The Story of Thai Democracy: Lessons Learned

Thailand, today, remains mired in a political crisis. The country is still as divided as ever. Conflict over what Thai democracy should really be like remains. Trouble seems to continue to loom by the time the next election comes around. In these circumstances, it would be probable that many wouldnow be dusting off their history books in a search for a solution. After all, this is done regularly in many other countries; most recently, Donald Trump’s scandals have quickly led people to reach out to experts on the Nixon administration, for example.

It is a fact, however, that by and large, in Thailand, this did not happen, and will not happen in the foreseeable future. The political history of Thailand, it seems, is virtually ignored by most of the country. Most Thais outside of academia will be far more familiar with the warriors of Ayutthaya than with names such as Phraya Pahol Ponpayuhasena. Little attention is paid to the policies advocated and pursued by former prime ministers; scant understanding is held of the different coups in the country’s history. The story of Thai democracy is not well known.

But to continue to ignore this history would surely be a folly. Let us first consider two reasons. Firstly, by this point we must have observed the interesting nature of the subject matter. Thai political history is a tale of complex characters and dramatic events. It serves as an excellent way to make people interested in history. Secondly, it is a part of our historical heritage that should be recognised and commemorated just as we do for earlier periods in our country’s history.

Above all, however, is the lessons that we can learn from the successes that have been attained and mistakes that have been made. Some of my friends less inclined towards the study of the past have asked me what the point is of learning about history. To this question I often answer with the same piece of wisdom from Confucius I had quoted in the introduction to this series: “study the past, if you would divine the future”. The history of democratic Thailand offers us a study into the nature of our political system and insights about the trends in our history that we may never be able to discern merely by observing the present. And it is only from the past that we can see what has been tried before. As Albert Einstein said, “the true definition of madness is repeating the same action, over and over, hoping for a different result”. To ignore our past would be mad indeed.

The next question that inevitably will be raised is what lessons, specifically, can we learn from Thai political history, I do not think that it is my place (and I certainly lack the academic expertise in this field) to draw any definite conclusions, so I will leave this for every reader to decide. What I will offer instead are three themes that can be readily discerned.

1. The extent to which the government is by and for the people: after his fall from power, Pridi Phanomyong lived in exile at Guangzhou, China, where he once said:

We often misunderstand that the term ‘democracy’ means ‘government by the people’. In a democracy, not only must we have government by the people, but it must also be for the people. Yet the democracies that we usually see are by the people, but are missing the principle of being for the people. When politicians win elections, they forget that they are working for the greater good, and instead work only for themselves and their cronies.

Although in this quote Pridi did not name a democracy that he had in mind, it would not be surprising if he were referring to his home country. But we would also have to say that if Pridi were referring to Thailand, then he is being lenient by granting that it has a government by the people, if not for the people, for this would be something that some may even disagree with.

King Rama VII, in his letter of abdication, declared that he was “not willing to turn [the powers he formerly exercised to the people as a whole] to any individual or any group to use in an autocratic manner without heeding the voice of the people”. Throughout this series, however, we have often seen that power has been exercised by groups that were not elected at the ballot box. Power was often wielded by small groups in the military, or even by single generals who rose above all others. Therefore, through the first part of Pridi’s formula, it follows that Thailand in its democratic period was, for the most part, an undemocratic country.

The latter part of Pridi’s definition of democracy that is also of interest. It is true that many of the prime ministers of Thailand attained power through undemocratic means, but it may be a stretch to claim that some of them did not act in the national interest. Let us look at two examples. Plaek Phibulsongkram, for example, was committed to what he saw as a grand project in building a greater kingdom of Thailand, and of civilising it in the western sense; Sarit Thanarat, on the other hand, was committed to national security, public stability and economic growth. Both, of course, were definitely no democrats in the means in which they attained and exercised power, but there is a tangible sense that they ruled according to what they perceived as the needs of the people.

