Can democracy take root when you have a God-King?
The current prime minister, the Eton and Oxford-educated Abhisit Vejjajiva, only won office after the army coup of 2006 forced out the elected premier, Thaksin Shinawatra, and the Constitutional Court banned the People’s Power Party, which was widely seen as the successor to Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party and hence a vehicle for the now exiled former leader. So, goes the simplistic analysis: the red shirts are fighting for democracy, and the monarchist yellow shirts, many of whose leaders were members of Abhisit’s Democrat Party, want to keep power in the hands of the aristocratic and business elite, right?
Up to a point, Lord Copper (although Lord Buddha might be more appropriate, as will become apparent). Thaksin was undoubtedly elected by a large majority in 2001, and would have been in 2007 had he been able to participate in politics. But he is hardly a poster-boy for democracy. There have been long-standing and widespread allegations against him of corruption – for which he was convicted in 2008 (although whether he had a real chance of being acquitted is a moot point). Some suggest that Thaksin or his proxies are paying the red shirts to protest. Others accuse him of authoritarian tendencies and of harbouring the desire to turn the country into a republic. It was to emphasise this that his opponents wore yellow, the royal colour, a very potent symbol in a land where the king is perhaps not quite god, but getting close to it.
And this leads us to why a purely political solution may not prove to last for very long. For us, to say that a leader has been elected democratically pretty much closes down any argument about legitimacy. This, however, is clearly not the case in a country which has had 17 military coups and nearly 30 prime ministers during King Bhumibol’s 64 years on the throne. The monarchy – absolute until 1932, “constitutional” since – has been the source of stability and unity for every evolving and successor version of the Siamese state going back to the 13th century. If the current king is “revered”, the adjective universally used to describe him, it is not just because he is an amiable chap, a skilled jazz musician, inventor and sportsman of austere demeanour who has stepped in numerous times to end confrontation – even though all those things may be true. It is also because he is heir to two traditions of kingly authority that place him on an entirely different plane to the often venal politicians who may find favour on the ebb and flow of popular opinion.
The Thai kings are seen as dhammarajas, monarchs who rule according to Buddhist principles and who demonstrate by their acts that they possess the most superior virtue. They live by their own code, the thotsaphit rachatham, which guides their behaviour. As Paul M Handley writes in his biography of the present monarch, “The King Never Smiles”:
“The following of the ten kingly virtues is the source of the king’s undisputed authority and sovereignty. Without making him absolutely superior – only the dhamma is superior – the thotsaphit rachatham represents the uniqueness of his sacrality, distinguishing him from the highest monks.”
In itself, this theory provides for as strong a justification of power as, say, the “divine right” of kings to rule preached by Louis XIV and, less successfully, by Charles I. But the Thai monarchs also draw on another tradition, that of the devarajas, the Hindu god-kings of the ancient Khmer Angkor kingdom. Although the early Siamese states of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya were both Buddhist, their rulers incorporated this remnant of the region’s Hindu past both into their coronation rituals and the mythologies surrounding their kingship.
The constitution of 1932 may have reduced the monarch’s absolute powers, but it still described him as “king of the world… full of merit from the former life, and incarnation of god”. When the monarchy is invested with such awesome authority, the claims of democracy seem weak and, most importantly, lacking in legitimacy, in comparison. By most accounts, King Bhumibol has been a wise and beneficent ruler who has earned the immense prestige and affection in which he is held (and those who doubt that should try stopping anyone in the street in Bangkok to ask their opinion). It is, of course, for Thailand and its people to determine what form of government they choose to have.
But so long as the institution of the monarchy is seen to be so superior to any form of democratic process, and so long as any disruptions of that process, whether it be by military or judicial means, can be justified as actions taken to defend the monarchy, it is hard to see how democracy can really bed down and become the norm rather than an intermittent exception in Thailand. Thaksin’s achievement was to give voice to the rural poor who felt ignored by the Bangkok elite. The mass of his supporters would almost certainly not want any change to the king’s status. But at some point there will have to be a new reckoning under which the royal sphere is more clearly demarcated from the political – not least so that none can justify violence in the name of protecting the king. Otherwise, the long-term future of the monarchy, when the ailing King Bhumibol is no longer around, must be open to doubt.
