Thailand’s Dangerous Interregnum
By Pavin Chachavalpongpun, Diplomat 29/6/18
Jun 29, 2018 - 11:04:58 AM

These are the days when an old system refuses to die and a new system isn't ready to be born.

Dark clouds have been hanging over Thailand’s politics for more than a decade now, unleashing a series of crises that have seriously impaired the future of Thai democracy. In 2005, the yellow-shirt People Alliance for Democracy (PAD) launched its months-long protests against Thaksin Shinawatra, then-prime minister of the Thai Rak Thai Party. The PAD accused Thaksin of corruption, and more damagingly, of disrespecting the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej. At the crux of the problem lay the apprehension among the royal political network concerning the rise of Thaksin, who threatened to replace the old political order with his own. Finally, a coup took place in 2006 overthrowing Thaksin and ultimately driving him out of the country. Thaksin is now living in self-exile in Dubai.

On the surface, it appears that the royal political network had won this political tussle. But the return of the Shinawatras to politics in 2011 showed that the war between the old and the new political classes was far from over. In 2011, Yingluck, Thaksin’s sister, triumphed in a landslide election, becoming the first female prime minister of Thailand. The Shinawatras had impressively succeeded in every election from 2001 to 2011. The repeated successes of Thaksin and Yingluck coincided with the flagging power of the Thai monarchy. Thus, as the royal transition approached, the royal political network sought to eliminate its enemies once more in a coup. Removing Yingluck from power in 2014 was a part of the elites’ effort to manage the royal succession to maintain their political advantages. Evidently, the Shinawatras continued to be perceived as a threat to the royal political network’s privileged position in power.

For decades, the royal political network had firmly exercised its domination of Thai politics. The abolition of absolute monarchy in Siam – which would later be renamed Thailand – in 1932, at first weakened the political status of the king. But with the enthronement of Bhumibol in 1946, the glory days of the Thai monarchy were gradually resurrected, made possible through the construction of a new political alliance between the monarchy and the military. Bhumibol worked with military despots to re-establish the political legitimacy of the monarchy. In return, defending the monarchy became a paramount undertaking for the military, as well as a crutch to justify its role in politics.

The Cold War played its part in enhancing the Thai monarchy-military nexus. Thailand openly aligned itself with the so-called free world led by the United States. Together, Thailand and the U.S. found common enemies in the form of communists. The communist menace, externally from Indochina and internally from the Communist Party of Thailand, put forward a context in which successive authoritarian regimes were allowed to thrive, with staunch support from the United States. Thai dictatorship was nurtured in the name of defending the Thai nation and the monarchy from the predatory communists.

Royal Political Hegemony

The Cold War came to an end in the late 1980s. However, the dominant place of the monarchy and military in politics lingered. The 1980s-1990s witnessed the culmination of royal political hegemony in Thailand. The advent of the Prem Tinsulanonda government in 1980 entrenched royal power in the Thai political domain. Prem, a former army chief, was handpicked to serve as prime minister by Bhumibol. During the Prem era, the royal political network emerged as the country’s most important political clique, controlling the army, the judiciary, as well as the bureaucracy. Known as “network monarchy,” this political clique domineeringly pulled the political strings from behind the scenes. Prem was regarded as the “CEO” of the royal political network, which placed King Bhumibol at the top of the political structure in Thailand.

When Prem stepped down from the premiership in 1988, Bhumibol appointed him president of the Privy Council, a position which he continues to occupy. It could be said that the Privy Council became a forceful engine that propelled the royal political network forward. With immense influence on military reshuffles, it created a loyal web of military strongmen to serve as unwavering defenders of the monarchy. In many ways, the system permitted the military to deepen its roots in politics. Defense became the exclusive affair of the military; civilian governments held little sway. Unquestionably, the Privy Council also acted as a glue further cementing the ties between the monarchy and the military.

Three years after the Prem premiership, the military staged a coup, in 1991, toppling the government of Chatichai Choonhavan, the first democratically elected government in 12 years. Among the charges against him was corruption. Chatichai was accused of presiding over a “buffet cabinet,” a ministerial lineup whose excesses and corruption instigated a military coup. Viewed in this way, the military’s intervention in politics appeared driven by morality.

