Thailand needs to arrive in 21st century

Thailand needs to arrive in 21st century

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha takes part in the royal cremation ceremony for the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Oct 26. The military-monarchy symbiotic relationship arose from Cold War conditions and circumstances. (EPA photo)
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha takes part in the royal cremation ceremony for the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Oct 26. The military-monarchy symbiotic relationship arose from Cold War conditions and circumstances. (EPA photo)

Thai politics is fundamentally not about the colours of yellow versus red or of democratic rule against military dictatorship. At its core, modern Thailand is about the socio-political and developmental totality of the past seven decades from 1947 to 2017 during the 9th reign, divided into the first five and the last two, demarcated by the Cold War and the 21st century. For Thailand to arrive in the 21st century, it needs to reconcile the overlapping forces of these two eras that now harbour conflicting interests and preferences through compromise and mutual accommodation. This is now the existential task ahead after King Bhumibol Adulyadej's glorious reign.

Doing so is easier said than done because we are in the midst of the digital era with runaway instantaneity and transformative technological breakthroughs. Residents of Thailand, foreign or native, who arrived or came of age over the past two decades would have difficulty relating to those whose formative years transpired earlier. So far in the 21st century, all we can see in Thai politics is polarisation and conflict, tension and turmoil, marked alternately by elections and coups from either the military or the judiciary. But the roots of Thailand's protracted crisis lie elsewhere.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches international political economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

From 1947 to 1997, the Thai economy expanded by almost 6% per annum, a rate which remains a phenomenal achievement in the developing world. So what began as an agrarian economy with poor living standards and rudimentary infrastructure ended up as a highly touted "fifth tiger" of East Asia's growth dynamos, alongside South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. The long boom imploded in the 1997-98 economic crisis but by then Thailand's socio-political foundations had been transformed. People had more means, more education, more information from media proliferation, and broader exposure to the outside world.

On the flipside of the economic crisis, the long boom culminated with unprecedented political reforms, capped by the 1997 constitution that promoted greater transparency and accountability of the political system and laid conditions for more government stability and effectiveness. Together with a network of associates that held new wealth from stock market growth and global finance, Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecoms magnate with ambition, was uniquely positioned to benefit from the post-crisis recovery and the new politics after the 1997 constitution was promulgated.

The main reference point for many Thailand watchers is right then and there, focused on Thaksin's winning parties, the 1997 constitution, repeated coups, and yellow-red street protests. It was as if elections and democracy bloomed when Thaksin waltzed into power, only to be thwarted time and again by putsches and conservative forces.

In fact, the long boom and the 21st-century democratic politics it engendered would not have been possible without the political institutions that arose from Cold War conditions and circumstances. After King Bhumibol ascended to the throne in June 1946, the first dozen years of the reign were tentative and the role of the monarchy was still uncertain. It was only after a military-monarchy partnership that was a direct response to communist expansionism emerged from 1958 when the 9th reign began to flourish.

We should not dwell too much in the past but it must be acknowledged for a fuller perspective. Anchored firmly in the Thai-United States treaty alliance, the military-monarchy symbiotic relationship was indispensable for seeing Thailand through the Cold War. With a burgeoning bureaucracy from the early 1960s, Thailand's political order during the Cold War soon came into place. It revolved around the military, monarchy and bureaucracy. Notwithstanding elections and political parties that came and went, including the liberal left-wing movement in the mid-1970s, this trinity of traditional institutions was Thailand's Cold War fighting machine.

As I tell my post-Cold War and millennial students these days, if you don't know and don't make an effort to know what happened in global politics after World War II to the 1990s, you won't really understand the nature, direction, and dynamics of international relations today. But this is still hard for people who are alien to the "Soviet Union" as a country.

Similarly, Thailand's domestic and international watchers pay most attention to the here and now, perhaps with a glance at recent years but rarely multiple decades. But their prognosis and prescription then risk being misguided and misplaced. The kind of compromises Thailand needs going forward entail knowing where it came from, not just the past two decades, but back to the 1950s-90s.

The 9th reign was so spectacularly successful in combatting communism and ushering in economic development that it almost became a victim of its own success, bringing about its own challenges. The sustained growth eventually emboldened previously marginalised voices to be heard through democratisation and political liberalisation. Most importantly, international circumstances changed, with no more communists to fight but instead with new international norms of democracy and human rights to adhere to.

So Thailand's two coups in 2006 and 2014 and the politically decisive judicial manoeuvre in 2008 were merely a rearguard action from the old political order to forestall changes and upend what they saw as a usurping upstart, personified by Thaksin. The military government now in power comes straight from the Cold War decades, not the 21st century. The yellows are beneficiaries of the same era, not ignorant of the 21st century but demonstrably insistent on entering it under their own terms. The reds are a 21st-century movement, the beneficiaries of the development and growth of Cold War years but now more exposed to and integrated with the outside world, enabling a broad awakening and realisation that they count and that they have stakes in the Thai system that won't be denied.

In view of the global and local imperative of having elections and popular rule, the best way out for traditional forces is for them to come up with one or more political parties that can represent and protect their interests, not to pin their hopes on long-term military influence. The Democrat Party should have been such a party for them but it has not. They need to somehow change it or come up with new vehicles.

For the disparate and disorganised red shirts, they will now think that their time has come. Despite crooked rules in the 2017 constitution, they will want to make a change through the polls. But the red shirts should know that without the willingness of the forces from the traditional political order going along, they cannot have their way without conflict and turmoil. And they will be vulnerable to manipulation from the Thaksin camp, which has lost a lot with much to recoup.

The military's own best outcome is to share power with democratic institutions during a transitional period and then to civilianise for longer-term influence. No one should be naïve or vindictive enough to expect the generals to head back to the barracks overnight. It does not work that way for countries such as Thailand, Myanmar, among others. But an indefinite military dictatorship is also not palatable to people who have been keen to go to the polls.

No recipe for a way forward is watertight. It will require learning by doing, negotiating and bargaining. But a spirit of compromise and accommodation is paramount. Perhaps the 10th reign can be just the right incentive for all sides to ensure that it succeeds by making sure that Thailand's traditional monarchy moves into a moving balance with a 21st-century democracy.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak


A professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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