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Democratic paradox: what has gone wrong in Thailand?

In this scholarly note, Chunjuan Nancy Wei describes the recent political turmoil in Thailand and suggests an alternative approach that would permit democracy to bring stability to this Southeast Asian constitutional monarchy.

Thailand in Turmoil

Thailand has again been capturing global headlines in recent months. The political paralysis has been enhanced by two major events that pitted the government--backed by Bangkok's middle class and traditional establishments (the so-called Yellow Power)--against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's (b. 1949; in office 2001-6) rural and urban grassroots supporters (the Red Shirts).

In mid-April 2009, an astonished world witnessed the Thai nation plunge into chaos and anarchy. More than 100,000 of Thaksin's red-clad followers blockaded the capital's major roads with burning buses, attacked the Government House district, and called for the four-month-old government of Abhisit Vejjajiva (b. 1964) to resign, convinced he had stolen the country's democracy. At least two demonstrators were killed, and one hundred more were injured. The most outrageous and stunning outcome proved the effort to embarrass the prime minister: The former primer minister's demonstrators stormed the resort town of Pattaya, forcing cancellation of the East Asian Summit. Sixteen ASEAN leaders--called over to discuss joint efforts to combat the global financial crisis--fled a fractured summit, which was later rescheduled for October 2009 in Phuket, then moved to Hua Hin and Cha-an due to security reasons.

Only four months earlier, the opposite camp had adopted similar tactics, invoking comparable havoc to the Buddhist state's peaceful image. In the name of defending democracy, the "yellow-shirted" royalists organized massive disruptive demonstrations. They occupied government headquarters and seized Bangkok's two major international airports, causing an initial delay of the East Asian Summit (originally scheduled for Bangkok, then moved to Chiang Mai before being postponed yet again until the attempt at Pattaya) while leaving 250,000 foreign tourists stranded. Neighboring countries had to send helicopters to retrieve their nationals left in these airports.

The royalists declared victory only when the court found the Thaksinsympathetic prime minister guilty of electoral fraud, paving the way for Abhisit's current regime.

The tussles between Thaksin and his enemies, in which different camps mobilized residents against others in the streets, have dealt blows to Thailand's international prestige as well as its fragile tourism and investment, two of the country's major sources of revenue. In addition, concomitant separatist violence erupting in the Muslim-dominated Deep South has also claimed more than three thousand lives in the past four years. All this leads one to wonder: What has happened in recent years to lead the Thai democracy astray?

The Rural-Urban Duality

Thailand has a population of 66 million, of which nearly 70 percent lives in the rural hinterland. Unequal income distribution has long plagued this Southeast Asian nation. The financial turmoil triggered in Thailand during the 1997 regional crisis exacerbated the problem, leaving a legacy of currency collapse; strong stock market devaluations; and massive layoffs in the real estate, construction, and finance sectors. While all citizens suffered, poor farmers in the North and Northeast bore the brunt of the crisis. Many of the newly laid off returned to their rural villages where living costs were lower, resulting in the doubly negative impact of increased job competition and high poverty levels in the agricultural sector. World Bank reports in 2000 (2000a, 2000b) found wealth concentrated in Bangkok and incidences of poverty high in the rural areas, rising from 14.9 percent in 1999 to 21.5 percent in 2000. Furthermore, the wealthiest 30 percent owned 80 percent of the national income. Indeed, Thai politics was a game traditionally played by Bangkok elites, having little to do with the rural poor.

Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecom magnate who was born in the rural North, decided to break the urban power monopoly by exploiting the numeric advantage of the poor. Promising cheap health care and microcredit development funds to poor peasants, the leader of the Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thais) party attracted millions of rural followers. Compared with previous politicians who assured only roads and other infrastructure projects, Thaksin's generous promises and quick deliveries--30 bhat (less than US$1) per doctor visit and a US$25,000 Village Fund per town--firmly built his political charisma and greatly mobilized the peasants' enthusiasm for electoral participation. During his first term, Thailand ranked as one of East Asia's best performers, with annual real GDP growth of 6 percent. "Thaksinomics" was hailed as the major factor lifting Thailand out of financial woes, and Thaksin was the first Thai prime minister in decades to successfully complete a full term.

Military Coup of 2006 & the Ensuing Political Crises

Ironically, in the eyes of businessmen and members of the urban middle class, Thaksin's promises were seen as blatant policy vote-buying. On the pretext of corruption, tax evasion, and abuse of power, the Thai Royal Army orchestrated a coup d'etat against the popularly elected government, exploiting the opportunity provided by Mr. Thaksin's attendance in New York at a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. They declared martial law, banned demonstration, and arrested Thaksin's allies. Thaksin was exiled to avoid a two-year jail term on corruption allegations that he claims were politically motivated. The Army appointed a military officer with royal ties as prime minister and promised to hold an election in one-and-a-half years.

The election did not resolve Thai's political crisis because it returned a Thaksin sympathizer with whom the royalists were very unhappy. They staged huge rallies denouncing the new prime minister, Samak Sundaravej (b. 1935; in office for approximately seven months in 2008), occupying his office and attacking large infrastructure such as trains and local airports (Fuller 2008). The Constitutional Court (ConCourt) terminated Samak's premiership in September 2008 over two televised culinary programs in the name of violating the conflict-of-interest laws. A fresh new election in the Parliament brought in Thaksin's brother-in-law, Somchai Wongsawat (b. 1947), as the premier. The hapless Somchai had to deal not only with the political turmoil but also the global financial crisis. He could not survive the murky political water; in two months, the ConCourt revoked his position, and Abhisit became his successor.

