PPT said it some time ago: the monarchy is in decline. This is re-confirmed by two recent commentaries, by Thitinan Pongsudhirak and Sonia Rothwell.
Rothwell, writing at the Zurich-based International Relations and Security Network (ISN), comments on the south and red shirts, with an interesting link about rising political consciousness:
Building on the political awakening of the middle classes in the 1990s, there has been increasing political awareness both in the far south and among Thailand’s poor. Encouraged by Prime Minister Yingluck [Shinawatra]’s brother Thaksin, the politicization culminated in the so-called Red Shirt protests of 2010.
She then writes about the monarchy and while the general drift of the remarks are acceptable, some aspects deserve criticism. The author states: “The declining health of Thailand’s long-serving King Bhumibol also threatens to seriously fracture the fragile unity of the country.” PPT isn’t sure there is much unity, but the point that the king’s death will lead to unpredictable outcomes is correct.
Rothwell asserts that the aging monarch “has been widely regarded as a unifying figure for Thailand over the past 66 years…”. On this, she is exaggerating, but many other journalists make this point from palace propaganda. The next exaggeration is a big one: “With the continuity of Thai nationhood at present largely resting on the continuity of the royal family, it is perhaps unsurprising that the country’s notoriously stringent lese majeste laws (which prohibit criticism of the royal family) continue to be tightly enforced.” The first claim about monarchy and nation is most usually heard from the yellow-shirted royalists, while the second claim neglects that lese majeste is a political crime, and that its most extravagant use corresponds with political crises.
Despite being a little mixed-up, Rothwell does identify the passing of an era.
The second commentary is by Thitinan in an article available from the Journal of Democracy, which has been outlined by Bangkok Pundit. It is an academic article that argues that the conservative elite is losing its battle to hold Thailand’s democratization back. Bangkok Pundit emphasized some parts of the article, and we’ll do that too. There are some things we think are errors (the death toll in the war on drugs was not 2,300; Yingluck’s government hasn’t been “strictly enforcing” lese majeste; Thaksin did make big bucks from state concessions; the new palace-sanctioned biography of the king is anything but “scholarly”), but much that deserves attention.
As twilight settles over the 65-year reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej (b. 1927), Thais find themselves caught in a national stalemate. Those who favor maintaining the monarchy-centered hierarchy as the ultimate source of political power are arrayed against others who want to reform the monarchy and reconcile it with a fuller and more mature form of democracy.
He adds at the end of the paper:
For Thaksin’s establishment foes, conceding to his spectacularly successful populism would have been tantamount to admitting that most people in the … have been—and have been kept—poor.
As Thitinan indicates, bereft of popular support and wanting things to be as they were “before”, the conservative elite fights on as “it has too much at stake to simply give way to the challenges that Thaksin…”. Thitinan reckons that the rift between the palace and Thaksin began after the latter’s huge 2005 election victory. That seems true enough, although criticism from the Privy Council is mentioned in a Wikileaks cable from just prior to the election, focused on the south.
At present the fight is, Thitinan claims, a stalemate, so Yingluck continues in government:
As long as the monarchy remains sacrosanct and the symbiotic relationship between it and the military remains untouched, Yingluck may be able to muddle along with a reheated populist agenda …. Should the palace begin to perceive a clear and present danger, however, the Yingluck government and anyone who actively aspires to a basic reform of the monarchy will likely face stepped-up pressure and perhaps even the specter of violence from royalist and conservative quarters.
Judicialization is a big section of the paper, and seeing this as an elite strategy, fostered by the palace, Thitinan sees it as having failed:
The monarchy is associated with the launch of the judicialization strategy, and that strategy’s failure appears to have compromised the
monarchy up to a point.
That’s a big call, especially given the Constitutional Court’s (re)positioning in political space in recent weeks. PPT thinks the judiciary remains an important elite and palace weapon against democratization.
Both articles recognize an end is near. Thitinan notes that the way forward is murky because there are so few alternatives: Thaksin and his flaws do not augur well for a broader-based democratization.