(Photo by LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Bangkok’s revolt remains bloodless, for now

Is the tide turning against Thailand’s oligarchy?

Between 1946 and 2016, Thailand witnessed 10 coups, 19 constitutions, 24 general elections, 32 prime ministers—but only one king.

Now, four years after the departure of King Bhumibol, the institution that remained the only immovable fixture for seven tempestuous decades finds itself in waters it hasn’t charted in almost a century. On Sunday, ten thousand Thais — mostly students, but also the elderly — poured into the streets of Bangkok. What made their protest instantly historic was a demand that hasn’t been aired in public since a bloodless revolution in 1932 ended absolute royal rule in what used to be the Kingdom of Siam: reform of the monarchy. A “monarchy that coexists with democracy”, the much-harried human rights lawyer Anon Nampa before cheering crowds, is what young Thai people want to achieve “within our generation”.

The appearance of stability obtained by repression has emboldened Thailand’s governing oligarchy

This turn of events was unthinkable only a few years ago. Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws are the severest in the world: even to entertain a hint of scepticism about the celestial status of the sovereign is to invite up to 15 years in prison. The appearance of stability obtained by repression emboldened Thailand’s governing oligarchy — the palace and the generals — to neglect the worsening condition of their subjects. Thailand is the most unequal society in the world: in 2018, 67 per cent of the country’s wealth was concentrated in the hands of one of percent of the population, and the bottom 10 per cent had nothing at all. The Covid-19 pandemic, obliterating the country’s tourism industry, has led to the worst economic contraction in Thailand’s history since the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Recovery is nowhere in sight.

The tiny, unrepresentative ruling elite of Thailand has spent the past half decade ruthlessly fortifying its position. In 2017, three years after the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, the palace blessed a new constitution—the 20th in the country’s history, running to more than 40,000 words—that effectively enshrined permanent rule by the junta through the creation of a 250-seat senate whose membership is determined by the military. Election to parliament was removed as a condition for holding the prime minister’s office, and the Constitutional Court was clothed in powers to stifle popular politicians.

Student protesters raise fists during an anti-government rally at King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology in Bangkok on August 19, 2020. (Photo by LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP via Getty Images)

The new charter was a response really to Thaksin Shinawatra, the telecoms tycoon who was elected to the premiership of Thailand in 2001. Although very far from a progressive radical, Thaksin grew so enormously popular—and ambitious—in his first term that the establishment came to regard him as an existential threat. He was deposed in 2006 and has lived abroad since 2008. Yet his proxies, including his sister Yingluck, continued to prevail in the subsequent elections. The principal objective of the 2017 constitution was to forestall the re-emergence of a phenomenon such as Thaksin by making it all but impossible for elected politicians to wield any actual power.

When economic downturn swept Southeast Asia two decades ago, the wealth gap in Thailand was not nearly as obscene as it is today: the Crown Property Bureau, which oversees the royal family’s assets and investments, lost 75 per cent of its income at the summit of that crisis and the palace was forced to borrow money to meet its expenses. Things are different this time. One of the first acts of King Vajiralongkorn after acceding to the throne of Thailand as Rama X after his father’s death in 2016 was to take personal control of the CPB and its estimated 60 billion dollars. The move removed the exemption from taxation enjoyed by the CPB. It also made the new king of Thailand the richest monarch on earth.

The House of Chakri, founded in 1782, is one of history’s most durable royal dynasties. It gave the most total expression to the Hindu concept of devaraja—god-king—which its predecessor kingdom of Ayutthaya had absorbed from the Khmer. And for nearly a quarter of a millennium, it retained its position at the top of Thailand’s social pyramid by deftly guarding its sovereignty against foreign usurpers—Burmese, British, French—and skilfully locating a way out of domestic troubles. The first major internal blow to its authority came during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the economic hardship of the period, amplified by a nascent popular press, precipitated a great disillusionment with the ruling dispensation. In 1932, a bloodless uprising instigated by Pridi Phanomyong, a lawyer trained in Paris, culminated in the monarchy’s demotion to ceremonial duties.

In his reign as Rama IX, King Bhumibol succeeded in rehabilitating the monarchy’s role, reputation, and fortunes by forging a symbiotic relationship with the armed forces. The khakis venerated him as the unifying figurehead and protected him by pitilessly penalising lèse-majesté, and he extended tacit support to their interminable coups. By 1992, Bhumibol was sufficiently secure in his throne to chide the junta and inaugurate a period of democratic rule—but what appalled him even more was the sight of ordinary Thais, whom he saw as objects of his kingly magnanimity, making demands of the government a decade later. The patrician in him could not abide the populism of Thaksin Shinawatra. Bhumibol, however, was astute and shrewd: he took great care to be seen as the “people’s king” when sanctifying the subversion of the people’s will. The extraordinariness of his achievement—from an uncertain start in 1946 to the acclaim he received across the world as a statesman to the genuine mourning that ensued after his death—was always going to haunt his heir.

Blood may yet run in the streets of Bangkok

Vajiralongkorn was dismissed as an unworthy successor to his father long before his coronation. He spent his youth in Australia and England, flew around the world in a plush Boeing 737, and made Germany his home. It is not clear if he even wanted the job. Having inherited it, however, he finds himself in circumstances that are akin to a reprise of the 1930s: a plummeting economy, new media, a public that has been pushed to the limit of its forbearance. If King Vajiralongkorn has any ideas, he has kept them hidden. His hasty appropriation of the CPB has lately been followed by a novel order: the king, who rode out the coronavirus with an entourage of more than 100 courtiers in the Bavarian resort town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen as life in his kingdom juddered to a devastating halt, has asked the constitution of Thailand to be amended to allow him to reign from Germany. This is the final indignity that provoked thousands of Thai people to break from tradition, defy the law, and court arrest on the streets of Bangkok. Thailand’s rulers are extremely adept at stamping out dissent. Threats, denunciations, and detentions are piling up. Blood may yet run in the streets of Bangkok. But force alone cannot restore what was lost on Sunday. The unspeakable terror that has for so long governed the relationship between the monarchy and the subjects in Thailand has withered away.

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