Yet the area where many of Thailand’s leaders have failed is that which has received interest only relatively more recently: that of corruption and abuse of power. For example, it is now well known that Sarit’s government was immensely corrupt and after his death some of his wealth would be confiscated by the government. Even democratically elected prime ministers, such as Chatichai Choonhavan and the Shinawatras, would be accused and convicted of corruption or abuse of power. It is a fault of both the Thai political system and of the morals of society that such levels of corruption are permitted. In fact, even today many in Thailand feel that it is permissible, in Pridi’s words, to “work for themselves and their cronies” if that happens in tandem with working to develop the nation.

This reveals a twofold failure in Thai democracy. First is a failure, at different times in history, to fulfil either side of Pridi’s democratic equation: of government by the people and for the people. Second is a failure to understand the demands of democracy: that neither government by the people or for the people is enough alone to sustain the democratic process.

2. The constant oscillation between the constitutional and the extraconstitutional: Thailand is now  known as the most coup-prone country in the world. As written in the Washington Post:

Thailand has experienced more coups d’état than any other country in contemporary history. Scholars sometimes describe the era beginning in 1932 and running up through today as Thailand’s “coup season.” Since 1932, Thailand has endured an astonishing 11 successful military coups, as well as seven attempted coups.

This has probably been noticed by any reader of this series, for the history of democratic Thailand often feels like a never-ending cycle of coups, tearing up constitutions, returning to elections, and yet more coups.

Let us simply look at some major coups in Thai history. The first was the 1932 revolution, which ended the absolute monarchy and introduced democracy to the country. The Khana Ratsadon’s rule (which saw an attempted counter-rebellion) morphed into the dictatorship of Phibun. Phibun’s civilian successor, Pridi, was removed in a coup, allowing him to return to power; during this time he launched a coup against his own government to re-draft the constitution. Sarit finally removed Phibun from power through a coup and also launched a second coup to rewrite the constitution. Sarit’s successor Thanom fell from power due to the uprising of 1973, but the civilian governments that followed him were unstable and finally Seni Pramoj fell due to a military coup. The appointed government of Thanin Kraivichien was removed from power by a coup and replaced by Kriangsak Chomanan. Kriangsak was succeeded by Prem Tinsulanonda, who held on to power but faced down attempted coups, but Chatichai after him was removed by a coup. The coupmakers tried to install Suchinda Krapayoon as prime minister, but protests led to his resignation and a brief flowering of Thai democracy. Thaksin Shinawatra, however, was removed through a coup, and so was his sister, Yingluck.

When explained in quick succession, it becomes clear that in Thailand, coups are the rule rather than the exception. There is a constant oscillation between the use of constitutional mechanisms, such as elections and parliamentary voting, and the use of extraconstitutional mechanisms, such as coup d’états.

In a country where democracy is well-established, political actors must all adhere to the constitution and to the rule of law. But it is sometimes easier for a Thai general to simply tear up the constitution and draft a new one. This has bred a feeling of familiarity and a general acceptance of extraconstitutional measures to deal with political problems. On the one hand, this can be beneficial in that when a crisis develops without a constitutional solution, it can be resolved using measures not officially sanctioned in a charter. A coup can be launched to remove a corrupt government that was abusing its power, for example. On the other hand, it means that democracy is continually uprooted and its seeds are never allowed to sprout fully; a complete acceptance of conducting politics only through democratic means is constantly delayed.

Finally, Thai history has also illustrated both the power and the limitations of the ballot box as a means to generate legitimacy. There are those who have come to power solely through victory at elections: think of the prime ministers of the late 1990s such as Chuan Leekpai and Banharn Silpa-acha. But there are also others who have found that voting has not given them that legitimacy; on the contrary, it may even have diminished it. Phibun, in his second term, tried running in elections, but his tampering with the results led to major popular discontent. Both Thaksin and Yingluck had elections they called boycotted and annulled because great swathes of the public did not think elections would solve the problems facing the country. Accusations of vote-buying is rife through history. When the most basic means through which Thai democracy can function is distrusted, it is not surprising that people turn to measures outside the voting booth.

3. The search for a more ‘perfect’ democracy for Thailand: Just because Thailand is constantly moving back and forth between periods of more and less democracy, however, does not mean that Thais have stopped searching for ways to better their system of government. In different periods of time, different interpretations of a ‘better’ or more ‘perfect’ style of democracy have emerged.

