Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

The Irony of Democratization and the Decline of Royal Hegemony in Thailand

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

The Irony of Democratization and the Decline of Royal Hegemony in Thailand

Article excerpt

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I learned about the May 22, 2014 coup d'état by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) under the leadership of the then commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Army, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, the day it occurred. I was at a workshop comparing recent political developments and protests in Turkey and Thailand at the London School of Economics. The first thing that came to mind when I heard the news was a sentence I had come across long ago in my reading of Marx's writings on the state, in the preface to the second edition of his celebrated work on Louis Bonaparte's coup, dated 1869 (1974, 144):

I show how, on the contrary, the class struggle in France created circumstances and conditions which allowed a mediocre and grotesque individual to play the hero's role.

It struck me as an apt portrayal of the gist of the political crisis that had been plaguing Thailand for the past decade, namely, a mutually dissipating and destructive, protracted class conflict that had aggravatingly undermined its governing institutions and political civility, leading occasionally to partial state failures and anarchy in its administrative and business centers. With that class conflict reaching yet another impasse and stalemate in 2014, the NCPO's coup then presented itself as a statist or bureaucratic politic (à la Fred Riggs's Bureaucratic Polity in Riggs, 1966) solution to it in the Bonapartist manner.

However, from the time of the preceding Thai Bonaparte-Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, whose military absolutist rule lasted from 1958 to 1963-to the current one, much has changed in Thailand. Its population has more than doubled, from 28 million to 65 million; its GDP has increased 239-fold, from 54 billion to 12,910 billion baht; and its civil society has produced at least two successful popular uprisings, in 1973 and 1992, that managed to topple the military government of the day (Riggs 1966, 16; Pasuk and Baker 1995, 162; Baker and Pasuk 2005, xvii-xviii, 24, 201; Bank of Thailand 2015). Therefore, if the hugely corrupt and bullying womanizer of yesteryear who drank himself to death was still capable of producing some real tragedies, his latter-day sober and chaste if no less bullying aspirant seems more prone to making boastful, careless, farcical statements that have often landed his military administration in troubles both domestic and international (Thak 1979, 193-205; Grossman et al. 2009, 133; Anderson 2014, 52-53; Hookway 2015).1) He does indeed fit Marx's description of a Bonapartist hero insofar as mediocrity and grotesqueness are concerned.2)

What I propose to do in this brief paper is to take a big picture and a long historical perspective of the current conflict and mass movements in Thailand, focusing on their class-related dimension, political dynamics, and royalist framing. Instead of focusing on the NCPO's coup per se, with its multifarious details and still ongoing eventuation, I would rather try to understand and assess it against the country's historical and cultural political backdrop.

Power Shifts in Modern Thai Political History

If one takes a long historical view of modern Thai politics since the late nineteenth century, one can't help but notice a recurrent pattern of major power shifts in modern Thai history. Its basic trajectory follows much the same logic:

- It begins with the partly pressured, partly voluntary opening up of the economy to the outside world, and the resultant rapid economic growth;

- That is followed by a big social change, especially the emergence and upward mobility of new social groups and classes in connection with the newly liberalized and expanding sector of the economy;

- This leads to a political contest between the old elites and their privileged allies on the one hand, and the rising new groups and classes on the other;

- Eventually, all this leads sooner or later to a regime change. …

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