But a year later, in May 1992, when General Suchinda Kraprayoon, a coup leader, took the premiership, it stirred resentment among the Thai middle class. Thousands took to the streets of Bangkok to voice protest against Suchinda’s apparent political ambitions. The demonstrations ended tragically with brutal crackdowns against the people at the hands of the army – an incident infamously known as Black May. King Bhumibol brought the bloodshed to an end by summoning the prime minister and the leader of the protesters. Broadcast live on national television, the meeting at the palace ultimately became a historic event that illustrated the pinnacle of Bhumibol’s political authority. The footage of the two opposing parties, prostrating in front of the king and queen of Thailand, was imprinted in Thai minds. King Bhumibol successfully secured the status of a “stabilizing force” in the sometimes violent realm of Thai politics.

But the intensifying royal hegemony suggests that Thai politics had been somewhat trapped in the Cold War, even though the Cold War had already come to an end. It was trapped partly because the two fundamental institutions in Thailand continued to operate as if time has stood still and Thailand with it. In reality, the Thai economic and social landscape had changed tremendously even prior to the end of the Cold War. Although Black May had elevated the moral authority of the king, in its aftermath a wave of democratization hit the country, opening the door for real political reforms. This led to the writing of the 1997 constitution, dubbed “the people’s constitution,” and marked another milestone in Thailand’s political development.

It was this political and economic shift that permitted a new breed of politicians, in this case Thaksin, to confidently stroll into Thai politics. The modernization of the economy, the expansion of the middle class, particularly in once-marginalized regions, and the new wave of democratization came to define Thai politics. It was this period in which elective institutions and non-elective institutions were fiercely at loggerheads regarding the question of Thailand’s political order.

In Memory of Antonio Gramsci

Thaksin, from 2001, drastically transformed Thai politics, from a sphere dominated by the benevolence of the king through the network monarchy, to one shaped by the participatory representation doctrine. It is true that Thaksin lured his supporters with attractive populist policies, from cheap universal healthcare to a debt moratorium for farmers, which enabled residents from far-flung provinces to afford the lifestyle trappings long enjoyed by Bangkok dwellers. Despite the flaws of his populism, Thaksin handed his supporters a sense of political belonging. He remolded Thai politics into an arena that championed the electoral process. From then on, voters felt they were able to elect representatives who would work in their interests. In other words, not only did Thaksin provide greater access to economic resources among his supporters, he also offered them a ladder to climb to the top of the political tower jealously sheltered by the royal political network.

The political shift continued into the Yingluck period. By this time, the deteriorating health of Bhumibol brought about a rapid dwindling of his political prerogative. Bhumibol finally passed away in October 2016, bringing an end to his 70 years on the throne. But the prospect of Thailand being ruled by a new unpopular king was daunting. While Bhumibol was able to safeguard the political benefits of the elitist class, his son, now King Vajiralongkorn, seemed unlikely to be able to guarantee the same. Anxiety among members of the royal political network reached a peak. Thailand arrived at a critical juncture where the monarchy was no longer in a position to guarantee political stability, but a new political model is not fully developed. This condition represents the heart of the Thai crisis that has spanned over the last decade.

Almost a hundred years ago, Italian Marxist philosopher and politician Antonio Gramsci asserted, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” During this period, the “interregnum,” as Gramsci put it, society could experience myriad problems derived from a great anxiety regarding a possible shift of the status quo. In ancient times, an interregnum signified a time lag between the death of a royal sovereign and the enthronement of a new one. The royal succession most inevitably brought about an interruption in the continuity of government, law, economy, social order, as well as the people’s faith. Coping with discontinuity in the political and social order, the Romans enacted a law legalizing a proclamation of justitium, a temporary suspension of laws previously binding while anticipating new and different laws being written and put in effect.