It is obvious that the Thai political arena has become a never-ending soap opera where one group's victory harbingers the inauguration of the next protracted power struggle, where protesters take a leaf from the playbook of their rivals in attacking public facilities and unseating cabinet members. In three short years, three prime ministers have been forced to resign, and the current prime minister is under similar pressure. Persistent political uncertainty has crippled economic growth. The post-2006 political paralyses have undermined both investors and consumer confidence.

Institutional Inefficiency & Democratic Paradox

The political system of Thailand, as a constitutional monarchy, has two major power centers: the monarchy and the military. King Bhumibol Adulyadej (b. 1927, r. since 1946), the world's longest-reigning monarch, is the head of state and commander-in-chief who consults the Privy Council for advice. He has the power to appoint prime ministers following a National Assembly election and to revise the laws if he wishes. But the shrewd ruler knows that the best way to maintain power is to appear apolitical, virtuous, and progressive. He warily distances himself from everyday politics, assiduously observing Buddhist rituals while claiming himself as an "elected king" (Handley 2006, 431) who is loved by all his subjects. As a result of mass manipulation and the strict enforcement of the lese majesty, King Bhumibol is revered as a semi-god and viewed as the most stabilizing factor in Thai politics.

The military is the other most important powerhouse. A cohesive, organized political force, the Thai military has long exercised undue influence in the government. Thanks to the king's great charisma and wide popularity, military officers have no choice but to defer to the monarch for their own legitimacy. In contrast with the king (who holds the moral high ground) and the military (that holds the coercive power), the popularly elected prime minister is very weak. Often depicted as an evil politician, the Thai premier has neither moral appeals nor means to enforce social compliances. During the recent political crises, the prime minister's office was occupied, his car attacked, and his life threatened. Unlike his modern British or Japanese counterpart, the Thai prime minister lacks the power to effectively constrain the generals. Any reform by elected politicians that aims to minimize military influence is directly or indirectly resisted.

The constitution, while serving as the supreme law in a democratic country, seems like a doormat in Thailand. Part of the reason is that the constitution has been carefully interpreted in Thailand to mean "rule of the state with Dharma," a mixture of democracy, religion, and the king's power. So long as the monarch rules with virtue and is protected by the generals, elected politicians can be sacrificed. The constitution is not to limit the government but to exclude the people. As a legal scholar has commented, "The Thai constitution has never been a social contract, never a set of rules for those with power to service the people. It has been a set of rules between those with power" (Handley 2006, 408). Nearly every time there was a power change, a new constitution was promulgated, only to be discarded in the next round of political struggle. In nearly eighty years (Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932), Thais have witnessed seventeen constitutions, averaging one every four-and-a-half years. To date, the 81-year-old King Bhumibol has survived twenty-seven prime ministers. The close palace-military relationship has toppled eighteen civilian governments, the latest being the 2006 coup that deposed Thaksin.

If democracy is measured by whether a country has free and fair elections, Thailand is no doubt a democracy. However, Thai institutions that hold the major powers are by no means democratic. The legislative and executive branches--elements that are most democratic--are often toothless. To protect the Bangkok elites, the king has allowed the military to resort to a simple and familiar solution: coups d'etats. Since 2006, all three democratically elected prime ministers--Thaksin (eighteen months after 2005 election), Samak (eight months), and Somchai (only two months)--have been overthrown through undemocratic means. When political conflicts intensify, democratic rules do not help the nation solve problems; sadly, in fact, such rules are often the first to be jettisoned. In Thailand, constitutionalism has yet to be established, and democracy remains in its infancy.

Indeed, how can democracy bring stability to a country when its elected leaders are prevented from serving out their terms? To solve Thailand's democratic paradox, constitutionalism and rule of the law may be the answer. Popularly elected government should be given the authority to govern. The king's power should be curtailed; the military must be subjected to the elected government. Only when prime ministers are able to govern the nation under consensus can the urban-rural gap gradually be reduced and social crises be dissipated.


For further reading on issues of democracy that pertain to the situation in Thailand, see Albritton and Bureekul (2008), Feng (2003), Laohasiriwong and Chee (2007), and Root (2006).


Albritton, Robert B., and Thawilwadee Bureekul. 2008. Developing democracy under a new constitution in Thailand. In How East Asians view democracy, ed. Yun-han Chu, 114-38. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Feng, Yi. 2003. Democracy, governance, and economic performance: Theory and evidence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Fuller, Thomas. 2008. Thai protest of premier stops trains and planes. New York Times, August 30.

Handley, Paul M. 2006. The king never smiles: A biography of Thailand's Bhumibol Adulyadej. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

Laohasiriwong, Suwit, and Ang Ming Chee. 2007. Present challenges to conflict resolution in Southern Thailand. In Islam and violent separatism: New democracies in Southeast Asia, ed. Ashok Swain, 19-28. New York: Kegan Paul.

Root, Hilton. 2006. Capital and collusion: The political logic of global economic development. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

World Bank. 2000a. Thailand economic monitor. Bangkok: World Bank Thailand Office.

--. 2000b. Thailand social monitor: Social capital and the crisis. Bangkok: World Bank Thailand Office.


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Author:Wei, Chunjuan Nancy
Publication:Southeast Review of Asian Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:9THAI
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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