Sections of Thailand’s youth are out on the streets of Bangkok and other cities demanding the resignation of government, the establishment of a truly democratic constitution and, most importantly, the reform of the monarchy. The monarch is to whom the Thai people have traditionally turned for comfort and stability; now, the institution itself is under scrutiny with dissatisfaction especially with the way it is currently conducting itself.
Ten points have been put forward for monarchy reform. They are as Phaholtap and Streckfuss noted in the New Mandala “strip the monarch of legal immunity, revoke the lese-majeste law and pardon all those jailed for the crime, clearly define which assets are held privately by the king, reduce tax money supporting the institution, abolish all royal offices, open all money given to royal charities to public scrutiny, forbid the monarch from expressing political opinions, cut all royalist propaganda, investigate disappearances and murders of critics of the monarchy, and outlaw royal consent to coups”. These are revolutionary demands in the Thai context.
These protests are pushing Thailand into unchartered waters. They are resurrecting doubts about the monarchy’s future which were stilled over the past few years but lurked below the surface. Even fifteen years ago when I was serving in Thailand as India’s ambassador some Thais wondered what would happen once King Bhumibol Adulyadej passed away? To appreciate what is happening in Thailand a look at its history over the past ninety years would be helpful.
Thailand was ruled under absolute monarchism until 1932. In that year, following a revolt by an influential section of the Thai elite and the emerging bourgeoise it adopted a new constitution. It retained the monarchy but restricted its powers; thus, from an absolute monarchy the country became a constitutional one under a democracy. After a few years the reigning monarch abdicated and his nine-year old nephew, Anand Mahidol, who was studying in Europe along with his younger brother Bhumibol, was made King. Meanwhile the country’s democratic government was replaced by a military dictatorship.
After the Second World War King Anand Mahidol and his brother returned to Thailand. In 1946 Anand died in mysterious circumstances of gunshot wounds. It was announced that it was an accident. Bhumibol succeeded him. He was 18 years old and still a student. While the constitutional monarchy continued Thai politics remained turbulent and mainly under military dictators whose rule was interspersed with civilian governments. These changes were accompanied with new constitutions. The King continued to be insulated from the vicissitudes of politics and the reputation of the monarchical institution was not very high in the initial years of Bhumibol’s reign though court rituals placed the monarch in almost a semi-divine position.
Bhumibol reigned for 70 years. Gradually he endeared himself to the Thai people with his impeccable conduct and dedication to their welfare. The people genuinely revered him as one who upheld the dhamma—Thailand is a Buddhist country. He did not exercise direct control over governmental policy but he gained enormous moral authority and no one in public life could dare disregard his views. He did not intervene in political processes and even sanctified coups but a slight signal from him brought about compromises among contending political and military factions. He ensured the stability of the country at a time of enormous all-round internal change and a very dynamic external environment.
By the 1990s new political forces emerged in Thailand through garnering support from its impoverished north-east as well as the north. Thaksin Shinawatra, a one-time police officer turned business tycoon was particularly successful in mobilising these regions. His party won a majority in the 2001 elections and succeeded in gaining 75% seats in parliament in the 2005 elections. His political place seemed secure but he alienated the traditional Bangkok elite with links to the palace because of the perception that he was trying to replace Bhumibol in the heart of the poor, especially in the north-east. There were also other reports his people were cavalier in their attitude towards the King.
The use of judicial processes against Thaksin weakened him but could not oust him. That was accomplished through a military coup in October 2006. He was abroad at that time. Over the next eight years the old Bangkok elite and the forces represented by Thaksin who continued to exercise great control even from outside locked horns. In elections Thaksin held his own and his sister, a surrogate for him, became prime minister. While this process was on Bhumibol had virtually gone into seclusion and was for considerable periods in hospital.
In 2014 the Thai military staged a coup under army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha. Bhumibol died in 2016 and his son crown prince Maha Vajiralongkorn succeeded him. In 2017 a new constitution was enacted which cemented the military’s role in political life through a nominated upper house, the Senate. It also contained a transitory provision which enabled the army chief to continue to lead the government as prime minister. The army always in the vanguard to support the monarchy wanted to hold power in the period of transition between Bhumibol and Vajiralongkorn. It seemed it was succeeding till a section of the youth revolted against the present system.
The 67-year-old Vajiralongkorn’s personality and conduct is very different from that of his father. He mainly lives abroad and does not have the connect with his people as his father did. As King he has been seen to be seeking direct control over Crown properties and the Palace Guards. This is an undoubted factor in the present demand for systemic change.
The Prayut government is treading warily and is summoning Parliament to discuss the current situation which is pregnant with possibilities. The Thai military is prone to come down heavily on groups challenging the monarchy. Will it do so with change in the air?