Democratization, once vaunted as a historical process sweeping the globe, is today hardly a trend. Samuel Huntington’s “third wave” of democratization has given way to a “global democratic recession.” The trappings that make a liberal democracy—elections and parliaments, laws and courts, a free press—have time and again been subverted to support illiberal governments. And as the performance of alternative regime types is catching up, scholars worry that democracy itself is losing appeal.
Thailand embodies all those dynamics: sincere attempts to establish democracy failing for structural reasons; democratic institutions subverted by competing elites; all leading to the progressive stabilization of a system that is non-democratic despite an outward show of democracy. As Thais go through their democratic motions on Sunday, in the first election since 2014’s coup, it is worth asking how this state of affairs came to be.
The modern Thai regime is a singular one: a military monarchy in command of a constitutional democracy. The United States played a role in this arrangement. When the Korean War started in 1950, Thailand became, in U.S. eyes, a domino that could never fall. Washington and Bangkok thus formed an alliance to contain the Soviet Union, which has endured in looser form to this day.
From the U.S. perspective, Thailand’s strategic raison d’être was its non-Communist character. This identity grew along three dimensions during the Cold War. First, the appeal of Communist ideology was crowded out by an exceptional ruler, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who took on spiritual significance as a quasi-deity. Known as Rama IX, the monarch-turned-divinity would prove the perfect antidote to Mao and Ho Chi Minh.
Second, the threat of a communist rebellion—from within Thailand or from neighboring Laos and Cambodia—was contained by an expanding military armed with American weapons. This intimacy would have legacies big and small: the Thai army still trains regularly with the U.S. military, Thailand served as a rear base for U.S. troops in Vietnam, and the town of Pattaya, close to the main naval base, has remained a global sex tourism destination since war’s end.
Third, Communist economics were kept at bay. Thailand’s few state-owned enterprises (energy and utilities) left the economic space largely in the hands of private entrepreneurs. Many of them were of Chinese ancestry, which set them apart from the Siamese aristocratic and military elite.
The upper crust of the business class learned to build political connections with this elite, via gifts and the occasional strategic marriage. Officers came to be hired as consultants, retiring into comfortable corporate assignments. But the army never meddled directly with business. Thai industry was drafted into the supply chain of Japanese manufacturing and proved efficient, competitive, and profitable.
King, soldiers, and businessmen worked side by side to make Thailand a Cold War success story. Codependency did not prevent festering tensions within elite domains: palace intrigues between siblings or spouses, commercial rivalries between business leaders, and, most visibly, quarrels for the premiership between ambitious officers. But the system was robust, the domino never fell, and Thailand solidly established itself as a middle-income country.
The rapidly growing population was not completely on the sidelines. During the late 1960s, students took demands for democratization to the streets, a movement that culminated in an October 1973 uprising that was silenced by the troops. Public calls for democracy came back in the early 1990s, this time instrumentalized in a leadership quarrel between former officers that brought violence back to the streets of Bangkok. The King singlehandedly put an end to the pandemonium by summoning the bickering rivals to his palace on the evening of May 20, 1992. They were duly chastised, and peace was restored.
The events of May 1992 showed that the legitimacy of the Thai system rested in the hands of the monarch. This was neither tradition nor a foregone conclusion. A military coup in 1932 had put an end to absolute monarchy, and the junta’s leader had flirted with fascism until the late 1940s. When the young, Boston-born King ascended the throne in 1946 after his brother’s assassination, the monarchy was a weak institution on the edge of obsolescence. But a combination of personal austerity, piety, and public empathy toward the plight of the rural Thai turned him into a popular icon.
Beginning in the late 1950s, the King travelled all around the country, using the Crown’s ample financial assets to set up thousands of Royal Projects—idealized ventures that gave peasants access to modern technology, infrastructure, and markets, all under Buddhist principles of harmony with nature and self-sufficiency. Constitutionally, the King had no power. Empirically, he had struck a deep chord into the Buddhist ethos of the still-agrarian nation to become its soul and keystone.
The political crisis of 1992 not only cemented the moral authority of the monarch, it also ushered in what appeared to be real democracy. Following in the footsteps of Taiwan, South Korea, and the Philippines, Thailand promulgated in 1997 a new constitution celebrated for its genuinely liberal provisions. Yet democracy became a mere entry point for economic elites into a hitherto restricted circle of power. In a middle-income country with rapidly growing inequality, devastated by the 1998 Asian financial crisis, votes were easy to buy.
Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecom tycoon of Chinese origins, set his sights on the rural and poorest northeastern section of Thailand. He recruited local political bosses to rally the voters and, borrowing a page from the Royal narrative, presented himself as a rich, powerful, caring leader who would improve the condition of the rural poor. He promised microloans and subsidized health care, and became Prime Minister in February 2001.
