy thus became the checks and balances mechanisms vis-à-vis the elected political parties.

          This balance of power however began to change when the previous Government being a single-party Government stayed in power for a relatively long period of five years.  Through its policy on bureaucratic reform and through the appointment and transfer of high-level military and civilian officials it made the “political power” began to take actual control of “state power”.  Then as the conflict between the middle class and the Government ripened another military intervention took place on 19 September.  When the present Government comprising largely of retired officials took office problems arose.  In addition to questions about legitimacy the culture and working methods of the bureaucracy which must strictly abide by the rules and regulations have failed to catch up with the pace of globalization which demands timely decisions in order to thrive in the highly competitive conditions.  Thus after a few months the Government’s popularity which was very high when the Prime Minister took office plunged to the point where a question arose whether time has finally come for the end of the “bureaucracy”.

          Looking Ahead

          Given that the dynamics of Thai politics depend on the four major groups in the Thai society what should be done in order to ensure that the Thai politics have stability and efficiency in creating security and well-being for the Thai people?

          In this writer’s views Thailand’s political stability and efficiency can be assured through the following ways:

          1.  The monarchy remains the main pillar of the country’s government.  The monarch remains politically neutral and strictly adheres to the Constitution and administrative customs under the democratic system as His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej has done throughout his reign.  The monarch exercises the royal prerogative as “the supreme mediator” when the country faces a crisis that political and other institutions are unable to resolve through any political means available.  There must also be a channel for the Office of His Majesty’s Principal Private Secretary to issue statements to officially dispute unfounded rumours regarding the King and the Royal Family.

          2.  The political structure in the Constitution must be designed in such a way that it can accommodate appropriately the three major political groups in the formal structure.  Then the “trinity of power” – the rural majority the urban middle class and the military and civilian bureaucracy – will be able to make their “voices” heard through formal channels and their political “participation” reflects the power relations in the Thai society.  This concept is in fact not new.  Those who study Montesquieu’s “De L’Espirt des Lois” will know that Montesquieu admired the 18th century British rule because the British society had a constitution that integrated the trinity of British institutions namely the monarch the clergy and aristocrats in the House of Lords and the commoners in the House of Commons.

          In this connection Thailand’s new Constitution which is being drafted should provide for a House of Representatives which comes from direct elections by the rural majority and from which the Government emanates.   The House of Representatives should be given more power than the Senate which should include the power to legislate approve budgets and oversee the administration of the country.  Meanwhile in order to ensure inclusion of a proportion of middle-class representatives in the Government the proportional party-list based electoral system should be maintained.  This would allow those middle class candidates who are not accustomed to running political campaigns in rural areas to sit in the House of Representatives and be part of the Government.  On the other hand the Senate should not come from direct elections as stipulated in the 1997 Constitution.  To elect senators would allow for double representation of the rural majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate and effectively preclude the other two groups of the trinity of power – the middle class and the military and civilian bureaucracy – from the political structure.  That scenario could lead to recurrence of similar conflict as already happened in the past.  Instead a new system must be devised to ensure that representatives of the middle-class from diverse occupational backgrounds as well as military and civilian bureaucrats have chances to become senators.  It is also important that senators not belong to any political parties.  In order to establish connection to and legitimacy from the people a selection process can be used before having the people vote from among those selected.  If this system is applied then the Senate may also be given additional power to remove political office holders appoint members of the independent agencies under the Constitution and propose bills.

          In addition the checks and balances system to scrutinize the work of the Government must be strengthened and made independent without undermining its effectiveness.  A clear strong and effective governance system for both the government and private sectors must be established.

          3.  The traditional Thai political culture must be adjusted towards the true culture of democracy. This change must start with the promotion of economic and social rights without governmental control to reduce the dependence of the middle class on the Government.  For poor people state-sponsored public welfare and the promotion of His Majesty King’s philosophy of sufficiency economy will help open social space for the rural poor and enable them to gain access to resources.

          With the change in the mode of production the social and cultural structure must also change.  Only then will educating democratic values and behaviours which must be done in parallel with the change of production mode be effective.  Thailand’s traditional culture of patronage was the result of the production mode and structural relationship in the economic system.  In this respect preaching democratic values alone without adjusting the production mode and social structure would amount to teaching students to memorize lessons for the final tests only.  Such knowledge would not be of use in everyday life that continues to be shaped by the old mode of production and socio-economic structure.

          In conclusion the dynamics of Thai politics is determined by two important factors: the formal structure set by the Constitution and the informal structure shaped by the political culture which has been influenced by the economic and social structure.  Reform that addresses only at the formal structure would encounter the same problem as found in the 1997 Constitution.  The challenge therefore is whether we can concurrently reform both formal and informal structures in order to achieve the balance in the relations among the four constituent groups of the Thai society and ensure sustained stability and efficiency for the Thai politics.


* paper  presented in the seminar on “The United  States – Thailand  Relationship and  Southeast  Asia” organized by the Royal Thai Embassy on  May 9-10 at  Holiday  Inn Arlington  Virginia