Not long before Gramsci’s idea of a chaotic interregnum emerged to form a political concept, Russia went through a seismic revolution in 1917. Centuries of absolute monarchy under the Romanov dynasty came to an end. Czar Nicholas II and his entire family were executed in cold blood. Vladimir Lenin explained his revolution as a thrust to severely disrupt a political system in which the rulers still wanted to rule but their subjects no longer wished to be ruled. But Gramsci’s concept of an interregnum elucidated further into a situation whereby the old social order lost its grip and was no longer authoritative, and at the same time, a new social order either had not yet been designed or was too weak to ensure a functioning society. In this interregnum, the political space could become anarchic. In some cases, violence could erupt.

The protracted Thai crisis, as some have noted, is a reflection of Gramsci’s concept. To be more specific, the current royal transition exposes a dangerous interregnum in which the political system of the past, imbued within the institutionalization of Bhumibol as the ultimate source of political legitimacy above elective institutions, has come to an end. Meanwhile, a new political system, spearheaded by alternative political forces, like that of the Shinawatras, has remained unborn. From the coups of 2006 and 2014, through the official end of the Bhumibol reign in 2016, Thailand has been entangled in an interregnum. In this precarious moment, the guardians of the old regime have fiercely resisted change. Meanwhile, the new monarch is lacking in moral authority. The royal political network is only able to hold onto power through tanks, a loyal army, and a politicized judiciary. But Thai political undercurrents are simmering and angry crowds are multiplying. The interregnum has produced a legitimacy crisis for both the outgoing regime and the unborn one.

The Wobbly Vajiralongkorn Reign

Vajiralongkorn ascended the throne in December 2016. His enthronement finally put to rest numerous rumors about the the royal succession. The more popular Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn was cheered by the majority of royalists due to her resemblance to Bhumibol. The choice of Sirindhorn would largely have been welcomed as it would have provided a cushion against any undesirable impacts caused by the royal succession.

But the reality is that there was no war between Vajiralongkorn and Sirindhorn. In fact, Vajiralongkorn had already taken charge of the royal court even prior to the death of his father. For example, he removed those working under Bhumibol and replaced them with his own trusted men. In other words, the new order within the palace was already installed by Vajiralongkorn in preparation for his kingship. Other steps taken by Vajiralongkorn included the augmentation of royal power and the intensification of his political role. Although he has kept Prem as the president of the Privy Council, the institution has been markedly debilitated. As a result, the king has become more directly involved in politics, instead of acting through a proxy as Bhumibol had done.

Vajiralongkorn also requested that the new constitution be amended, primarily to free himself from certain obligations on the one hand, and to centralize power on the other hand. The king can now rule the kingdom from Munich, Germany, his usual residence, without having to appoint a regent to sit back in Thailand. Meanwhile, he has taken full control of the Crown Property Bureau, making it known to the public that crown property is entirely under his possession.

But the new order under Vajiralongkorn has gone far beyond normal legal boundaries. A climate of fear has proliferated. Vajiralongkorn has resorted to intimidation to undermine his nemeses. Three of his close aides died mysteriously while under detention. They had been accused of embezzlement from a royal project sponsored by Vajiralongkorn to honor the birthday of his mother, Queen Sirikit. Hence, they were charged with lèse-majesté, the crime of injury to royalty which is defined by Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code. It states that defamatory, insulting, or threatening comments about the king, queen, and regent are punishable by three to 15 years in prison. Cases of lèse-majesté have reached a critical level. It has become a discursive political tool used to silence critics of the royal family.

Having a king lacking in moral authority, however, does not necessarily diminish the allegiance of royalists in Thailand. They may be anxious about the new reign. They may dislike their monarch and his eccentric lifestyle. But they have immense vested interests in the monarchy. The existence of the monarchy is equivalent to the existence of their political and economic well-being. The royal political network would wither should Vajiralongkorn no longer have support from the royalists. This explains why supporters of the monarchy, of which the junta is a part, continue to adopt a pro-monarchy line in order to buttress their privileges in politics. It also explains why they have desperately attempted to shore up the old political order while thwarting the new one from emerging.

