Tianming, the citizens of ancient China called this concept; “heaven’s will”, or as translated to English, the “mandate of heaven.” It was the philosophical underpinning of the imperial regime. The Emperor, the Son of Heaven, ruled not merely because he had proved able to exercise an effective monopoly on the use of force. No; it was because heaven itself had bestowed upon him a mandate to govern.
But where the kings of Europe held a divine right to rule, authorized by the grace of God and conditional upon nothing, the Son of Heaven was subject to a cosmic performance review that could result in the mandate being withdrawn. Divine displeasure could wreak heavy havoc indeed. Natural disasters, epidemics, invasion, social disorder: all were interpreted as signs that heaven no longer favored the emperor on the throne. It was time for a new ruler to seize the mandate of heaven.
This concept of heaven’s will, reliant as it is on divine power, has since the fall of the imperial system been discarded in Chinese political theory. But for Thais, superstitious even in the best of times, this concept of a mandate of heaven withdrawn would not seem too far fetched in this current time.
We have, after all, a government besieged by problems. Poor air quality that the government has largely ignored. An escalating epidemic, panicking citizens in whom the government has been unable to instill confidence. A looming budget crisis, caused by parliamentary incompetence. A censure debate, tabled by an increasingly exasperated opposition. A slide down the corruption rankings. An inequality problem that only seems to worsen. All of this against the backdrop of a poor economy that underperforms its neighbors.
The situation would be salvageable if the cabinet had a decent public relations team. But it does not. Instead Thais have been subject to irritated lectures; the prime minister has been his usual angry self, while Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul told Thais to “exercise your brain and think a bit before criticizing.”
If this were ancient times, now is the time people would start exercising their brains and whisper of a mandate of heaven withdrawn. It is hard to escape the feeling that this government is an entirely spent force, deprived of any creative solutions to Thailand’s ills, yet unable to recognize reality and vacate office.
And it is no use, as the prime minister often does, to blame “previous governments” and “the politicians” for the country’s problems. Almost six years ago, just after Prayut had launched his military coup, he had penned a song soon to be repeated thousands of time on television. “Please give us a little time”, the lyrics went, “and a beautiful country will return.” The song promised the government would work “honestly” and asked only for the peoples’ faith and trust; in return, “The nation will soon get better/We will return happiness to the people.”
Few, now, can even see the beautiful country that was promised with the haze blanketing Bangkok.
It is a tragedy that the government is a lost cause. The greater tragedy is that Thais cannot vote it out of office, with a constitution that straitjackets the political system and ensures no change possible in the foreseeable future.
When the mandate of heaven was perceived to be withdrawn in ancient China, rebellions arose so that someone new could take the mandate. Heaven’s grace could be bestowed as readily as it was withdrawn. Thais may not believe in the concept of the mandate of heaven as the ancient Chinese is, but the patience they have with a government that lacks a popular mandate was already thin. These mounting problems will only wear it down further. Their democratic will already obstructed, would it take much more for them to push harder to see their right to mandate restored?
If the government has vision, it will know that it needs to do better. It will need to be more responsive to the public, take decisive action to resolve Thailand’s problems, and move towards democratizing the system so that creativity and innovation can come to the forefront. With this foresight glaringly missing, this government is lost. It is anyone’s guess where Thailand is headed. Where are we headed? Who knows?