On why Thailand is politically unstable
text size

On why Thailand is politically unstable

Since the 1932 revolution -- triggered by a coup by progressive elites that replaced the absolute monarchy with a constitutional monarchy -- Thailand's politics have been marked by persistent conflict and instability.

This turmoil stemmed from an ongoing struggle between conservative camps backed by a group of royalists and the People's Party (PP), significantly shaping Thai politics.

Historical accounts show that the conservative faction employed various tactics to oppose the PP, including the closure of parliament, the Boworadet Rebellion (a 1933 Thai rebellion led by royalist Prince Boworadet) and the Phraya Songsuradet Rebellion.

Despite these challenges, PP emerged victorious in all conflicts until November 1947, when Thailand experienced a coup that brought civilian Khuang Aphaiwong, also a royalist, to the position of prime minister. However, his tenure was short-lived, as he was ousted by another coup in April 1948. Khuang later founded the conservative Democrat Party and subsequently became PM for another three terms.

The coup of 1947 marked a significant turning point in the history of modern Thailand's political instability. It transformed coups into potent political weapons in the political landscape, rendering constitutionalism ineffective in legitimising government rule. In 1948, through a coup under the leadership of the military faction, the PP reclaimed political power and appointed Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram as prime minister. Despite this, the government did not last long as right-wing Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat orchestrated another coup in 1957. This marked the downfall of the PP and the emergence of "deep-state strategies" in Thai politics.

Deep state is a multifaceted concept employed within political science and has different interpretations. Regardless of its interpretation, it typically alludes to a clandestine strategy used by a prominent network of individuals, within and outside government, or influential organisations. These entities clandestinely influence or steer government policies and decisions behind the scenes of bureaucracy. Thailand's enduring political instability, marked by military-led coups and occasional phases of junta governance, has prompted some analysts to discern elements resembling a deep state. This phenomenon remains conspicuous, even during some fleeting intervals of civilian administration, as the military establishment continues to wield considerable influence over civilian-elected government policies and decision-making processes. This especially applies to military budget allocation, particularly for secret operations and procurement of military hardware.

Other aspects of the deep state are evident in how general elections are not entirely free from influence by external forces beyond the political arena. In the 2019 and 2023 elections, the election commissioners, whom the junta had handpicked, faced criticism from the public and civil society for their perceived lack of independence and dismal performance.

Following the success of the Future Forward Party (FFP) in the 2019 election, its leader was charged with various criminal charges, many related to violating election law and sedition. Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, FFP founder and progenitor of the Move Forward Party, was disqualified by the Constitutional Court in 2019 for owning shares in V-Luck Media Co, a media firm. In the following year, the same court ruled to dissolve the FFP and ban its executives from politics for 10 years over a 191.2-million-baht loan the party accepted from its leader, Mr Thanathorn, in breach of the political party law.

Similarly, after the 2023 general election, Pita Limjaroenrat, alleged to have owned shares in a defunct TV channel, encountered a similar fate. Given this context, the likelihood of the Move Forward Party emerging as the winner with the largest number of seats in the next general election is relatively low.

In all these instances, there has been mounting criticism that the 2017 constitution had been designed by the charter drafters recruited by the junta to diminish the influence of political parties and elected officials while enhancing the authority of the unelected institutions. This constitution, intentionally made resistant to amendments, has trapped the citizens in the complex issue of the deep state.

Politics and economics are intricately connected and complex. Establishing a deep state power structure and exerting control over members within the political system can be self-indulgent, but it may not represent the pinnacle of self-fulfilment. Originating from the deep state, where political power takes centre stage, it naturally leads to state capture, in which economic power reigns supreme and sustains political authority.

State capture refers to a situation in which individuals or groups with significant financial or political power often clandestinely work together to exert undue influence over the country's government to advance their own interests at the expense of the broader public interest. It typically involves a systematic and covert process where the actors manage or control key decision-making processes, economic policies, regulations, and institutions to benefit themselves or their businesses.

Due to a lack of competence in economic management, a military government is at a higher risk of falling victim to state capture. This has been evident since the coup of 1957 when executives from a leading bank were routinely appointed ministers in charge of economic affairs by the junta. Subsequently, a retail tycoon established a more conspicuous form of state capture through political donations, leading to some of his family members and close associates wielding control over economic policy.

The deep state and state capture work together to hinder national progress. Over the past 90 years, deep state elements have undermined the democratic process, while state capture has enabled private business groups to influence government decisions, thus weakening the voice of the citizens. In addition, state capture often involves bribery and illicit dealing, diverting government budgets for private gains, while at the same time, the deep state can protect corrupt actors from accountability. Moreover, state capture can exacerbate economic disparities, as powerful entities benefit at the expense of the broader population, thus widening wealth inequality.

Resolving both deep state and state capture structural problems is a formidable challenge. A comprehensive social mobilisation approach involving various institutions, civil society, and the media is necessary to address these issues effectively. Success, however, hinges largely on the willingness of the elites and other dominant social groups who reap benefits and wield control over the state, organisations, or institutions to make significant sacrifices.

Deep state and state capture are conceptual frameworks that shed light on why Thailand has faced challenges in progressing and narrowing wealth disparity. Several steps must be taken to address these issues, primarily focusing on uniting efforts to promote civic education and awareness campaigns. These initiatives aim to educate citizens about the importance of transparency and the risks associated with deep state and state capture. Much resistance to any change will inevitably come from these groups.

Peerasit Kamnuansilpa

Khon Kaen University Dean

Peerasit Kamnuansilpa is Dean, College of Local Administration Khon Kaen University.

Do you like the content of this article?