Sulak on the monarchy and Thai politics

22 02 2014

PPT seldom agrees with conservative social critic Sulak Sivaraksa‘s iconoclastic perspectives on politics. However, his comments on the monarchy are usually worth considering, not least because he has long pushed the boundaries on lese majeste and found himself in trouble with the royalist establishment, even if a monarchist himself.

Below we reproduce a recent (19 February) Facebook post by Sulak. It is a part of a 15 January 2014 public speech on “Thai Political Institutions” at the 3rd Political Science Academic Fair, School of Liberal Arts, University of Phayao:Sulak

I was once invited to give a talk on “The monarchy and Thai politics.” I intended to give it the following subtitle: “the politics of the monarchy at an historical turning point.” The organizers however didn’t want to confront the issue of the monarchy directly. Likewise, the debate between the red shirts and the “muan maha prachachon” (great mass of people) seems to miss the bull’s eye. A crucial question that no one dares to raise is: Should the monarchy be maintained in Thai society or not? Note well that posing this question is already a crime in this country. A follow-up question is: If we want to preserve the monarchy in Thai society, how would a constitutional monarchy look like? What possible forms could it take? And what should its substance or nature be like?

When the people in the capital are unwilling to talk about this crucial issue, we have to come here to Payao province to do it.

I think we should begin by trying to understand what the monarchy is and what its main functions are. We also need to delve into the problem of why many people believe in it, and how the monarchy has been able to create a culture of obedience (which also in part relies on a culture of fear). In short, how has the monarchy been normalized as part of the daily existence of the people?


The monarchy is a necessary institution. Necessary for whom? For the ruling elites who constitute a minority in society. The majority may no longer see the value or importance of having a monarchy or ruling class. Here the majority of the people may in fact be behaving as good Buddhists should. Buddhism suggests that greed, hatred, and delusion are at the origins of suffering. And the monarchy is an embodiment of greed, hatred and delusion.

Recall that every jataka tale that talks about the ruling elites never portrays them in a positive light. In these tales, the ruling elites are not figures worthy of emulation. They don’t devote their lives for the benefit of the people. The exception of course is the ‘alternative’ ruler or ruler who is not ruler like Prince Vessantara who gives away everything he owns, including what is considered state property. Ultimately, the kingdom by popular decision exiled him to live in the jungles.

Prince Vessantara is the last reincarnation of the Bodhisattva before being born as Prince Siddhartha. Then there is the so-called Temiya Jataka. In brief, little Prince Temiya hated the idea of being king (for the second time as he remembered being king in one of his previous births, which brought him great suffering) and therefore he prayed to the deities to receive advice. One of them told him to pretend to be dumb and inactive so as to avoid inheriting the throne, an advice that the young prince followed. A lesson from this tale is that being king inevitably entails the use of violence in various modes.

Perhaps this Buddhist philosophy has influenced Thai people in general who uphold the Triple Gems. In Buddhism even kings are bound to uphold the ten royal virtues, which may be lax in varying degrees but can never be fully ignored. The Wheel of Dhamma plays a role in counter-balancing the State, helping to ensure that the ruling elites’ actions are within the bounds of legitimacy by also drawing upon local wisdom, culture and tradition.

The monarchy is at the apex of the secular world. In the Thai case, the Trai Phum Phra Ruang (Three Worlds According to King Ruang) is cited as the main reference to legitimize the monarch’s right to rule. In essence, it says that anyone who has accumulated vast merits in previous births may be born a king who is by nature superior to the rest of the people. However, a king must also uphold certain virtues in order to maintain his position.

In practice, the king must rely on other members of the ruling class—often a selected few—to govern the kingdom. At times the members of this oligarchy might wield more power than the king —or sufficient power to counter-balance or even depose him. For instance, during the Thonburi era the king lost royal power and was removed by a small fraction of powerful ministers with the secret cooperation of the religious institution.

