Of Kings and Protests: Thailand’s identity crisis

Of Kings and Protests: Thailand’s identity crisis

The start of 2020 saw Thailand being engulfed by a series of ongoing protests – as 2021 approaches, the state of Thailand’s political future has yet to be conclusive. Triggered by the dissolution of the pro-democracy Future Forward Party, mismanagement of the economy and increased weaponization of lese-majeste laws under the new monarch, fresh momentum for democracy swung in full force.

Since 1932, the military has been the cornerstone of Thai politics, routinely imposing authoritarian rule when it finds itself at odds with the government. At present, the military has staged 12 coups against elected governments – making undemocratic takeovers and political unrest a ‘new normal’ in Thai domestic politics. Since 2005, Thailand has witnessed 6 political crises: ranked in the 142th place in the political stability index (8th out of 10 in Southeast Asia). Until King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s death, political stability was maintained through a jostle of power within a menage-a-trois complex: the military, government and the ‘balancing’ monarchy. As such, the pivot for Thailand’s current state can be linked to the coronation of the new King Vajiralongkorn, who has shown a pro-army leaning. 

The student protesters voiced out three demands: resign, rewrite and reform. It called for the resignation of the current Prime Minister, Prayut Chan-o-Chat who seized power in the 2014 coup and was elected in 2019 under questionable legitimacy. Secondly, demands were made for revising the constitution to allow for greater democratic participation. Thirdly, and most crucially – unlike previous demonstrations, protesters are seeking reform on the powers of the monarchy. Thailand enforces one of the world’s strictest lese-majeste laws, elevating the ‘untouchable’ primacy of the monarchical institution in daily Thai life. As such, this reveals a revolutionary shift as protesters are beginning to challenge and uproot political and cultural taboos. 

The rise in Thailand’s political temperature has impacted Thailand’s economy on top of COVID-19’s effects. Thailand’s GDP growth forecast was lowered from -6.3% to -7.5%, attributing it to increased political instability, decreased tourism, weakened public sector spending on investments and the pandemic. The economic strain of the pandemic has not spared even the sacred Thai monarchy – faced with the prospects of imprisonment and government brutality, the general public has shown a determination for a top-to-bottom change — but what is the potential outlook?

Mercy A. Kuo identified three potential outcomes that may materialize in 2021 – the ‘good’, bad and ugly. The first scenario visualizes a desirable yet improbable scenario – the King intervenes on the protests’ side and agrees to reform. While it may increase the waning monarchical institution’s cultural capital, this would sacrifice the financial and political wealth of the monarch. The change in this relationship would strengthen the democratic institution by affixing royal affirmation and credibility — but the true political muscle lies within the military junta. Thus, the monarchy would have to re-navigate its relations with the military in troubled waters – losing its utility as a balancer that would potentially unravel the social fabrics of Thai society.

The second scenario envisions a military coup against the current administration, satisfying the first R in the three demands. Even if it entertains the idea of revising the constitution, this temporary remedy yields little to no political sustainability. Thailand has had 20 constitutions since 1932 – unless the integrity of the new constitution can be guaranteed, this would inevitably result in a rinse-and-repeat vicious cycle of coups and constitutions. 

The final scenario views a long-term continuation of protests and a simultaneous violent crackdown until the movement is drained of willpower. Thailand’s political future is likely to sway into this path as the administration has made it clear of its intentions to remain in power and not accommodate the protesters’ demands. 

Just as Thailand was elevated in the global democracy rankings in the start of 2020, the erosion of civil liberties under the current regime is taking the nation’s course down the democratic slide. Fed up Thais, predominantly the youth are politically charged, seeking to mobilise social media and technology to their advantage – something that was absent in previous protests in the early 2000s. Running to the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring, the intensity of the Thai youth have thrown up a new inertia to defy intimidation and lethal consequences for political freedom. Nonetheless, the deep-rooted cultural prominence of the monarchy and the consolidation of power in the hands of the military elite echoes a bleak future for a new Thailand. 

This will be a democratic project in a long-haul, with many obstacles – the appetite however, is there and ready to stay.  

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