7 comments from readers
- Keith Bridgeman
11 April 2010 at 16:05
- Taksin Shinawatra is a shamelessly corrupt man who bought votes to winn all the elections he took part in. Even his rise to incredible wealth in a relatively poor developing nation reeks of criminal corruption. Had he not been so greedy and corrupt, he could have done great things for the poor people in Thailand. Some of his populist policies could have given greater stability to this country of extremes of wealth.
The King has been the only force for good that has held the country, through one crisis after another. His personal interventions such as in 1992 have saved lives and resolved seemingly unsolvable conflicts. It is to be regretted that the King is not sufficiently healthy to rescue Thailand once again.
No! It is not the Monarchy which threatens the stability of Thailand it is the venal greed that pervades the politics of this beautiful country. British politicians take note!
- Charles Edward Frith
11 April 2010 at 16:25
- Vote buying has always been the norm Keith. Where have you been?
- dek moo
11 April 2010 at 16:28
- Anyone who has been to Thailand for a longer period will understand why western-style democracy is not good for Thailand.
The first problem is that the power of the urn will be misused by corrupt politicians.
They are all corrupt, especially those in the rural areas and those of popular uprising. You have to be if you want to climb ranks in Thai society.
Thaksin is a perfect example of someone misusing the urn. First he paid his voters (the other parties paid as well). Then he gave some small incentives to the poor (small credits, subsidized agricultural prices and free healthcare) and used his “democratic backing” to rule as he saw fit, amassing a considerable fortune of 2 billion for his own pocket.
And he started as a police colonel…
Then about “democracy” itself in Thailand: the economic development proposed by the King is very wise and prevents a sellout to the west.
People complain that they don’t have money, yes, but on the other hand everyone in Thailand is fed and has the liberty to do what he wants. In fact some people in Thailand are poor, yes, but also lazy, do nothing or very little, and can live anyway.
If Thailand begins to develop through credit, it will know the same development as India or other Asian countries where lower layers of society sold everything for some quick cash and now have nowhere to go to, and no field to grow food on. It would slowly transform into a western-style sweat shop where real estate prices are out of reach of the average salary and where corporations and rich people own everything.
In the west, we just don’t notice because we have TV, internet and alcohol.
The timing of the Thai crisis is not innocent. In the background is the succession to the throne.
The to-be constitutional ruler does not currently have the same prestige as his predecessor, so he will have to rally support somehow. This can be done if he champions some of the red’s demands, and he will unify the country around a good compromise as was done in the past. This would install him nicely.
But he’s got no chance if the reds win now.
Abhisit’s initial offer to hold elections in nine months time should be seen from this perspective. The offer was rejected by the reds – maybe they will discuss it again after this bloodshed.
11 April 2010 at 19:38
- dek moo – after the reds have had the results of 2 elections ignored or quashed by the military, why should they trust another one?
As another point, all references to corruption on Thaksin’s part should also note that Abhisit’s party is also charged with corruption and receiving illegal donations. Similarly any allegations Thaksin’s human rights abuses should be suffixed with a recognition of Abhisit’s scandalous treatment of refugees from Burma and Laos.
Neither side here can really claim to be the ‘good guys’; however, one side has a democratic mandate.
Good article by the way; democracy can only wield so much power when there is perceived to be a higher authority outside of it.
11 April 2010 at 22:16
- The people should have the right to judge the political parties. Political parties may but votes but if they don’t satisfy the people, they lose the next elections. I don’t think the king is innocent. He is just trying to preserve his seat. If Thaksin is corrupt, aren’t the other parties corrupt? And why do the people vote for this party if It is so corrupt? In article, It is also said that Thaksin is authoritarian. What about banning a party, closing down the pro-Thaksin media? What is going on in Thailand is so shameful. Who is the king? He is just another person like you and me. As a turkish I know how this works. Our military and elite is trying to keep the power and blame the ruling power for theocracy and authoritarian behaviors and they are abusing Ataturk, unity and other republican values. It is not too different. Let the people judge the political parties through elections.
12 April 2010 at 08:34
- The red shirts have a right to be angry- their leader Thaksin was illegitimately removed. They want their 2001 vote to be recognized.
I don’t agree with the protestors’ methodology. But the yellow shirts brought this on themselves
12 April 2010 at 15:28
- The Thailand people must be granted their wish.If they wish Thaksin as its appears,whether he is corrupt or not ,so be it, so long as the election is free and fair.nobody has the right to impose a minority view over the majority.Kudos the rural folks of Thailand.Your article smirks of elitism which is anti-democracy.The King is not elected,he lacks legitimacy.