Our country cannot afford any more conflicts. We certainly need to have a democracy. But it must be a Thai-niyom democracy- that is, a Thai-style democracy.
-Prayut Chan-o-cha, January 2018
What exactly is the ‘Thai-style democracy’ that prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha talks about? Is it like socialism with Chinese characteristics, but applied to democracy in a Thai context? How does Thai-style democracy differ from a regular democracy? The ideology is indeed ill-defined without expansive literature dedicated to it. Yet Thai-style democracy, nebulous as it seems, is a concept with deep roots, birthed and utilised by a succession of Thai leaders.
There is no questioning that Thailand is heading towards a general election. Yes, the date for the polls has been delayed multiple times, and any protests or signs of dissent against the ruling junta is quickly quashed. But with new parties registering, and Prayut himself seemingly in a semi-permanent campaign mode, there can be no doubt that the return to democracy is near.
What, however, will the democracy that Thailand have look like? With the prime minister’s recent emphasis on ensuring that Thailand has a Thai-style democracy, it may be worth taking the time to examine what Thai-style democracy is, its roots and what Thai-style democracy as envisioned by Prayut may look like in the future.
What is Thai-style democracy? It may be instructive to begin with its roots. The concept was first espoused by Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, who took power in 1957 and eventually became prime minister. Sarit, also authoritarian figure, ousted dictator Plaek Phibulsongkram and established a Revolutionary Council to govern Thailand. In one of his earliest proclamations, Sarit’s Revolutionary Council announced:
The Revolutionary Council’s aim is to turn Thailand into a democratic state. We view that to achieve this goal, we must correct the mistakes of the past, resulting in the need for a coup on October 20th, B.E 2501, so that we can fully revoke the current system of democracy that has been wholly transplanted from foreign nations. Instead, we must now build a democracy that is appropriate for the special circumstances and characteristics of Thailand- a Thai-style democracy.
The King Prajadhipok’s Institute calls attention to three defining features of Sarit’s Thai-style democracy, but which I still believe remain relevant for Thai-style democracy as an ideology today: the recognition of the pluralistic nature of democracy, emphasis on suitability for Thai culture, and situational adaptability.
1. Recognition of the pluralistic nature of democracy
At its core, Thai-style democracy recognises that democracy is not monolithic but rather pluralistic, where a system of governance need not conform to Western standards of liberal democracy to be democratic and multiple types of democracy can exist. The system that Sarit ended up instituting bore little resemblance to a democracy, with himself installed as dictator with absolute powers and an unelected legislature that was not accountable to democratic elections. But Sarit did not see the need for Thai-style democracy to have elections or accountability mechanisms. In a manual released shortly after his death, it was proclaimed: “Thailand at this moment does not have elections and no permanent constitution, but we are a democracy”.
Indeed, we can see this democratic pluralism as fundamentally similar to interpretations of democracy espoused by other authoritarian regimes whose governance do not meet Western standards of a liberal democracy. One such example is Xi Jinping’s ‘consultative democracy’, a system of fostering public consensus and ensuring public outreach on national affairs. Sarit’s view of democracy was not dissimilar; the nation, as a family, was to rely on the government, who would listen to their concerns and act on them. Elections, typically considered an important means of ensuring democratic representation, are typically disregarded.
This perspective is important for two major reasons. Firstly, by recognising that democracy does not have to conform to one standard, Thai leaders over the ages, elected or not, have been able to proclaim the democratic nature of the regime. Thailand has a chronic problem with maintaining its constitutions, each varying in its level of ‘democratic-ness’, but if one subscribes to a relativist view of democracy, then each regime can announce that the constitution they are promulgating is democratic. It provides justification for including or excluding democratic mechanisms, such as elections and parliamentary representation. Secondly, this view allows each leader to relegate democracy to a secondary role as merely the means to a greater end, such as that of economic development or maintaining peace and order.
2. Emphasis on suitability for Thai culture
Thai-style democracy recognises the importance of political culture in determining systems of governance. I want to highlight, in particular, three aspects of Thai-style democracy in relation to Thai culture.
Firstly, Thai-style democracy is inherently conservative in nature. It must rely on the assumption there is an unchanging set of principles and values that should collectively be adhered to by the Thai people that can be used to define ‘Thai culture’. For a democracy to be built in the ‘Thai-style’, there must be an agreed-upon definition of what ‘Thai-style’ means, hence a need to view culture as immalleable and unchanging. The vagueness of the term allows leaders to apply their own interpretation of what Thai-ness means. This conservatism also rejects the notion that Thai culture can evolve and that cultural innovation can truly be counted as Thai.
