Giles Ji Ungpakorn
A couple of years ago it was fashionable for journalists and political commentators to try to explain the collapse of democracy in Thailand as being due to a “Succession Crisis”. The more extreme view was to predict a “Game of Thrones” war between the Prince and the Princess over who would succeed King Pumipon. Some muttered darkly that the Queen might take over. Those obsessed with military factions mapped out possible scenarios involving soldiers “belonging” to the Queen, the Princess or the Prince. The more subtle version was to say that there was “disquiet” among many Thais about what would happen when the King died. The king, so this argument went, was a “stabilising force” within Thai society.
Yet, observing Thai society today, Pumipon might as well be dead already. For some years now he has been so elderly and frail that he has not been capable of taking part in any public duties. Prayut’s military junta has not even bothered to perform the theatrics, common in previous times, of “taking orders” or consulting with the King. Today those insulting Generalissimo Prayut are now being charged with “breaking the law” as though the junta head himself was the monarch.
The mask hiding the real power in Thai society has finally slipped. Ever since the 1932 revolution that ended the absolute monarchy, the military, the business elites and the top bureaucrats have been the real power in Thailand, hiding behind a myth that the King is somehow “in charge”. This elite myth inflated the King into a god-like figure. Yet the King-God has no clothes.
The Prince is clearly set to be the next King, unless we can turn Thailand into a republic. There is no internecine war over the succession and the middle-classes and even a substantial number of Red Shirts are prepared to tolerate or even carry-on worshipping the Prince. This is despite the fact that Wachiralongkorn is a half-wit who is only interested in indulging his own whims.
The Queen is equally incapable of anything, being even frailer than the King.
There is no quarrel over succession. There is no “instability” caused by succession either.
During the entirety of Pumipon’s reign he was a weak and cowardly individual who owed his position in society to the actions of the conservative elites, especially the military. He is beholden to them and only acted when told to do so by them. The military’s obsession with using and protecting the monarchy stems from this. They are extreme royalists because, for them, being a royalist means being pro-military. Lèse majesté exists in Thailand in order to protect the un-democratic powers of the elite who masquerade as incarnations of the King.
All the political activists charged with lèse majesté in the last ten years, including myself, have primarily been critics of the military and the conservative elite’s interventions in politics against elected governments.
During the entirety of Pumipon’s reign, Thailand experienced decades of political crisis between 1973 and the mid-1980s. The present political crisis erupted in the run up to the 2006 military coup. Pumipon cannot be said to have provided any significant “peace and stability” for the Thai people. The opposite is true. He has tolerated and looked kindly upon those causing carnage in society and those who have sought to destroy democracy.
What the elites mean by “stability”, in association with the King, is really about using the King to stabilise elite power and privileges. This is why millions of Thais are holding their breath, waiting for things to get better after the King dies. But things will not get better just because of Pumipon’s death in the future.
The present Thai crisis and the authoritarian rule of the military junta, who have long out-stayed their welcome, are due to a three dimensional conflict between the unelected conservative elites who have held power under military rule or have monopolised electoral politics since 1932, and a new brand of electoral politics introduced by Taksin Shinawat’s Thai Rak Thai Party in 2001. It is a three dimensional crisis because Taksin’s policies were extremely popular with the electorate, especially the universal health care scheme and a number of pro-poor job creation projects. The majority of the population, who in reality had been totally ignored or suppressed by previous governments, found that they had a political stake in society. Taksin needed their electoral support and they relied on his government to improve their lives. Taksin’s electoral power could not be challenged by the unelected conservative elites at the ballot-box. The old elites and the middle-classes felt that they had lost out to a winning coalition between Taksin and the rural and urban working people.
It is this that explains the violent middle-class Yellow Shirt protests and the various military and judiciary coups against elected governments led by Taksin and his supporters. It is this situation that explains why the present military junta are trying to force through an undemocratic constitution in order that they and the other conservative elites can retain power in future sham elections.
Obsession with the monarchy and life after Pumipon cannot explain anything about this crisis.
[In the next few weeks I shall be publishing a critique of the “Deep State” theory which some are attempting to use to “explain” the Thai crisis. ]