Electorally savvy but politically imprudent, he quickly crossed lines and made enemies. Extrajudicial killings against drug dealers horrified liberals. The redeployment of a counterinsurgency unit away from the South reignited a long-raging civil war with local Muslims. Shocking conflicts of interest arose; when he resolved to divest of his economic empire, he boldly exempted himself from paying taxes.
Preempting the promotion of Thaksin-friendly officers to high positions, the disgusted military took him down in September 2006. He has been in exile ever since, dodging extradition requests for tax fraud. But he left behind a political machine that, for two decades thereafter, could not be beat—a “juggernaut,” as every single analyst in Thailand likes to call it.
Thai politics have been caught in a dysfunctional cycle ever since Thaksin’s ouster. The military seizes power temporarily, then promulgates a constitution crafted to block Thaksin’s party, which nonetheless carries the vote. A Thaksin proxy has a go at running the country, until terminated by either a judicial motion or a coup, and it is back to an interlude of direct military rule.
Those machinations have polarized the country into two camps, identified by the color of their polo shirts. The red shirts are Thaksin’s supporters; the yellow shirts his adversaries. In the latest round, Thaksin’s younger sister, Yingluck, a political novice appointed Prime Minister in 2011, was ousted by the military three years later on the grounds that a public scheme to stabilize rice prices had become, under her watch, a major source of fraud. When the Yingluck crisis unraveled in 2014, protesters manned barricades in Bangkok, taking fire from unknown snipers and throwing grenades at the police. In earlier clashes over the years, the yellow shirts had blockaded the airport, and the red shirts had occupied luxury malls in downtown Bangkok, setting them ablaze as the army cleared them out.
While the yellow/red division is often explained by foreign media as a class war between the urban middle class and rural poor, local experts see a more complex battleground where the masses are pawns in a power game played by competing elites. The poor are as likely to be yellow as red, depending on where they live, or, if in Bangkok, where they come from. The educated middle class tends to be yellow, but there are fervent Thaksin supporters in its ranks as well. Military officers are more likely to be yellow, but red sympathy is more apparent within the police.
Ideologically, the yellows stand for defending the monarchy against Thaksin, accused of being a crypto-republican. Republican voices, to the extent that they dare speak, can indeed be found on Thaksin’s side. Thaksin himself has remained ambiguous on the matter, and has been the object of multiple conflicting conspiracies—simultaneously suspected of being an anti-royalist and of colluding with the Crown Prince.
Amidst all those confusing cleavages, the economic elites, the great wealth behind the large corporations, are publicly neutral. It is not mere prudence that dictates their attitude. Thaksin’s generous policies toward investors, including bailouts, have earned him loyalties within their circle. His populism has consisted of highly visible but fiscally affordable gifts to the poor that have done little to redistribute concentrated wealth. Indeed, Thaksin’s populism has helped some of the very rich get richer; it is the junta that is attempting to incrementally raise the fiscal burden on wealth and speculation.
The paradox of Thaksin is that, inasmuch as he represented the emergent democratization of Thailand, he was also the spearhead of a political takeover by an up-and-coming business elite. If there is a class conflict in Thailand, it is not an attempt by better-off urbanites to disenfranchise the rural poor. The military’s reluctance to give up its political role represents the resistance of the upper-middle class to its own marginalization.
Over the decades, Thailand’s hypertrophied military has produced tens of thousands of high-ranking officers, and a uniform-bearing civil service that has grown in parallel. Higher education was the ticket to those prestigious but not especially lucrative positions. This vast social caste has now grown over three or four generations to form the core of Bangkok’s middle to upper-middle class. This group welcomes democracy in theory, but honors it mainly in the breach—and not if it means losing control to corrupt billionaires riding a populist wave.
To cover the sin of holding power through coups, the junta positioned itself as the defender of all things royal, with the troops and the yellow shirts united in undying support for the monarchy. The King was thus drafted in the military effort, although he did not and could not lead it. The war between red and yellow festered at a time when the ailing ruler had withdrawn from public life. Rama IX was too ill to be a mediator, and his inevitable succession opened opportunities to whichever camp wielded power at the time.
The transition was fraught with danger, first because, after a 70-year reign, there was no precedent for such a transfer of power, and secondly because the male heir’s lifestyle differed from that of his much-revered father. The alternative was a beloved Princess—pious, discrete, and temperamentally her father’s daughter—but second in line in a country whose succession law privileges seniority.
In this volatile environment, the junta implemented lèse-majesté laws to the extreme. Books, articles, or tweets that hinted at criticism of the monarchy could land their author in jail. Foreigners were at risk of being deported or denied entry. Such heavy-handed tactics were intended to control the media, and to intimidate the red shirt camp.
Tensions were running high when the passing of Rama IX, in October 2016, brought a reprieve to the country. The trauma of loss was so pervasive and intense that political life was suspended for several years. The Crown Prince was ushered in without objection, helped by the aura of humility and respect he showed to his late father throughout the protracted funeral ceremonies. His coronation was pushed back to a later date, allowing the nation to grieve undistracted.
