วันพฤหัสบดีที่ 4 ธันวาคม พ.ศ. 2551

The Monarchy and Contemporary Thai Politics

บทความนี้เขียนเมื่อ ค.ศ. 2004
The Monarchy and Contemporary Thai Politics

For Thai people, the years from 1996 to 2006 can be called a decade of royal celebrations, i.e. the Golden Jubilee in 1996, the King’s sixth-cycle birthday in 1999, Their Majesties’ Golden Wedding in 2000, the Queen’s sixth-cycle birthday in 2004, and the Diamond Jubilee in 2006. These were not and will not be just anniversaries. In fact, they remind us the stability of the Chakri dynasty (found 1782) headed by King Bhumibol Adulyadej (also known as Rama IX, born 1927). Unlike the monarchy, Thai politics since the 1932 revolution which abolished the absolute monarchy has not been so stable. The seven decades of Thai “democracy” has experienced 23 prime ministers, 16 constitutions, several military regimes, and countless coup attempts. During most of this period, King Bhumibol, who ascended the throne in 1946 and became the world’s longest living reigning monarch after the demise of the Showa emperor of Japan in 1989, has overseen Thai politics which has changed from the civilian governments in the wake of the Pacific War to the dictatorship in most of the 1950s-1970s, and from “semi-democracy” in the 1980s to “full democracy” after the last (or, some might argue, the latest) military junta was ousted in 1992. In addition, although the King, as a constitutional monarch, must be neutral, he, and sometimes his consort Queen Sirikit (born 1932), have often taken part in Thai politics as well. As the King’s Diamond Jubilee is drawing near, it is interesting to consider the role of the monarchy in Thai politics.

This article wants to argue that, until the mid-1990s, the Thai monarch was a symbol of discipline and order and hesitantly supported democracy because he feared it might pave the way for radical movements and/or disorder that might destabilise the country and, to some extent, the monarchy. The essay will consider the role of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in four major events: the 14 October 1973 uprising, the 6 October 1976 coup, the 1 April 1981 coup attempt, and the 17-20 May 1992 riot. The King’s speeches on various occasions will also be examined.

The monarchy and the rise of Sarit Thanarat
After the collapse of the absolute monarchy in 1932, the monarchy became a figurehead. The last absolute monarch, King Prachadhipok abdicated in 1935 and was succeeded by his 9-year-old nephew, King Anada Mahidol who had no chance to exercise power because he spent most of his time studying in Switzerland. When he died mysteriously in the Grand Palace during his brief return to Bangkok in June 1946, his younger brother Prince Bhumibol became king and the coronation took place in 1950. During his early reigning years, King Bhumibol was not able to involve in politics because Prime Minister Field Marshal Pibunsongkram, one of the members of the People’s Party that overthrew the absolute monarchy, wanted to minimise the centrality of the throne. After returning from his education in Switzerland in 1951, the King was not allowed to go outside Bangkok except to his coastal Klaikangvol (Far From Worry) Palace in Prachuapkirikan province. There was a rumour that when Pibun allowed the King to visit the Northeast region in 1955, he found that the King was very popular and thus refused to finance further trips.[1] As a result, the King was not cooperative in Pibun’s plan to celebrate the 2500th anniversary of the Buddhist era in May 1957 by claiming that he was ill. During this period, the King spent his time with his growing family,[2] composed and played music, and became a disc jockey of his own radio station.
After Pibun was ousted by Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat in September 1957, the status of monarchy was enhanced because Sarit, declaring that the King and the nation are “inseparable”, wanted the King to be the legitimiser of his authoritarian regime.[3] Thus, royal official visits abroad were organised and several royal ceremonies were revived to project the royal glory. After the death of Sarit in 1963, the King came out quickly to support Sarit’s successor, Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, who reciprocated by paying great respect to the monarchy. Thak Chaloemtiarana concludes the role of Thai monarchy during this period that “ the institution more and more plays the role of legitimiser of political power, supporter/legitimiser of broad regime policies, promoter and sanctioner of intra-elite solidarity, symbolic of national unity, and “broker” for transferring funds from the private sector to the state treasury”.[4] In short, the King identified the monarchy with the junta.

