A Kingdom in Crisis reviewed V

29 10 2014

Lee Jones has published what seems to be the first academic review of Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis. Some clips from its top and tail. Read all of it:

Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis has been eagerly and long awaited by many Thailand watchers. Having resigned from a senior Reuters post in 2011 to publish a series of articles on Thailand’s political crisis based on leaked US diplomatic documents, “AMM” has become a vociferous critic of Thai elites and especially the monarchy, developing a wide following on social media. A Kingdom in Crisis was anticipated as the definitive statement of AMM’s most controversial thesis: that “an unacknowledged conflict over royal succession is at the heart of Thailand’s twenty-first political crisis” (page 3). However, despite its many merits, the book does not quite clinch this argument.

A Kingdom in Crisis is a bold, uncompromising and highly critical survey of Thailand’s ongoing political crisis. The focus, however, is squarely on the monarchy, rather than on its place within Thailand’s broader polity and political economy. The first nine chapters all relate to the period before 2000, delving into ancient history to underscore the brutality of the absolutist monarchy and the normality of power struggles over the succession. Only three chapters then deal with the current conjuncture and make AMM’s central argument. The background is, of course, interesting and useful, and although it may contain little new for Thailand specialists….Kingdom in crisis

… Fundamentally at stake here is the basic explanation of the last ten years of Thai history. Was an extant concern with the royal succession merely “catalys[ed]” by Thaksin’s rise (page 155)? Would it have caused political conflict whenever Bhumibol died? Or is the concern of the Yellow Shirt faction primarily with Thaksin’s mobilisation of the masses into Thai politics and his growing monopolisation of political and economic power? From the latter perspective, the king’s looming death is problematic not because traditional elites fear radical personal retribution from Vajiralongkorn as a powerful individual, but because, as Thaksin increasingly colonised the state apparatus, they came to fear losing direct control of yet another institution – an extremely important one – that they had long manipulated for their benefit. Crucially, this concern would have been minimal in the absence of the political movement headed by Thaksin. He was, as AMM notes, seeking to “flush out the ghosts” (page 219), to thrust aside rival networks and colonise the state apparatus with his own cronies. Elites have always done this. What made Thaksin uniquely dangerous was his colossal popular support and unprecedented parliamentary majorities. Power no longer alternated among rival factions, with venal elites horse-trading in parliamentary coalitions to carve up the spoils of office between them. Thaksin’s faction appeared to have found a winning formula for permanent control of state power. Unable to defeat him at the polls, anti-Thaksin elites were forced to rely upon institutions that they manipulated or controlled: the courts, the election commission, the army and, of course, the monarchy – both to whip up the Yellow Shirt protests and to legitimise judicial and military coups. In other words, it is Thailand’s violent and bitter social conflict that has lent such importance to the succession, not the other way around.

This perspective explains why, even in private discussions, anti-Thaksin elites are primarily concerned not with Vajiralongkorn, but with Thaksin. It also explains why their primary efforts have not been directed at altering the succession – despite having an opportunity to do so under the 2006-2007 military regime when, as AMM notes, Prem indirectly controlled the state, yet mysteriously made no “arrangements with Bhumibol to keep Vajiralongkorn off the throne” (page 167). Instead, they have overwhelmingly concentrated on rigging the Thai constitution and state apparatus to prevent Thaksin-aligned parties from regaining their popular majorities. That is, after all, the clear goal of the current military regime. If the elite clustered around the palace are really so fearful of Vajiralongkorn, why, since they have twice been able to use the king to endorse their armed seizure of power, do they not also use him to install their allegedly preferred heir, Princess Sirindhorn, at least as regent? According to AMM, precedents and legal procedures enable a female succession, and Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit are now physically and mentally incapacitated (page 199) – so they could not resist. The only reasons can be that these elites are not sufficiently concerned or that they fear a split within the security forces, since several army units are technically commanded by Vajiralongkorn. Even if the latter were true – and I have seen no compelling evidence for it – it would again be a case of potential social conflict – a possible civil war –shaping the succession crisis, not vice versa.

So is the monarchy an important element in Thailand’s political crisis? Undoubtedly, and we are indebted to Andrew MacGregor Marshall for revealing the sordid soap opera of the succession. But is the succession really “the heart” of Thailand’s crisis? I, for one, remain to be convinced.


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6 11 2015
Prince’s purge? | Political Prisoners in Thailand

[…] consideration. First, a bit like Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s widely read A Kingdom in Crisis, succession is cast in terms of ancient battles, with this […]

6 11 2015
Prince’s purge? | Political Prisoners of Thailand

[…] consideration. First, a bit like Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s widely read A Kingdom in Crisis, succession is cast in terms of ancient battles, with this […]