This truce was Rama IX’s last gift to his country. But underneath the mournful facade, the military was preparing for the future. A new constitution had to be written, one which, it was hoped, would finally break Thaksin’s “juggernaut.” The junta appointed senators who, along with members of the House of Representative to be elected through universal suffrage, would select the Prime Minister. Those moves, combined with an electoral law biased toward small parties, were designed to ensure that the junta would maintain ultimate control.
Small parties have proliferated in the lead-up to the elections. This is no accident—constitutional monarchies have long sought to foster political fragmentation among their opponents to dilute vote shares. (The Moroccan court is particularly expert at this trick). The red camp has responded to the challenge by running secondary and tertiary lists, to rake in as many seats as possible. But this diffusion of red shirt candidates among separate party lists only makes their voters that much harder to coordinate.
The campaign has also seen the emergence of a Thaksin 2.0: another billionaire of Chinese ancestry, the scion of an automotive empire that contracts for Tesla, and a large stakeholder in a major media conglomerate. At 40 years of age, Thanathorn Jungrungreangkit has drawn comparisons to France’s Emanuel Macron and Canada’s Justin Trudeau, and represents a generational rupture from the yellow/red dichotomy. His Future Forward party opposes military interference in politics and is running on a platform of progressive redistribution. Charisma notwithstanding, he is expected only to split the anti-military vote.
The military is gingerly going to the polls with the junta’s leader, retired general Prayut Chan-o-cha, atop the list of a party created for the occasion. Despite all the constitutional tinkering, the junta showed its insecurity by repeatedly postponing the elections, ultimately hitting the hard deadline they had previously imposed on themselves: March 24, 2019.
Whether victorious or lame ducks, the junta will still be in office for the Coronation on May 4-6, which will celebrate the anniversary of Rama IX’s own 1950 accession to the throne. In the lead-up to that ceremony, the monarch has begun to assertively uphold traditional prerogatives. As nominal head of the armed forces, he has issued Royal decrees to promote loyal units and officers into his entourage. He has redesigned army uniforms and replaced his father’s likeness with his own on the life-sized murals that adorn Thai cities. The Palace has also claimed direct control over the assets of the monarchy—estimated at over $30 billion—which had traditionally been managed by a public institution, the Crown Property Bureau. Slowly but surely, the transition has been taking place, with the younger King assuming the full mantle of royal authority from his father.
In early February 2019, the monarch’s eldest sister suddenly declared she would lead Thaksin’s party list in the upcoming elections, feeding persistent suspicions of the Palace’s collusion with Thaksin. The announcement sent shockwaves through the ranks of royalists and republicans alike, who both felt betrayed by this unnatural alliance. For the junta, which already fears Thaksin’s formidable political machine, it would have been impossible to run a campaign against a royal assumed to have implicit support from the King.
It took less than 24 hours for her brother to kill her candidacy and end the speculation. Although she had relinquished her position in the Royal lineage decades before to marry a foreigner, the monarch deemed it “inappropriate” for her to get involved in politics. In a bizarre, fraternal drama, the symbiosis between King and Army had been renewed. The election would no longer simply be about selecting a government, but also a test of the nature of the regime. Even if the junta wins the popular vote on the merits, its legitimacy will remain anchored in the institution of the monarchy.
Thailand’s efforts to establish democracy since 1997 have been sincere. But moving from oligarchic to democratic rule has only delivered a nasty and occasionally violent game of cat-and-mouse between rival factions. Democracy is about more than mere institutions and constitutions; more, too, than free elections or media. Democracy is intangible and fickle.
The counter-democratization push across the East is reaching a critical mass. It is not an outright rejection of democratic practices of governance so much as a subtle subversion of them, by regimes who share best practices for so doing. Everywhere, anti-corruption campaigns are used to eliminate political rivals, the way Thailand has used tax evasion to indict Thaksin. Thai prosecution of lèse-majesté takes a page from Turkey’s infamous law to punish “insults against Turkishness,” used and abused to silence critics and opponents.
Lee Kwan Yu long ago demonstrated what an enlightened despot could accomplish in terms of economic development, but Singapore is small and uniquely located. Yet many contemporary leaders seemed determined to follow in his stride: paying lip service to some aspects of democracy, pursuing accountability and efficiency, sometimes holding elections to legitimize their rule, all the while concentrating power in their hands. The fading of factional collegiality within the Chinese Communist Party to the benefit of one-man rule, the transfer of power in Saudi Arabia from a cluster of royal siblings to a single Crown Prince, the persistence of monarchies across the Arabian Gulf, and the backsliding of Sisi’s Egypt, Erdogan’s Turkey, and Putin’s Russia all prefigure a deeper despotic trend.
In this landscape, it is no wonder that constitutional monarchies are proving resiliently monarchal. If anything, it is Thailand’s efforts at sustaining some form of democracy that now seem almost anachronistic.