Thailand’s future politics I

2 11 2017

Post-funeral, there have been quite a few efforts to assess what happens now or in the near future. We can’t comment in detail on all of them, but here’s some of it.

A DPA/Bangkok report begins with a now common mantra idolizing the dead king and forgetting that his bloody reign was associated almost entirely with support for and from a murderous military.

That bleating completed, the report observes: “Now some are quietly wondering what kind of future Thailand’s 68mn people will face. Their questions are not being asked publicly due to fear of Thailand’s strict lese-majesty law.”

It claims that “[p]olitical analysts see an uncertain future gripped by anxiety.” This comes from loyalist commentator Thitinan Pongsudhirak. He reflects Bangkok middle class and perhaps some elite opinion when he claims that “Thailand as we know it comes to an end…”. For those elite classes, perhaps things have changed because they so closely link their prosperity to the reign of the Sino-Thai king just passed. We don’t think workers and farmers are likely to see that much has changed in their lives.

Somewhat more surprisingly, dissident academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun claims: “Under Bhumibol at least Thai politics was predictable. Now things are different. Nobody can predict what the new reign will bring.”

Predictable? We suppose that repeated military coups can be considered “predictable.” Likewise the repression and long periods of military tutelage that followed them was probably predictable. But, really, this is a claim that is remarkably ahistorical. Yes, we realize that he is simply trying to make the tenth reign seem frightening and unpredictable, but gilding the past for a political point is doing little for historical accuracy and breaking the myths of monarchy.

Paul Chambers of Naresuan University does his gilding as well. He then comes up with the obvious: “His son [Vajiralongkorn] has extremely large shoes to fill…”. Bhumibol’s shoes were made of propaganda that became ever grander as the reign dragged on. A 65 year-old coming to the throne is unlikely to manage that, even if he comes to the throne under a repressive military regime. He also gets into ahistorical observations: “Under the new reign, a new king will oversee a more turbulent Thailand where the monarch is not as tried, tested and perhaps trusted as much by the people as the previous one…”. So that’s how the last reign began in 1946, with a “tried, tested and trusted” young king? Of course not.

Coming to the throne under a military dictatorship is important: “the military regime currently running the country has acted as a protector of the monarchy, using lawsuits and other means to strip power from the political opposition.” It has also sought to put the anti-monarchy genie back in the bottle and to seal it tight. That helps a new king.

And, lest it is forgotten, Vajiralongkorn is a military man, trained and promoted in the military since his mid-teens. So when the report states: “Even after the elections, analysts see prolonged military influence through the new constitution, which was drafted by the junta and approved by Vajiralongkorn and seeks to weaken major political parties and install military influence in the Senate,” underline Vajiralongkorn’s support for military tutelage. Indeed, as the report states: “The monarchy’s relationships with major players, especially the military, will likely dictate the future of Thai politics…”.

Thitinan is correct when he observes that the military-monarchy alliance is now a Cold War-like “symbiotic relationship.”

In an otherwise useful report by AP, whereas the previous report hung on monarchy, that body is oddly missing in action. The report is correct to observe that: “Thailand’s military government has emerged from the year of official mourning for … Bhumibol … with a firm grip on power and in no apparent rush to hold elections it has repeatedly delayed during the four years since its coup.” But it needs to add that its position is especially powerful as it does seem to have cultivated the symbiotic relationship with Vajiralongkorn.

The funeral was indeed “a mostly unblemished propaganda triumph for the junta that underlined its primacy and the sidelining of political parties.” The new king also came out of it without any public stumbles and further cultivated his image as loyal son.

Academic Kevin Hewison is also right to observe that prior to the death of the previous king there was considerable speculation of “a succession crisis, violence and all sorts of things but none of it happened…”. We are sure the successionists will say that it just needs more time to play out. However, the symbiotic relationship works against a crisis unless it is a rupture within that relationship.

In terms of an “election,” Hewison is also right to observe that “[a]ll the political parties look disorganized and not prepared for an election,” and that the “military has got the whip hand.” David Streckfuss is quoted as adding that “the junta hopes to create a ‘very muffled democracy’ that deprives the winning party or electoral coalition of a real ability to govern…”. Chaturon Chaisaeng defines the junta’s rules for its “election” as “very undemocratic. Extremely undemocratic…”.

We hope that Hewison is wrong when he says “[t]he red heart is barely beating at the moment…”. Junta opponents pin their hope on the junta’s “election,” with red shirt spokesman Worawut Wichaidit declaring that any election is better than no election and that a “new government [that] is hamstrung” is better than military dictatorship. Streckfuss reckons that “an election next year would open the possibility for wider political debate than at present.” Yet he admits that the military has “tamped down, talked down, stamped down” the “democratic politics of the past decade but the long-standing tensions between the haves and have-nots of Thailand’s economic development will not go away…”.

Is that an optimism born of repression?



2 responses

2 11 2017
Thailand’s future politics II | Political Prisoners in Thailand

[…] In our previous post we looked at two articles considering possible futures for Thailand’s politics. Here we look at two more. […]

2 11 2017
Thailand’s future politics II | Political Prisoners of Thailand

[…] In our previous post we looked at two articles considering possible futures for Thailand’s politics. Here we look at two more. […]

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