Monday, June 8, 2015

Thailand haunted by the ghost of absolutism


In place of the democratically-elected government, the junta invoked Article 44 of the provisional constitution its lawyers had drafted following the coup. The sweeping powers of Article 44 confers General Prayut Chan-ocha and the National Council for Peace and Order with absolute power — even if the actual use of the powers allowed under the article is circumscribed by political realities. Under martial law the actions of the regime were at least subject to the military courts. Now there is no legal oversight whatsoever. Thailand has reverted to an absolutist state.

Within weeks of receiving royal endorsement to use Article 44, the junta-appointed Constitutional Drafting Committee released the draft constitution, which the military regime requires to be in place before new elections can be held. As expected, the new constitution has been designed with the sole aim of weakening the role of elected politicians, political parties, and the National Assembly, in favour of unelected bureaucrats or kha ratchakan (servants of the king).

Since political meetings giving the public the opportunity to discuss and debate the draft constitution are prohibited by the dictatorship the reaction has been muted. But even the military’s own allies, the conservative Democrat Party, have publically expressed reservations about the constitution, suggesting that its adoption may be problematic. Pre-empting opposition to the charter the military has warned that if a redrafting process is required Thailand’s return to ‘democratic’ rule will be delayed even further.

The essence of the political conflict remains unchanged since it began in late 2005, when a movement backed by Thailand’s conservative elite ousted the elected government of the popular Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Today, a power bloc — consisting of the military, the bureaucracy, and Sino–Thai banking and industry, given political legitimacy and ideological unity by the monarchy — continues its struggle to preserve its political supremacy. This power bloc is threatened by the politicisation of Thailand’s rural and urban working classes — whose political potential Thaksin was the first to recognise and exploit.

The power bloc wages this struggle in ideological terms in the name of ‘reform’. But what is endlessly debated in the pro-establishment media and by conservative intellectuals as a moral issue — how to solve the problem of corrupt politicians, vote-buying, ignorant voters — is in reality a political issue: how to accommodate the entry of millions of Thai citizens into Thailand’s political process. The draft constitution’s oft-stated desire to rid Thai politics of the former is really an attempt to block the latter.

In the same way, the chronic hysteria surrounding the future of the monarchy can be understood as a gauge of the level of fear that the power bloc feels about its political future, especially with the imminent passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and uncertainty surrounding the succession. As many observers of Thailand’s politics have argued, the succession has been a factor in the conservative political backlash of the last decade.

But the reversion to absolute rule under the current military regime could not have been possible without a culture of absolutism that was revived by the Thai state during the reign of King Bhumibol. The monarchy — since its return to political significance in the late 1950s, after it came close to abolition in the 1930s and 1940s — has kept alive the dream of absolute rule by the morally virtuous, a powerful Buddhist idea which dates from the days of the absolute monarchy.

This culture of absolutism pervades the senior levels of the military, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the Buddhist Sangha, and all levels of Thailand’s education system. In its schools and mass media Thailand’s democratic history has been largely erased or heavily censored. Democracy is a gift bestowed on subjects by the Thai kings, to be given or taken away when necessary. Royalist constitutional lawyer and chair of the Constitutional Drafting Committee, Bowornsak Uwanno, argues that Thailand differs from other countries in that sovereignty is shared between the people and the monarch, but — after a coup — sovereignty reverts back to the king.

As a result, in Thailand the principle of citizenship is exceedingly weak. Normative models of good manners are based on the servile courtier. The Buddhist doctrine of kamma — which has arguably been revived under the present reign — subtly justifies and naturalises social inequality. Notions of the political and legal equality of Thai citizens are correspondingly undeveloped. As in all dictatorships, key political terms like ‘democracy’ are emptied of any meaning, but instead are mobilised purely for the political ends of the regime.

Eight decades after the overthrow of the absolute monarchy, Thailand remains haunted by the ghost of absolutism.

Dr Patrick Jory is a Senior Lecturer in Southeast Asian History at the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry at the University of Queensland.


  1. The paradox of resurgent absolutism and the abolition of Thailand’s martial law
    Thailand’s coup after the political stand-off last year is just over a year old. As predicted, the aftermath of the coup saw the growth rate of Southeast Asia’s second largest economy slashed by more than half with growth this year running at around 3 per cent, compared with its past and potential rate of growth around or above 6.5 per cent.
    Superficially the economy looks as if it’s in better shape than it was last year when there was a sharp initial contraction in GDP. There is calm on the streets after the protests that surrounded the coup. Income growth is at least up at 3 per cent. Business is more confident and tourism is back up. Real private investment is rising moderately. But these economic data are hardly reassuring. Both output growth and tourism levels are still less than half their pre-coup levels. Private investment is well below its peak and consumer sentiment is weak. The economy remains fragile and there is little prospect of a strong recovery without resolution of the ongoing political crisis.