Initially, the conception of Thai democracy was its most basic: that of a constitutional democracy. This arose from the immediate goal of the Khana Ratsadon to place the Thai monarchy under a constitution and transform Thailand from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. A democratic style of government would merely be copied from those of the west. The failure of the Khana Ratsadon to continue on the road of building democracy and instead becoming more authoritarian themselves, however, paved the way for those with even more radical interpretations of what a democracy is to rebuild the system. Phibun never had much time for democracy, for he was more inspired by Nazi-style authoritarian fascism, and he felt this was necessary for the birth of a strong, great power.

There were those who argued that alien systems of government cannot be simply be transplanted to Thailand. Sarit’s administration was a major proponent of this, for he argued that Thailand needed a ‘Thai-style democracy’ that cherished Thai moral values and valued paternalistic leadership. Adversary politics destroys the principle of unity and breeds instability, as the chaotic period between 1973 and 1976 illustrated. In the end, though, it became clear that this was not possible without the personality of Sarit himself, for the system collapsed under Thanom Kittikachorn. In the media today, many say that western democracy must be adapted to fit with Thai culture and society.

In addition, Thai political history has shown a constant tug-of-war between granting more or less democracy, as if there may perhaps be a perfect formula for how much democracy there should be. There are periods of complete authoritarianism, such as Phibun’s and Sarit’s, and there are period of almost complete democracy, such as the interim period between the twin October tragedies and that of the late 1990s and the early 2000s. There are also hybrid periods: Prem’s administration is now known as a period of ‘semi-democracy’ because Prem received backing from a democratically-elected parliament, but left much power in the hands of appointed officials and the military. And finally, there is the issue of how much democracy should be institutionalised formally through a constitution; a perennial question is on whether the Senate should be elected or appointed.

The people have also been an important force in the quest for a better democracy. This manifested itself clearly in the 1973 uprising, in the events of Black May, and in the ‘coloured’ protests of the previous decade. The objectives of popular demonstrations have focused on many things, but two constant factors are increasing the degree of democratisation and the combating of corruption. The most recent of these efforts is, perhaps, that of Suthep Thaugsuban’s and the PDRC’s quest to reform Thailand before holding elections so that ‘true democracy’ can be attained. The consequent administration of Prayut Chan-ocha has then formed a constitution drafting committee which drafted a charter that debated many of the themes above: preventing electoral fraud, incorporating Thai values, creating an appointed Senate, and fighting corruption. Prayut’s effort represents another attempt in Thailand’s long running saga to build a better democracy.

* * *

85 years after the 1932 revolution, Thais still find themselves asking the same questions as eight decades previously. What is democracy, and how can we attain it? Once attained, how can it be sustained?

To this day, the search for a democratic system of government best fit for Thailand continues. What I hope is that through the writing of this series of posts, I have done my part to aid this effort by promoting an understanding of Thailand’s recent past so that we can learn from previous successes and failures.

The story of Thai democracy is not over. Let’s hope after nearly a century of turmoil, democratic Thailand will be able to find its footing and move forward on a path to greater prosperity.



3 thoughts on “The Story of Thai Democracy: Lessons Learned

  1. I went through this journey with you and I think it is rather fantastic and bleak at the same time. I had to read a lot about Thai political history in my time in university and reading through the cycles of democracy and dictatorship is rather fascinating. Thailand itself was such a rich history in comparative politics that it could easily be compared and analyzed to itself.

    In terms of inevitability, I find it wise to leave it alone. Thai political history doesn’t necessarily repeats itself, but it does rhyme quite a lot. Based on this, its easy to say that one knew that certain political shifts in Thailand were already inevitable in the near future. But in the words of Daniel Kahneman, “knew” is quite a highly objectionable word. A lot of events and patterns in history are unfortunately things we only learned in hindsight.

    This doesn’t mean one shouldn’t learn from history because it is impossible to predict the future. No matter how much I read about Thai history know, I will never know if the NCPO will last for a 100 years or another coup is going to happen next year. But history gives us clues into what we might see later. If history rhymes, then Thai political history is a poem. Time will tell if the poem is at its last stanza.

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