88 Years of Failed Democracy in Thailand
No way out
By: Pithaya Pookaman
Since the promulgation of Thailand’s first constitution in 1932 following the bloodless coup that transformed an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one, the country has come to witness a roll-back in democracy and a reinvention of modern-day authoritarianism in the form of a triumvirate consisting of the military establishment, bureaucratic elite and business conglomerates. The politicians, even those allied with the authoritarian regime, only manage to play a second fiddle in the new political order.
After 88 years since a group of Western-educated military-cum-civilian members of the Rassadorn Party, or the People’s Party, established democracy on 24th June 1932, the present-day precarious situation still remains quite similar to the pre-1932 political order. The prime rationale for the 1932 revolution was built upon the economic malaise of the Great Depression, rapid social transformation, and the disillusionment of the oligarchic establishment.
Today, the current regime’s six years of incompetence and mismanagement, coupled with senseless lockdown to control the spread of Covid-19 pandemic, have spelled a doomsday scenario for the country’s fledgling economy. Political liberalization in the 1990s and the advancement of information technology had brought about rapid social transformation and political awareness among the mass and the underprivileged. This begs the question as to why the second democratization similar to 1932 has not occurred.
To understand why the present semi-authoritarian regime led by Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, which came to power by a military coup in 2014, has managed to keep its stranglehold on power, one has to take a deeper look into the political and administrative transformation in 1932 and its aftermath.
On the eve of the 1932 bloodless revolution, Phraya Pahol Polpayuhasena, the leader of the movement (and great grandfather of the writer) uttered his famous parting words to his wife: “In the event that the coup fails which means a certain execution for me, please tell the world that my intention was not to abolish monarchy or to usurp the throne, but to give the Thai people the power to run their own country.”
Arising from the successful revolution, Phraya Pahol and his Rassadorn Party proclaimed the “Six Principles” based on people’s power as he had promised, in addition to national security, economic welfare, equality, fundamental rights and freedom, and education for all Thais. The principle of the people’s power and self-determination was subsequently enshrined in Thailand’s first constitution promulgated in the same year.
The new political order envisioned by the Rassadorn Party was a sharp departure from the pre-1932 political structure in the sense that it was a rule-based state along the line of parliamentary democracy with a constitution as the highest law of the land.
Skeptics of the 1932 revolution contended that the revolution was premature and unnecessary as reigning King Rama VII was already in the process of presenting a constitution to his subjects. What these skeptics failed to say was that such constitution did not contain any provisions that gave the power to the people. These skeptics also believed that democracy produced elected politicians who were self-serving, corrupt, and intrinsically bad. Conversely, they believed that “good people” rather than the rule of law was of paramount importance to the well-being of the society and the country. The problem was that they provided no definition of the term “good people” or if they had any clue at all.
Nonetheless, such narrative promotes a negative perception of the 1932 revolution which goes to explain why the current regime has no scruples in the removal of historical artifacts and symbolism connected to the 1932 revolution. These include the mysterious disappearance of the copper plaque embedded on the Royal Plaza ground in Bangkok commemorating the revolution, the destruction of the monument marking the defeat of royalist rebels by Phraya Pahol’s forces, the removal of Phraya Pahol’s monument in Lopburi Province, and the destruction of the Supreme Court building in Buriram Province which bore numerical references to the 1932 revolution, among others.
History can be interpreted in many ways to suit one’s own bias or perception. For some countries, history can serve as a referral for an atonement or venting collective guilts of the founding fathers, emancipators, and heroes who don’t quite measure up to the utopian ethics. History can also be invoked to exact vengeance on the latter by removing or destroying their statues and symbols.
The present Thai regime, while removing the symbolism of the forefathers of the 1932 revolution, also attempts to uproot the and rewrite Thai history to burry or, at least, obscure the historical significance of the 1932 revolution in order to assert the authoritarian dominance over democracy which has been flagging after the 2014 military coup. The weary democratic movement has no answer to counter the authoritarian offensive as it has suffered from decades of setbacks and is now in disarray.
The differences of view between pro-democracy and pro-authoritarian forces set the stage for the subsequent bitter political rivalry for the next eight decades and possibly beyond. It is not a class struggle between rich and poor, patricians and plebeians, bourgeoisie and proletariats, feudal lords and serfs (the dichotomy conveniently used by some pro-democracy “Red Shirts” to rally the crowds), or between conservatives and liberals, urbanites and provincial mass.
Rather it is the struggle in which the democratic forces are pitted against the semi-fascist and authoritarian forces. The latter have over time amalgamated into a triumvirate comprising the military, bureaucrats, and big businesses which has a firm grip on Thailand’s politics and economy.
During the preceding decade, this ideological conflict was transformed into a “war of the colors” between the Red Shirts, represent pro-democracy camp, and the Yellow Shirts, representing the pro-authoritarian camp. The Yellow Shirts later adopted another name “Multi-colored Shirts” to disassociate themselves from social stigma for their ransacking the government building and seizure of Bangkok International Airport and turning it into a “love fest.”
It was this same group of ideological fanatics who dropped their previous names and went on rampage in 2013, paralyzing Bangkok and obstructing elections to create an enabling environment for the military to stage a coup in 2014 to topple a democratically elected government which was supported by the Red Shirts.
In the course of the 88 years of ideological war, it is the authoritarian side who has learned from history through staging more than 20 coups, the frequency which is considered highest in the world. Thai authoritarianism has evolved over the years and has finally managed to synthesize its semi-fascist creed with the trappings of parliamentary democracy. It has perfected the craft of writing constitutions to guarantee its continuation of power without resorting to military coups.
The pro-democracy forces, on the other hand, are in a state of disarray. Pro-democracy MPs in parliament lack a winning strategy and cannot do anything more than engaging in the usual routine of scrutinizing the government and exposing its incompetence and corruption. The Red Shirt movement was nipped in the bud by the military and its state apparatus and is all but a spent force. Meanwhile, the resurgence of student activism has not been able to galvanize the people to the level reminiscent of the 1971 students’ uprising that brought down military dictatorship.
To achieve genuine democracy, the pro-democracy forces have to do more than keep the flames of the 1932 revolution alive. Its annual symbolic observance on June 24 was done as a matter of tradition without much fanfare or enthusiasm, under the watchful eyes of the security forces.
Although the present economic and social predicament has provided the essential ingredients to precipitate a democratic revival just as with the period leading up to the 1932 revolution, the pro-democracy forces have not been able to capitalize on it. They lack concerted political will and the wherewithal to put their acts together to affect meaningful democratic change and to put their own footprint in Thai history as Phraya Pahol and his Rassadorn Party did 88 years ago.
Pithaya Pookaman is a retired Thai ambassador and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel. He lives in Bangkok.
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