  2. The secret of Thailand’s past growth has been its open, flexible and globally connected economy — a thriving hub of production networks that enhance regional productivity and efficiency. Thailand has been at the centre of efforts to regionalise the ASEAN market and was in a position to take most advantage of the regional opportunity. Not only do political troubles and the coup pose the usual issues of international investor confidence for Thailand itself, but they have also raised questions about the regime’s ability and commitment to follow through on the ASEAN Economic Community undertaking.
    Martial law, imposed last May, has been a major source of Thailand’s international economic and diplomatic problems over the past year. Although tourist arrivals have held up, the geographic structure of Thailand’s tourist intake has changed considerably, away from Western tourists towards tourism from other East Asian nations. US and European dealings with Thailand across the board are on notice and that continues to put a dampener on Thailand’s internationally-oriented economic expansion.

  3. Hence, doing away with martial law became a priority for coup leader and self-appointed Prime Minister, General Prayuth Chan-ocha — as a path to lifting international business confidence in the Thai economy and enabling Western tourists to once again obtain travel insurance and favourable advisory notices from their governments.
    Last month’s abolition of martial law has superficially made it easier for the private sector and foreign stakeholders to deal with each other. And democratic governments in the West and elsewhere will, in principle, find it easier to deal with the government of Thailand. Martial law is antithetical to democratic institutions and protections. It invokes human rights violations and automatic opprobrium in the international community. So its abolition on 1 April was welcomed as a step towards constitutional reform and the eventual installation of a democratically elected government in Bangkok.

  4. Yet, as our lead essays this week from Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Pavin Chachavalpongpun and Patrick Jory warn, the military-led government’s invocation of Article 44 of the interim constitution to replace martial law might be cause for a very short-lived celebration. For starters, the controversial article vests complete power and authority in Prayut Chan-ocha in his capacity as head of the National Council for Peace and Order, the junta that has governed through martial law for over 10 months so far. So what we have in effect is the replacement of martial law by Prayut’s absolute authority, as some might argue, a return to very long run normal.
    ‘Article 44 depoliticises draconian rule in the eyes of the international community but further consolidates and personalises it at home under Prayut’, Thitinan explains. ‘It is designed to indicate that Thailand’s conflict is more about Thais than foreigners. Not since the Cold War has Thailand experienced this sort of absolute rule under one individual’.
    When it took control, the army initially promised that elections could be held by October 2015, later pushed back to early 2016. Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Kreangam announced recently that the polls would not now be held until August 2016 at the earliest.

  5. ‘Within weeks of receiving royal endorsement to use Article 44′, Jory notes, ‘the junta-appointed Constitutional Drafting Committee released the draft constitution, which the military regime requires to be in place before new elections can be held… a Constitution … designed with the sole aim of weakening the role of elected politicians, political parties, and the National Assembly, in favour of unelected bureaucrats or kha ratchakan (servants of the king)’.
    Article 44, as Thitinan points out, is complicated and sophisticated, involving fine print and levels of interpretation which some foreign capitals will be unprepared to digest when they work their way through it. Washington is clearly less than impressed with Bangkok’s chosen path to ‘democracy’ despite its desire to rein Thailand in from its tilt towards Beijing. The immobilisation of relations with Washington and the limits that puts on Washington’s influence upon the emerging regional order is just one side-consequence of developments in the Thai polity.
    The era of King Bhumibol’s authority is coming to an end. His looming departure, Pavin points out, ‘has elevated anxiety levels among the traditional elites, of which the military is a part. This has driven the military to intervene in politics at this critical period’, as it tries to manage the royal succession and defend the interests of the old elites. It aims to ensure that the political infrastructure it leaves behind can be used to maintain the military’s political position.

  6. ‘The royal family itself is not innocent in this outcome’, Nicholas Farrelly has argued. ‘During the twilight of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s unprecedented almost seventy-year reign, at a time when the institution needed to unite the people, it has taken sides in an unbecoming battle for political dominance — and democratic voices identify palace aides as their enemies’.
    If things go badly wrong, Thailand — one of the most successful societies in Asia and comfortable with its positive international and regional standing — could topple further from its perch.
    Peter Drysdale is Editor of the East Asia Forum.