In the early Rattanakosin era, especially from the Third Reign to the middle of the Fifth Reign, actual power was in the hands of a number of aristocratic families. Ultimately, King Chulalongkorn subdued these families and paved the way to the construction of absolutism. The new absolutist state had no internal checks and balances. Its primary threat came from imperial powers in Southeast Asia.

Thai absolutism survived until 1932. Prior to the 1932 Revolution, it had already been challenged several times. When the Thai monarchy lost its absolutist status, Pridi Banomyong, as the head of the civilian wing of the People’s Party, sought to preserve and transform the monarchy into an institution under the constitution. He struggled to maintain democracy in Siam during the phase of the military dictatorship and Second World War. Tragically, Pridi was accused of being behind the mysterious death of King Rama VIII, and the military coup d’etat in 1947 forced him into life-long exile.

Thus after 1947 the monarchy was under the control of the military dictatorship. This was essentially similar to the period between the Fourth Reign and the middle of the Fifth Reign in which the Bunnag clan exercised dominance over the monarchy. During 1947-1973, a number of military figures took the place of the Bunnag clan, namely Field Marshals P. Phibunsongkram, Sarit Thanarat, Thanon Kittikachorn, and Praphas Charusathien. These figures were all backed by the American empire, as Siam became a US client state.

Of these four dictators, Sarit was the worst. Sarit relied on Luang Wichitwathakan as his chief ideologue. Luang Wichit had also served under Phibun. Phibun wanted to exercise absolute control over the monarchy, relegating it to an institution of secondary importance in social life. Sarit, on the other hand, sought to turn the monarchy into an institution that was more divine than during the absolutist period. For example, he reinstated the practice of crawling and prostration before the king—a practice that had been abolished during the Fifth Reign. The king was flattered in excess. State power, mass media and education institutions were used to (re)produce an obedient people. It was within this period that the monarch was transformed from an ordinary human being like all others who happened to be king into a divine ruler above all other mortal beings and beyond criticism.

The monarchy’s exceptional political position also implied special economic privileges, which often lack accountability and transparency. The Crown Property Bureau is a case in point. But so too are many royal initiative projects; and not to mention the Chulabhorn Research Institute and the To Be Number 1 project.

The event of 14 October 1973 constituted a victory over the military dictatorship. But whose victory was it? It wasn’t a victory for the common people. The military continued to be a state within a state. Rather it was a victory for big businesses. Many of them had prospered under the military dictatorship. After October 1973, they became more assertive—no longer happy to play second fiddle to the military generals when it came to politics. In the wake of October 1973, the monarchy’s political and economic influence also increased to an unprecedented level since 1947. For instance, the monarchy was directly involved in the bloodbath of 6 October 1976, and there was a royal-appointed prime minister after this political turmoil. This royal-appointed prime minister was a civilian but arguably he was worse than the military dictators. When the military ultimately removed him from power, he was appointed a privy councillor.

To cut a long story short, Thaksin and the Shinawatra family are like Dit and Tat of the powerful Bunnag clan. Both brothers were bestowed the title of Somdet Chao Phya in the Fourth Reign. Dit’s eldest son, Chuang, essentially inherited his power and became the last Somdet Chao Phya in the Fifth Reign.

Likewise, Thaksin practiced nepotism. He first made his brother-in-law prime minister; then his younger sister. Another younger sister is waiting on the side to take the mantle of power anytime should it be necessary for her. Thaksin is also grooming his son to inherit his power, political and economic. Although Thaksin is not a Somdet Chao Phya, interestingly he is the special adviser to the Somdet Chao Phya of Kampuchea.

Would toppling Thaksin and the Shinawatra family be like the removal of the Bunnag clan from the seats of power in the Fifth Reign? In other words, is Thaksin the only obstacle against the return of absolutism in another guise—our best hope against absolutism? Is this one of the reasons why the red shirts are protecting the Phuea Thai party and the current system? On the other hand, the “great mass of people” claims that they want a reformed democracy with the king as the head of state. However, it is unclear whether the king would be above or under the constitution.

