In April, a plaque commemorating Thailand’s 1932 revolution mysteriously vanished. The Thai military government’s reaction toward the case not only reflected the royalists’ traditional ambivalence toward the revolution, but also an attempt to reduce its historical significance to almost non-existent. The missing plaque has since been replaced by a new one that promotes the royalist notion of “Nation, Religion, and King.”
The tension and competition between royalist and progressive forces in Thailand have resulted in various coups and in particular, the latest political crisis that has plagued Thailand for more than a decade. Federico Ferrara argued that the 1932 revolution to remove absolute monarchy and establish a constitutional monarchy was thus an “unfinished” transition. The case of the missing plaque was nothing new, as it was removed before during the era of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat only to be restored after his death. However, this time around, the case should not be seen in isolation, given the manner in which new King Maha Vajiralongkorn has maneuvered to strengthen his grip on the political process. Viewed from a wider context, the current situation seems different, giving the impression that the 1932 revolution has gone from an “unfinished” transition to a “failed” revolution.
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Since 1932, the royalists have ferociously contended with the dominance of progressive forces in the country. The revolution that ended the absolute monarchy in 1932 later began to fall apart when the People’s Party compromised with the royalists out of political expediency. That in turn allowed the latter group to reassert its power. During this period, the royalists began a project of constructing a new monarchy under what was called a “Thai-style” democracy.
This new monarchy took shape when Sarit came to power in 1958 through a self-coup. With the help of propagandist Kukrit Pramoj, the King was claimed to be an inherent element of a Thai “democratic system” that had existed for centuries. The King’s benevolent paternalism meant that he was actually “elected.” Meanwhile, the Sarit regime also made conscious efforts to expose the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej domestically and internationally by arranging countryside and overseas visits. Many of the traditional royal festivals and ceremonies, which had been neglected after the 1932 revolution, were also revived.
In the past decades, the royalists have managed to cope with challenges from the progressives. One key factor to the success of the royalists was the huge popularity that surrounded King Bhumibol. The late King’s dedication to his people was often portrayed as a sharp contrast to the corrupt nature of elected politicians. And through his personal charisma, King Bhumibol was able to intervene in political affairs informally, unlike what a typical constitutional monarchy would entail. With his power and influence increased at each juncture, King Bhumibol ensured that royalism became a significant part of Thai public life.
However, the developing leadership style of King Maha Vajiralongkorn suggests that he is seeking to go beyond the informal powers exercised by his father. The Thai military government’s implicit loss of control over King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s actions can attest to the observation that he is growing more powerful than his father could have. It is in this sense that one may regard the case of the missing plaque and, more broadly, the new King’s recent maneuvers as a collective representation of a delayed “failure” of the 1932 revolution in establishing a constitutional monarchy.
Why a Failure
Since King Maha Vajiralongkorn ascended to the throne, his actions have displayed that he is not going to be a sitting constitutional monarch with informal powers. First, King Maha Vajiralongkorn demanded changes to a draft constitution voted upon in a referendum in August 2016. The changes provided the new King with complete control over the appointment of a regent in his absence, remove the need for a parliamentary counter-signature to royal edicts, and re-establish royal authority in the event of a crisis not addressed by the constitution. In other words, King Maha Vajiralongkorn will wield more power over the parliament than his father ever had.
Second, King Maha Vajiralongkorn has introduced a shake-up to his Privy Council and Palace Staff, an indication that he is gradually forming his own group of loyalists independent from the military government. Apart from appointing his own loyalists, King Maha Vajiralongkorn is also imposing a tighter control over the palace staff. The new king has stripped more than 40 palace officials of their ranks, including five members of the Vajarodaya clan, one of the prominent families under his father.
In general, the 1932 revolution was supposed to introduce progressive ideas and values such as electoral democracy, parliamentary checks and balances, and more importantly, a constitutional monarchy. The recent developments in Thailand suggest that the country is moving farther away from what an ideal constitutional monarchy should be. In its place are an increasingly powerful King and an exceedingly weakened group of political parties. The case of the missing plaque and its replacement is purely symbolic of the fact that not only has the 1932 revolution failed, but Thailand is possibly moving back toward the pre-revolution days.
While the 1932 revolution seems to have reached a point of failure, there is also an underlying ideological crisis in Thailand. The success of the royalists has so far depended heavily on the charisma and popularity of King Bhumibol. Contrary to general misunderstanding, royalism has not always been strong in Thailand. The reverence of the monarchy hinges on the personality rather than the institution. Finding a like-for-like replacement for King Bhumibol was never realistic. As such, the recent developments within the royal institution is an indication that they have failed to understand the underlying ideological crisis confronting Thailand.
Such a lack of understanding would make Thailand more unstable. The passing of King Bhumibol represents the coming of a new era. Instead of taking the opportunity to find a new footing in the new era, the royalists have attempted to reverse the effects of the 1932 revolution and re-introduce elements of royal assertiveness from the pre-revolutionary past. Although this may have put the “nail on the coffin” of the 1932 revolution, such developments may lead to a perilous political environment over the long term.
Eugene Mark is a Senior Analyst with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He has a deep interest in Thailand’s political and security affairs.