Secondly, Thai-style democracy emphasises the need to foster values that are seen as an inherent part of Thai culture, such as unity (kwarm samakee) and orderliness (kwarm riebroi). Both values are often seen as some of the core values of Thai-ness (kwarm pen thai), and that both are needed to ensure that Thailand can move forward with its development. These terms are frequently mentioned in announcements made by coupmakers. The emphasis on loyalty to the triadic state ideology- nation, religion, king- can also be seen as a key part of Thai-style democracy.
Third, Thai-style democracy relies heavily on the use of Buddhist values. Oft-discussed is the need for “good people” (khon dee) to run the country; immoral people are seen as unfit for leadership as they would bring the country on the road to ruin. Thailand’s overwhelmingly Buddhist population means that for someone to be a “good person”, they must conform to Buddhist standards of morality. Consider, for example, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban’s speeches, where he calls for khon dee to run the country in an unelected people’s council. A question that this perenially raises, however, is how to ensure that “good people” are selected to run the country, especially if the process is done through an election.
3. Situational adaptability
Thai-style democracy is notably flexible and adaptive, best reflected by the fact that an ideology first invoked by Sarit in the 1950s can still remain part of our political discourse in the present day. In essence, due to its vagueness, Thai-style democracy can be adapted to suit any purpose and situation. For example, Thai-style democracy has been used as justifications for all sorts of military coups and for more authoritarian forms of government. The BBC has counted at least six times that ‘Thai-style democracy’ has been invoked to justify the need for a military coup.
How can Thai-style democracy be used as a justification for authoritarianism? At times, regimes use Thai-style democracy as its own end-goal, arguing as Sarit did for a home-grown system of government. More often, regimes use Thai-style democracy as a “transitional” style of governance. By proclaiming that Thai people are not yet educated enough about democracy for Thailand to use a Western-style parliamentary democracy, Thai-style democracy which could be better understood by the general population will suffice.
Indeed, Thai-style democracy can be seen as a way that a variety of regimes in Thailand have sought to grant themselves legitimacy, through the embracing of nebulous traditional values and the claim, fictional or not, that the system of government is democratic. By claiming to be a Thai-style democracy, regimes no longer feel they must be held to universal standards of what a democracy is, but instead to ill-defined, homegrown standards.
Six decades after Sarit took power, Thai-style democracy is once again in vogue. Prayut has frequently mentioned the concept in his speeches, and at one point even stated that Thailand was already a democracy even under junta rule- just that it was a Thai-style democracy, not a democracy in the Western sense.
Prayut’s invocation of Thai-style democracy seems to preserve many of the features that has been outlined above. Thai-style democracy is still an attempt to differentiate Thailand’s democracy and ensuring that it is compatible with Thailand’s culture. The prime minister even making an attempt to rigidly define what Thai culture is through his drafting of the 12 values for Thai citizens, which has since become part of public school curriculums.
Many, predictably, have began to suspect that Thai-style democracy will simply be used as justification for the prolonging in power of the military government in some shape or form, particularly to legitimate the need for an ‘outsider prime minister’ who has not been elected to parliament.
The prime minister has since attempted to retreat from perceptions that he was attempting to create a hybrid regime or to distort democracy by saying that his use of the term ‘Thai-style democracy’ is merely a part of his effort to educate citizens about democracy and that Thailand must still conform to international standards of a liberal democracy.
That recognition is important. Thai-style democracy is not necessarily a bad thing; there is much to be said about the benefits of preserving Thailand’s national culture and values. But there are also several problems with Thai-style democracy. Even if we accept the view that there can be many types of democracy, and reject the perception that Western standards of liberal democracy are universal, what standard do we then use to determine whether a government that claims to adhere to ‘Thai-style democracy’ is truly democratic? How do we define Thai culture and ensure that Thai-style democracy is sufficiently ‘Thai’?
In the end, while it is important not to blindly accept the installation of foreign institutions and ideologies, it should also be recognised that the values of liberal democracy can be universal, including the rule of law, popular representation and participation, and a myriad of other rights. In the 21st century, being a liberal democracy is the only viable path forward for Thailand. Thai-style or not, Thailand’s system of government must be able to meet universal standards of what a democracy should be.