Giles Ji Ungpakorn
Thailand was well integrated into the world market in the 1930s and as a result of this, suffered the effects of the 1930s economic depression. The political fall-out from this was that a group of civilian and military state officials, under Pridi Panomyong’s Peoples’ Party, staged a revolution which overthrew the absolute monarchy of Rama VII in 1932. The first declaration of the revolutionaries clearly identified the economic crisis as bringing things to a head, with mass unemployment, cuts in wages and increased taxation experienced by the mass of the population. The Royal Family was notably exempted from these tax increases!
The 1932 revolution was carried out on the back of widespread social discontent. Farmers in rural areas were becoming increasingly bold and strident in their written criticism of the monarchy. Working class activists were involved in the revolution itself, although they were not the main actors, and cheering crowds spontaneously lined Rachadamnern Avenue as the Peoples’ Party declaration was read out by various representatives stationed along the road. The landmark work of Thammasart historian Nakarin Mektrairat details this wide movement of social forces which eventually lead to the revolution. It is important to stress the role of different social groups in creating the conditions for the 1932 revolution, since the right-wing historians have claimed that it was the work of a “handful of foreign educated bureaucrats”. In fact, there has been a consistent attempt by the right, both inside and outside Thailand, to claim that ordinary Thai people have a culture of respecting authority and therefore show little interest in politics.
The 1932 revolution had the effect of further modernising the state and expanding the base of the Thai capitalist ruling class to include the top members of the civilian and military bureaucracy, especially the military. The reason why the military became so influential in Thai politics, finally resulting in 16 years of uninterrupted military dictatorship from 1957, was that the left-wing revolutionary leader, Pridi Panomyong, failed to grasp the need to build a mass political party, choosing instead to rely on the military. In addition to this, the working class was still weak in terms of social forces which could oppose the military. Nonetheless, it would be quite wrong to conclude that class struggle was non-existent.
Pridi wrote the first declaration of the Peoples’ Party, which was strongly anti-monarchy. He also drafted an economic policy paper which set out plans for the nationalisation of land, a super tax on the rich and a welfare state. Yet Pridi’s weakness meant that the economic plan was shelved and compromises were made with the conservatives about the role of the monarchy.
Never the less, the 1932 revolution meant that the role of the monarchy was significantly changed for the second time in less than a century. In the 1870s King Rama V abolished Sakdina rule in favour of a centralised and modern absolute monarchy. Sixty years later, the 1932 revolution destroyed this absolute monarchy so that the king merely became one weak and powerless member of the Thai ruling class. This is the situation today. It is important to understand this, because there has been a tendency by both the left and the right to exaggerate the importance of “long-lasting traditions” about the Thai monarchy. Todays’ monarchy may seem to have the trappings of a “traditional” king, especially to those observers who see the degree to which King Rama IX was revered among huge sections of the population. Yet the influence of this institution has fluctuated over the last sixty years and the “sacredness” of the monarchy has in fact been manufactured by military and civilian rulers to provide themselves with political legitimacy.