At The Globe and Mail there was a useful report a couple of days ago on the implications of the anti-democracy shutdown.
The basic point of the article was to point out that, for all Thailand’s political shenanigans since about 2005, economically, Thailand “appeared – until recently – an unstoppable powerhouse.” The anti-democracy lot will claim that the economic slowdown of late has been the doing of Yingluck Shinawatra and populist policies. Others will point out that the political shenanigans, throwing out elected governments, shooting down protesters and denouncing democracy may have something to do with economic performance.
In recent months, the demonstrators once again marshalling in the streets have sent money scurrying away. Tourist visits are down some 15 per cent. In November alone, foreign investors withdrew $3.7-billion from Thailand; in December, the country’s stock market marked a record 11 consecutive days of declines, a reminder that trouble in Thailand has much broader ramifications. At the same time, voices inside the country are warning that without some sort of change, Thailand is at risk of losing out to its economically ascendant neighbours.
But the article says that understanding the perennial political gridlock and “looking for fixes means diving into a mess decades in the making.” It points first to the monarchy:
One aspect is a Thai institution so sacred as to be beyond criticism. Thailand’s monarchy is among the vestiges of a place that prides itself on being the only south-east Asian country without a history of colonization. The current king has reigned since 1946. And while Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, the palace wields influence through what academics call a “network monarchy” whose sway has grown in the past half-century.
In fact, while the palace and its network do work very hard stifling criticism, the horse has bolted. Only draconian laws like lese majeste can manage a deluge of criticism, much of it well justified. Here’s some of it:
Street-level criticism: There is a veritable cottage industry in social media and even on the streets that is critical of the monarchy.
Journalistic criticism: the work of Zen Journalist says it all. Forbes is not particularly critical but reveals the monarchy’s previously hidden and massive wealth. The New York Times has also been critical.
Cultural criticism: Prachatai had a useful article on this a week or so ago.
Academic criticism: Duncan McCargo, Michael Connors, Paul Handley, Kevin Hewison, Thongchai Winichakul, and we could go on. It also includes Federico Ferrara, cited in the article, explaining the issue of the power of the monarchy to influence political events.
Federico Ferrara, in his book Thailand Unhinged, describes a “precipitous rise in royal power and prestige” that has “tilted the balance of power in favour of the palace” and its coterie of advisers, judges and military commanders.
The claim that “Thailand’s king remains tremendously popular in a country festooned with his portraits,” is an untestable assertion, and the claim attributed to David Streckfuss, that the present king has “had at best a mixed record supporting democracy, and hasn’t allowed a fully democratic political system to emerge,” is deeply flawed. The king has never unequivocally supported “democracy,” except for a crippled version known as Thai-style democracy.