Democratic Retrenchment in Thailand: East Asia’s Rock Disintegrating

With Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra deposed, martial law declared by the army and rival political camps ready to fill the streets in protest, Thailand stands on the precipice of disaster at the culmination of a political crisis that has lasted for almost a decade.

The presence of the military on the streets of Bangkok is keenly felt
The presence of the military on the streets of Bangkok is keenly felt

Military coups, armed factional demonstrations and constitutional deadlock have characterized the decade, which has threatened a retrenchment of Thai democracy, security and economic progress.

Such a period of political turmoil is not untypical in Thailand, which has experienced a unique history among East Asian states. Firstly, in its former guise as Siam, it was the only nation in the region never to be colonized by a foreign power. Stuck between British Burma and French Indo-China, Siam served as a buffer for colonial competition.

Siam in 1931: the Chakri Dynasty held firm in the face of European imperialists
Siam in 1931: the Chakri Dynasty held firm in the face of European imperialists

Under the long-ruling Chakri dynasty, Siam retained a great degree of stability. Its rulers were “Absolute monarchs [with] no legislature and the source of all justice [was] the king’s will” (James, 1931).

Despite the great degree of reverence in which the monarchy was held, a bloodless coup in 1932 saw a remarkable transformation from absolute rule to democratic representation. The unexpected occurrence of the coup, coupled with Siam’s centuries-old political system, caused a unique dilemma:

A brilliant young Siamese, Prince Varnvaidykara Varavarn, who chose to side with the new government despite his royal blood, and who had studied philology at Balliol, had the task of creating words hitherto unknown to the Siamese language such as: constitution, political science, reform, civil list, revolution, proletariat, political party (Gunther, 1939).

Thailand (now renamed) used its sudden political freedom and geo-strategic location to great effect, undertaking a number of trade negotiations with the surrounding European imperialists, in addition to the Japanese who had by now abandoned their own isolationist tendencies.

Unfortunately for the Thais, Japan’s growing interest in the region would turn sinister, as the Imperial Army swept through Southeast Asia before forcing Thailand’s government into an uneasy alliance which led to the Allied bombing of Bangkok.

All the energies of political reform from the 1930s were soon undone and, after the Japanese defeat, Thailand was thrown into turmoil. Economic stagnation and instability led to military rule in the 1950s and 1960s and the fight for democracy was knocked back to infancy. Its recovery has been constantly hindered by military coups, with democratic leaders overthrown on a regular basis. Despite political reforms in the 1990s, there have been few peaceful transfers of power to bolster the effectiveness of constitutional democracy.

Thanom Kittikachorn - Thailand's military ruler from 1963 to 1973. Democratic practice has constantly been undermined by military intervention
Thanom Kittikachorn – Thailand’s military ruler from 1963 to 1973. Democratic practice has constantly been undermined by military intervention

The history of military interference in the political system is why so many Thais are distrustful of the recent declaration of martial law. Unlike the monarchy, which accepted its reduced role in Thai life when it was opposed in the 1930s, the military has been reluctant to loosen its grip on some of the reins of power.

With elections proposed for August, it will be interesting to see whether the political parties and their supporters can save Thai democracy by refusing to take to the streets. Such restraint would mitigate the need for the military to interfere in the electoral process in the name of ‘security’.

However, with political divisions in the country seemingly unbridgeable and no political leaders capable of inspiring unity, Thailand could be set for a disappointing return to the military rule of half-a-century ago.

For one of East Asia’s most resilient states, this age of insecurity is truly saddening.

Sources

Gunther, J, ‘Siam, the Incredible Kingdom’, Foreign Affairs (January 1939)

James, E, ‘Siam in the Modern World’, Foreign Affairs (July 1931)

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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