Giles Ji Ungpakorn
The recent incident where Taksin’s Thai Raksa Chart party nominated Princess Ubonrut as a candidate for Prime Minister, only to be rebuffed by King Wachiralongkorn, has caused a frenzy among elite and conspiracy theorists. Foreign journalists and academics have been desperately trying to pick over the entrails of the events to look for omens. This is reminiscent of the behaviour of oracles in ancient Rome or Greece. Articles in a whole range of media publications, ranging from the New York Times to the South China Morning Post have regurgitated this nonsense. Thai politics, in the eyes of these academics and Western journalists, is quintessentially different and exotic. The most striking aspect that these commentators wish to emphasise is the supposed “child-like” and “ineffectual” nature of ordinary people in regard to Thai politics. For them, only the juicy drama of the elites really matters.
This elitist attitude was emphasised to me by a debate I had on social media with a couple of expats working in Thailand. At least one works for a media company. They basically told me that Thais “cannot think for themselves because they are denied a decent education.”
This elitist view has a long history.
In the 1960s David Wilson wrote that the 1932 revolution was merely a dispute among the elites with little popular participation. John Girling repeated this claim in his 1980s book. This view was repeated by David Morell and Chai-anan Samudavanija. Yet there is much research that shows the key involvement of ordinary people in this event.
The daddy of this right-wing elitist view was Fred Riggs, who claimed in the 1960s that Thailand was a “Bureaucratic Polity”, where politics was the exclusive preserve of the elites and totally immune from class struggle or participation from below. This became the political science bible for many conservative Thai academics.
Political Science in Thailand, up to the early 1990s, was dominated by these right wing ideas from the USA. Most mainstream academics agreed with the Structural Functionalist School of democratization. The main ideas were about building “stability” and “social norms”. The emphasis was on crafting democracy from above by enlightened academics. The “people” had to be “educated” to understand democracy. Organisations like the King Prachatipok Institute, named after Thailand’s last absolutist king, took it upon themselves to craft Thai Democracy and educate the people. Today, the Thai military junta and its supporters have maintained the need to “educate” Thai people in democracy!
Academic Thinapan Nakata wrote in 1987 that “Most Thais prefer use of absolute power. They are obedient and submissive.” My former boss at Chulalongkorn University, Suchit Bunbongkarn wrote in the same year that Thais have a “non-participatory political culture”. His aristocratic colleague Prudhisan Jumbala also wrote that “Labour associations are all created at the impetus of the bureaucracy”. I am not sure that Prudhisan had ever met an active Thai trade unionist!
In terms of how to relate to the Thai military regime, the views about democratisation among mainstream officials and politicians close to Western governments are heavily influenced by right-wing “comparative politics” theories associated with academics like Guillermo O’Donnell. For these people, democratic transition is all about the behaviour of elite factions and how they manage a stable transition to so-called democracy. They are blind to and terrified of the prospect of mass movements of the working class and the poor rising up to overthrow authoritarian regimes.
This elitist narrative lives on. In his book The King Never Smiles, Paul Handley recycled the ideas of Fred Riggs by claiming that the entire political process in Thailand since the Second World War was determined by King Pumipon, claiming that Sarit was just Pumipon’s puppet. The exact opposite was the case. Sarit and his military allies were responsible for promoting Pumipon and he was grateful and beholden to them. Handley also stated that ordinary Thai people, especially those living in the countryside, are blissfully ignorant of political events. He claimed that when Pumipon became king most Thais were uneducated, did not understand the concept of a modern state and were happy for the king to do everything for them. In fact Pumipon did very little and had no power. Handley also claimed that the 14th October 1973 uprising, when half a million students, workers and ordinary citizens drove out a military junta, was just the work of Pumipon and his advisors. Finally, Handley claimed that the 19th September 2006 coup against Taksin took place because the Palace and the military did not want Taksin to promote Wachiralongkorn as the next king over his sister Princess Sirintorn. This final statement is rather ironic in the light of recent events.
