Giles Ji Ungpakorn
The hypothesis that the present long-running unrest in Thailand is primarily caused by a “crisis of succession”, assumes that the Thai monarch has real power and that he has been constantly intervening in politics. That is just not the case and the real cause of the crisis lies elsewhere.
Thailand does not have an absolute monarch or North Korean-style despot in his twilight years, with factions fighting over who will be the next ruler. The Thai absolute monarchy was overthrown in the 1932 revolution, and since then, power has been shared and disputed among the military and civilian elites and the top businessmen. For much of the time between 1932 and the mid-1980s, the elites ruled by dictatorship. But this has become harder and harder to do ever since the mass uprising against the military in 1973. The reason for this is that the structure of Thai society has changed. There are more and more workers, both blue collar and white collar and the new generation of workers and farmers are more confident and educated. That is why the monarchy has become more important to the ruling class as a symbol of “natural hierarchy”, necessary to give legitimacy to those who abuse democracy and preside over a grossly un-equal society. The lèse majesté law is designed to protect the “holy relic” that serves such a useful purpose for the ruling class.
The monarch has always been weak and cowardly, a creature of the military and the elites who surround him and use him for their own ends. He was ill-prepared to become king when his older brother died in a gun accident. He was introduced to the Throne during a time when the most powerful military and police faction was led by anti-royalists who had participated in the 1932 revolution. But rivals of this faction sought to use and promote the King. They came to power during the Sarit coup in the late 1950s and the monarch was promoted as part of the anti-communist struggle during the Cold War. King Pumipon was used by the Thai military and conservative elites, together with the U.S. government, as an anti-communist symbol. He was also required to appear on TV to stop the 1973 uprising from toppling the whole old order.
Throughout his reign, Pumipon has swayed like a leaf, bending in the wind and serving as a willing tool of those who happened to be in power. He failed to prevent or solve any serious crisis. He supported the extreme right-wing leader Tanin Kraiwichien in 1976, only to see Tanin swept aside by the military a year later. He supported the 1991 military coup leader Sujinda, only to see the junta destroyed by a popular uprising. His “sufficiency Economy” ideology was taken to heart by neo-liberal conservatives because it supported the idea that the state should not help the poor. But no one took it seriously enough to think it could really be an economic strategy which could be practically applied for economic development.
The fixation by political commentators on the monarch and the royal family may be understandable, given the way the elites make the king into a deity, but we should expect a better quality of analysis.
The first question that should be asked is: why do the elites make the king into a deity and constantly reproduce this myth?
The more Thai society develops into a modern capitalist one, the more difficult it has become for the elites to rule over the population using crude authoritarian means. The Thai military can only justify its anti-democratic political meddling by promoting the monarch into a deity and then claiming to follow his “orders”. Similarly, politicians and businessmen, Taksin included, used the monarchy to increase their own “untouchable” legitimacy. Taksin’s government kicked-off the semi-compulsory wearing of yellow shirts on one day each week.
The interesting point to bear in mind is that the frenzied promotion of the King actually accelerated from the mid-1980s onwards, as the elites were forced to make more and more concessions to parliamentary democracy. It was an attempt to slow down progress and insulate elite privileges from change.
Before former Prime Minister Taksin had a falling out with the military and the conservatives, the King was also a willing supporter of his government, for example, praising his “war on drugs” where thousands were executed in an extra-judiciary manner.
For those who believe that the King is a powerful figure even today, one just has to look at reality. How can a man who has spent years in hospital or in a wheel chair and who can hardly speak, order the army to do anything?
During the recent coup, General Prayut did not even make any pretence at seeking advice and permission from the King. The old man was required to be seen “touching” the junta’s so-called constitution, but he had no other input. The junta has since upgraded the navy’s submarine capability, something which the King had opposed only recently.
So there is no absolute monarch in his final years causing a potential power vacuum.
But what about the idea that the various elite factions are really fighting about who will control the Crown Prince when he becomes king? Make no mistake; all sides have agreed that the scandal-prone and despicable prince will be the next king. To place the Princess, who has no male partner, on the throne instead, would immediately destroy all the “reinvented tradition” about the monarchy.
Controlling the Crown Prince will be very easy. He is even more cowardly, selfish and disinterested than his father. But controlling the prince doesn’t result in ownership of power. Power does not reside with the monarchy.
If the King were to die soon, and there is no guarantee that he will, nothing will change. The Crown Prince is even less capable of supporting democratic reforms than his father. But many Red Shirts seem to have ridiculous hopes pinned on this nasty idiot.
The theory of a crisis of succession is merely an elite top-down myth, which ignores the real economic and social fractures in Thai society which became clearer and clearer after the 1996 economic crisis. It writes the majority of citizens out of the picture, blinding people about the role of the Red Shirts. It is just a re-hash of the old discredited “Bureaucratic Polity” theory. It should be confined to circles that love to excite themselves with conspiracy theories.