The two sides that are engaging in power struggle today both lay claim to legitimacy. One side appeals to electoral victory and holding the majority of seats in Parliament. Their claim to legitimacy is based on having a bigger number and preserving the form of democracy. But many other countries also rely on this logic, including Malaysia and Singapore. The opposing side contends that the government has lost legitimacy by attempting to pass the amnesty bill which would let Thaksin off the hook and return his seized assets. They point to Thaksin’s corruption, extra-judicial killings, heavy-handed interference in the bureaucracy, and so on. Now, they claim, his sister is continuing this corrupt legacy. The existence of the “great mass of people” indicates that a sizeable number of people could no longer tolerate corruption in the country, the reasoning goes.

Many leading academics and legal experts—undoubtedly honest and knowledgeable—are supporting the status quo. They admit that really existing democracy in Siam is far from the ideal type, but assert that by preserving the democratic form democracy in the country will gradually develop and strengthen—as it had happened in England and elsewhere. Let’s call it the buying time thesis. But how long did democracy take to develop in England? And how many people had to suffer because of the British ruling elites’ imperialism, colonial expansion and capitalist exploitation? Didn’t all these happen under liberal democracy?

Perhaps these scholars are too uncritical of their theories. Here they should heed the Buddha’s teaching to the Kalama people (known as the Kalama Sutta):

Do not go by revelation;

Do not go by tradition;

Do not go by hearsay;

Do not go on the authority of sacred texts;

Do not go on the grounds of pure logic;

Do not go by a view that seems rational;

Do not go by reflecting on mere appearances;

Do not go along with a considered view because you agree with it;

Do not go along on the grounds that the person is competent;

Do not go along because [thinking] ‘the recluse is our teacher’.

Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are unwholesome, these things are blameworthy; these things are censured by the wise; and when undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill, abandon them…

Kalamas, when you know for yourselves: These are wholesome; these things are not blameworthy; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness, having undertaken them, abide in them.

Is protecting a democratically elected government that has illegitimately engaged in all kinds of corrupt and nepotistic actions an unwholesome or wholesome thing? Will this action lead to the benefit and happiness or the harm and ill of the people? Why are these considerations less important than preserving the democratic shell?


As for the leaders of the “great mass of people,” if they are serious about change or reform, to what extent have they deeply thought about some of the following issues? 1) If the monarchy is to be preserved and protected, how will it coexist with democracy? For instance, how will the monarchy be transformed into an accountable and transparent institution that truly serves the people? 2) When Thaksin and his family and cronies are gotten rid of, how will the “great mass of people” handle the other powerful oligarchs and billionaires who entertain special privileges such as the owners of CP and Beer Chang? 3) How will the urban-based political elites or ammart be made to serve the people? And how will universities serve emancipatory purposes? 4) How will the Sangha be transformed from a highly centralized and authoritarian institution into an independent Wheel of Dhamma that counter-balances state power? Here can the Thai Sangha learn something valuable from the Burmese Sangha or other religions? 5) If there is no drastic land reform in the country that guarantees equal land rights, will democracy be meaningful in the country? And 6) what should the new government’s stance vis-à-vis great powers like the US and China be? Can ASEAN also revitalize the spirit of the Southeast Asian League as conceived by Pridi Banomyong and Ho Chi Minh?

In conclusion, Siam is at an historical turning point that is fraught with risk and uncertainty. However, this may also be an excellent time to stimulate the unrealized potentials of the 1932 Revolution. The best way to be faithful to the 1932 Revolution is to repeat it.



One response

13 10 2017
Sulak Sivaraksa oder was hat es zu bedeuten, wenn ein Monarchist der Majestätsbeleidigung angeklagt wird? – Passau Watching Thailand

[…] sein Leben nach den Grundsätzen der gerechten Herrschaft aus. Daraus ergibt sich natürlich ein moralischer Anspruch an die Monarchie. Vielleicht ist genau dieser Anspruch ein Grund dafür, dass ihm 1984, 1991 und 2009 […]

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