Duncan McCargo sought to explain the war in Patani and the political crisis involving various coups against Taksin’s party by claiming that it was just an elite dispute between “network monarchy” and “network Taksin”. The genuine sense of injustice felt by the Malay Muslim population of Patani or the activism of millions of Red Shirts was just written out of the plot.
In fact there is ample evidence that the crisis had deep-rooted structural causes and involved the building of the largest pro-democracy social movement in Thailand’s history. [See http://bit.ly/2bSpoF2 ]. There are also many accounts of how the struggles of ordinary people have shaped events throughout Thailand’s recent history. The writings by Katherine Bowie, Kevin Hewison, Somchai Pataratananun, Andrew Walker, Mary Beth Mills, and Bruce Missingham come to mind. [See also https://bit.ly/2SyK7ok and http://bit.ly/1TdKKYs ].
More recently the view that the elites monopolise Thai politics to the exclusion of ordinary citizens has been reproduced again by Andrew MacGregor Marshall. Eugénie Mérieau’s analysis in her paper on the “Deep State” also comes from this elite tradition. Most recently, after the events involving Ubonrut, Mérieau characterised the military junta as a military dictatorship under royal absolutist command. What is different for MacGregor Marshall and Mérieau is that unlike Riggs and the other right-wing writers, they genuinely wish to see an end to dictatorship and the building of democracy. However, their analysis is incorrect and an obstacle to this. [See https://bit.ly/2EOjsNL ].
Apart from totally ignoring the social movements, actions by ordinary citizens and the excitement among Thais generated by new political parties in the run up to the elections, the power of Wachiralongkorn is grossly exaggerated by MacGregor Marshall and Mérieau. [See https://bit.ly/2teiOzQ and https://bit.ly/2oppTvb ].
Power is not something which people can inherit in a passive manner. If Wachiralongkorn is now an “absolute monarch”, when did he rise to power by destroying his political opponents? Who was in charge during the 5 or 6 years when his father Pumipon was incapacitated and dying? Given that tyrants often get deposed when travelling abroad, why would Wachiralongkorn wish to spend most of his time living in Germany if he had ambitions to become an absolute ruler?
The nomination of Ubonrut by Taksin, was just a pathetic attempt to bargain with the military by claiming that he had a “sacred amulet” equal to the power of the military dictatorship. The power of Taksin’s sacred amulet was soon exposed to be nonsense within hours. [See https://bit.ly/2SHQrZW]. Taksin was using the princess, just like the military and the elites have used Pumipon in the past and are now using Wachiralongkorn. The elitist and conspiracy theorists totally ignored the fact that Taksin’s move had nothing to do with expanding and developing democracy, something which ordinary Thais have achieved in the past.
The real issues for most Thai citizens, as we approach Paryut’s flawed elections in a few days’ time, is how to dismantle the legacy of the military dictatorship and how to build a free and just society. No study of royal entrails will give any guidance for those seeking to carry out this immensely important task.
 David Wilson (1962) Politics in Thailand. Cornell University Press.
 John Girling (1981) Thailand. Society and politics. Cornell University Press, USA.
 David Morell & Chai-anan Samudavanija (1981) Political conflict in Thailand: reform, reaction and revolution. Oelgeschlager, Gunn & Hain.
 Fred Riggs (1966) Thailand. The modernisation of a Bureaucratic Polity. East West Press.
 Gabriel Almond & Bingham Powell (1966) Comparative Politics: a Developmental Approach. Little Brown, Boston. Gabriel Almond & Sidney Verba (1963) The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Princeton University Press. Lucian Pye & Sidney Verba (1965) Political Culture and Political Development. Princeton University Press.
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 Paul Handley (2006) “What the Thai Coup was really about” 06 November 2006 Asia Sentinel website.
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 Katherine Bowie (1997) Rituals of national loyalty. Columbia.
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 Bruce Missingham (2003) The Assembly of the Poor in Thailand. Silkworm Books.
 Andrew MacGregor Marshall (2014) “A Kingdom in Crisis”. Zed Press.
 Eugénie Mérieau (2016) “Thailand’s Deep State, Royal Power and the Constitutional Court (1997–2015).” Journal of Contemporary Asia 46(3).