In 2018, four years after the coup, such desperate attempts are increasingly visible. The junta has postponed elections multiple times. As of now, nobody is certain if the elections will be held at the beginning of 2019 as promised by the junta. The constitution, written by pro-junta committees, will be promulgated but will pose a great challenge to future elected governments.

Vajiralongkorn has opted for a long stay in Munich. His home away is considered as a provision of breathing space for the military government in Bangkok to operate without close oversight from the king. Members of the Bangkok middle class, mostly aligning themselves with the royal political network, after calling for a coup against Yingluck, are now obliged to guard their unified stance against a new political order. In so doing, relying on extra-constitutional institutions, namely the monarchy and the military, to safeguard their political assets remains imperative. At the same time, this tactic inevitably drives them into conflict with rural residents who are anticipating the birth of a new kind of political order.

This situation further deepens the polarization of politics, more than a decade after color-coded politics held the political realm hostage. For more than a decade now too, identity politics, yellow versus red, has been responsible in part for an entrenched division among Thais based on their seemingly irreconcilable political ideologies.

A New Round of Violence?

Miles away from the capital, the north and northeast regions of Thailand are still desolately searching for a new social contract through which they could claim a fairer share of political resources, once generously offered to them by Thaksin. The old political paradigm scarcely offered them political benefits; it thus became unwanted. But neither Thaksin nor Yingluck, still their saviors, will return home anytime soon. Indeed, the prospect of the Shinawatras coming home is slim given that their image as a threat to elites has not subsided.

Recently stepping into the political limelight, billionaire-turned-politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a vice CEO of the global conglomerate Thai Summit Group, is seen as a ray of hope in a gloomy political arena. Riding on a pro-democracy agenda, his newly founded party, Future Forward, has assigned for itself the arduous mission of depoliticizing the military. Modernizing Thailand is a key goal of the Future Forward Party, but Thanathorn must bear in mind that modernity is an enemy of tradition. The royal political network has functioned, and thus has survived several decades, based on a set of traditional values. When a member of Thanathorn’s party proposed an amendment to the lèse-majesté law, the party was swiftly accused of lèse-majesté. Eventually, to survive, it will likely need to tone down anything that could be interpreted as anti-monarchist sentiments.

So, where does Thailand go from here? Will the upcoming elections mean anything for the country? The answers to these pertinent questions are not for the lighthearted. In this dangerous interregnum, an old system refuses to die. The refusal is often accompanied by ruthless measures to eliminate political enemies. The Shinawatra siblings are currently fugitives. Pro-democracy activists inside Thailand have been locked up from time to time. Politicians are not allowed to communicate with voters.

Elections, if they are to happen, may not deliver a genuine democratic regime. Certain clauses in the constitution are written to deny influential parties, like that of Thaksin, the ability to gain a parliamentary majority. In the post-election period, one can expect a weak coalition government subservient to interventions from the royal political network. This phenomenon is not uncommon. A multi-party coalition was a known characteristic of Thai politics in the past. In this way, elections will not lead the way out of the country’s current political problems.

In the meantime, palace politics is not any less complicated and unpredictable. Queen Sirikit is bedbound. Should she pass away, Thailand will fall into a prolonged mourning period. Elections could be postponed once again. The official coronation of Vajiralongkorn will be organized. But for now, the palace has not yet fixed the date. A royal wedding will soon follow. The question of who will be the future queen has already cast a long shadow over the troubled reign of Vajiralongkorn. Members of public are not free to discuss these events, even those that will undoubtedly cause a huge impact on their lives. Since the Thai monarchy cannot be separated from politics, developments within the walls of the palace matter greatly to Thais.

Thailand has come a long way from its political revolution in 1932. Looking closely however, the progress of Thai democracy has inched forward at a snail’s pace. The royal political network, popularized by King Bhumibol, is facing its demise. Nevertheless, the monarchy’s defenders are in denial of declining royal power. They are also in denial of the emerging political order yearned for by the majority of Thais. In this volatile royal transitional period, upholding political power becomes exceedingly important for the royal political network. Violence may ensue. An intriguing question is if so, when?

Source: Ocnus.net 2018