May your unity in expressing to me your goodwill augur that everyone, and all sides, shall take action for the further prosperity of our nation.King Maha Vajiralongkorn
The coronation of His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn was, politically speaking, a moment where everything in Thailand paused. All eyes were focused on the official onset of the tenth reign of the Chakri Dynasty. For three days, the royal quarters in Bangkok saw beautiful processions, solemn religious ceremonies, and the new monarch’s first appearance on the palace balcony where his father had stood seven decades ago. It was a mesmerizing royal spectacle.
With the ceremonies now over, however, Thailand will quickly be returning to political reality: a country that remains deeply divided, where a recent election seems to have become meaningless and no solution is in sight. Immediately after the coronation, the Thai Twitterverse is already criticizing the prime minister’s senatorial picks.
A moment to analyze the state of Thailand entering a new era will be useful here. Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak wrote the following in the Bangkok Post after the cremation of King Bhumibol Adulyadej:
The 9th reign was so spectacularly successful in combatting communism and ushering in economic development that it almost became a victim of its own success, bringing about its own challenges. The sustained growth eventually emboldened previously marginalized voices to be heard through democratization and political liberalization. Most importantly, international circumstances changed, with no more communists to fight but instead with new international norms of democracy and human rights to adhere to…A spirit of compromise and accommodation is paramount. Perhaps the 10th reign can be just the right incentive…[to bring Thailand] into a moving balance with the 21st century.‘Thailand needs to arrive in the 21st century’
In his inaugural speech, the King stated that he would “continue, preserve and build upon the royal legacy”. It is important to recognize that Thailand is not an undeveloped backwater. Thailand has many strong foundations from the past seven decades that should be preserved: sustained economic growth, a capital city that is the envy of its neighbors, and a world-renowed culture that enhances its soft power. Thailand’s achievements are hardly to be denigrated.
At the same time, we must be clear-eyed about the challenges Thailand continues to face. At a conference at Columbia, Professor Apichai Shipper of Georgetown University noted that Thailand’s political system was “still less democratic than Myanmar’s”. This would have been shocking just a few years ago, and it remains a wonder that Thailand’s democratic backsliding has occurred to this extent. Further political liberalization indeed seems to remain an elusive goal. This, of course, is a challenge that sits alongside many others, including environmental deterioration, decreasing competitiveness, an aging society and remarkable economic inequality.
It is time, in this new reign, for politicians to pull together and finally end the cycle of political instability that plagued the previous decade and a half. This will require compromise of interests. It will require accommodation of other parties. It will require spirited debate and the clashing of ideas. But that is what building a true democracy is about.
And despite the extent to which politics in Thailand is conducted at the elite level, building a better country also starts with all of us. It starts with ensuring factfulness in our political discourse. It starts with being open-minded about differing political perspectives and ensuring that all voices, even marginalized ones, are heard. And it starts with respecting the rules and norms of a 21st century liberal democracy.
Psychology shows that humans love new starts. It is with cautious optimism to hope that in this new era, Thais will be able to forge a new path ahead. We are returning to political reality. Let us make that political reality better.