Thailand’s political crisis deepens as the lustre of its fairytale monarchy begins to fade, writes Ben Bohane
The multi-coloured protests that paralysed Bangkok at the end of last year garnered international media attention more due to tales of stranded tourists than the deep-rooted causes behind them. But the opposing movements that took to the streets and occupied the airport demonstrate the extent to which Thai society is split, with further confrontation in ‘the land of smiles’ seeming inevitable.
‘The king has too much power. He is behind everything, he controls the army and the government. There is no democracy here,’ announced Pairoj, an elderly flag-waving businessman during a rally in support of the exiled former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. ‘We need real democracy and for the monarchy to finish. Thailand needs to become a republic like what happened in Nepal recently.’
Pairoj’s words were unhurried, spoken freely in a public gathering as a crowd around him dressed in red shirts nodded their heads in vigorous agreement. In many countries, such sentiments would barely raise an eyebrow, but not in Thailand – a place where the king is supposedly adored by all his subjects and criticism of the royal family remains the great (and perhaps only) real taboo.
It is a taboo that has long seen its citizens, academics and even the foreign press self-censor themselves lest they fall foul of Thailand’s strict lèse majesté laws, some of the toughest in the world. A recent edition of The Economist was banned due to its criticism of the monarchy, and an Australian, Harry Nicolaides (pictured left), has just been sentenced to three years in a Bangkok prison for lèse majesté.
In 20 years of reporting on Thailand and Indochina, this was the first time I had heard open, public dissent about the Thai royal family, yet as the thousands protested in support of ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, such dissent was clearly readily bubbling to the surface.
‘Thaksin loves the people in his heart,’ added Pairoj. ‘He is not corrupt. He has a vision to take Thailand into the future, which the monarchy simply doesn’t have.’
However, Thaksin’s opponents were just as vociferous in their condemnation. At Bangkok’s then-occupied international airport, there was a real sense of jubilation when, on 2 December last year, Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled that the pro-Thaksin interim government under Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat was illegal. For ‘yellow shirt’ supporters of the inappropriately named People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the ruling was the victory they had waited for.
‘It is finished for now,’ Surinnawon told me as he rolled up the mat where he had slept for the previous eight days next to an Air Asia check-in counter. ‘We are happy, we are tired, but this is not finished yet. Thai politicians are too corrupt and we have to show Thai people how to protest properly so that we have the power to get rid of corrupt MPs.’
However, Surinnawon doesn’t believe the king has too much power: ‘He is neutral, he never intervenes in politics. If Thaksin and his supporters want to create a republic, that is their idea. But we can’t accept them being so corrupt and changing the law to suit their own agenda.’
What happens when the king dies?
Ironically, though, the new government, under the Oxford-educated prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, seeks to ensure the king retains more than enough power by ensuring that only a minority of MPs are directly elected, leaving most political appointments to the king’s discretion. Abhisit promises better governance, but heads a shaky coalition.
The damage the protests and attendant disruptions have caused Thailand’s economy has been estimated in the billions of dollars, as tourism reels from peak-season losses. What worries observers most, however, is that there seems to be no end in sight as both sides continue to dig in.
But beyond this, there is also deep concern over what happens when 81-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej dies.
While history is likely to remember the king fondly as a great unifying father figure who brought stability so Thailand could prosper while its neighbours, Burma, Cambodia and Laos, struggled through war, communism and military dictatorships, there are now serious concerns over the succession issue.
The heir, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, is an unpopular figure and many Thais would prefer to see his sister, Princess Sirindhorn, take the throne, even though the Chakri dynasty has always been a patrilineal line. The superstitious Thais are also mindful of an old prophecy foretelling that the Chakri dynasty would only last nine generations before falling into the hands of a despotic king. King Bhumibol is the ninth monarch of this dynasty.
The issue of democracy is a complicating factor. Although liked and loathed in equal measure in his home country, Thaksin Shinawatra was democratically elected as leader before being ousted in the 2006 coup. When elections were held in 2007, his proxy party won that election, too, frustrating the generals who thought they had seen him off.
Although a strong odour of corruption hovers around him, Thaksin was shrewd enough to build his own power base with his fortune and win over many poor Thais, especially farmers, from the north. As a result, the people rallying to his banner see him as a figure who can usher in real democracy.
Yet whether Thaksin wants political power to further enrich himself and his cronies, or whether he has genuine and substantial development plans for Thailand, remains to be seen.