The 14 October 1973 uprising
Social changes occurred in the 1960s as a result of Sarit’s modernisation. The middle class, especially the intelligentsia, had grown and challenged the junta by demanding political rights and constitutions. Meanwhile, the King began to express his interests in political affairs. From 1964 to 1971, the King granted 104 cabinet audiences, more than twice as many as he had given in a decade before that.[5] Realising this current of social changes well, the King tried to distance himself from the junta. As Roger Kershaw states: “a monarchy which was identified with corrupt, military regimes would simply have guaranteed its own early distinction”. He further argues that the King sought to escape military domination by using the university students and those recently graduated as a “constituency”.[6] For example, the King participated in annual music concerts at Chulalongkorn University. In addition, when Thanom called the election in February 1969 and created his own party, the United Thai People’s party, which declared that the party was created by persons “in whom the King has great confidence”, the King denied this relationship in his address at Prasarnmit Educational College.[7]

It must be noted that although the King tried to foster love for the monarchy among the university students, he thought that the student’s activities should not be radical. In September 1971 at Chulalongkorn University, the King emphasised “discipline” by giving his opinion about the alleged corruption at the university that the students should drop their plans to stage demonstrations and send representatives to talk with the Prime Minister on the matter instead.[8] His emphasis on discipline, and also unity, will explain why the King supported the return of the junta in 1976, the matter that will be discussed later.

Less than three years after the beginning of semi-parliamentary democracy, Field Marshal Thanom in November 1971, threatened by the MPs to vote down the military’s demand for extra funds and the whole budget bill, staged a coup against his own government, dissolved the parliament, and abolished the 1968 Constitution. The coup was opposed by students and the King. In early 1973, Kukrit Pramoj, the royalist journalist who would become Prime Minister in 1974, stated the King believed the junta should be balance by extra-bureaucratic forces.[9] During this period when the press was censored, the King criticised the junta and spoke out that: “so I say to the generals, for them to understand, that we have this tradition of petitioning the government, and that they must learn to listen to the people”.[10] Finally, the student protests reached the peak and became bloodshed on 14 October 1973. The King intervened by ordering Thanom to resign and appointing Privy Councillor Sanya Dharmasakti Prime Minister. The military regime collapsed temporarily and democracy was restored.

After the fall of the junta, the King supported and gave advice to the members of the constitutional drafting committee. In addition, Nati Vatiwutipong notes that the King wanted to be above politics by disapproving of the part of the Constitution draft which prescribed the President of the Privy Council, who was chosen by the King, as the person who countersigned royal commands.[11] Finally, the Constitution was promulgated in 1974. Multi-party politics began. However, King Bhumibol’s institutionalisation of the monarchy was short-lived because of political situations in the mid-1970s.

The 6 October 1976 coup
In 1974-1976, Thailand was chaotic because the existing political institutions were inadequate to channel the concerns of people facing serious social problems. Labourers wanted to get more wages. Farmers demanded the government to alleviate their poverty. Both went on strike and were supported by radical factions of student movements whose ideology became increasingly Marxist and vulnerable to the infiltration of the Communist Party of Thailand. The King disliked radical changes. He stated that he opposed the idea that “the destruction of old established things for the sake of bringing about the new would lead to entirely good results, since surely there must be something good in the old-fashioned, which, according to the theory, must be destroyed”.[12] Following the October 1973 uprising, the King emphasised discipline again:
At the present, discipline is viewed by some quarters as being virtually meaningless. … As a matter of fact … discipline … is highly essential, for it is the major cause why the rules and regulations that exist for the orderliness of men, organization, society or country are not rendered useless.[13]

In 1975, the threat to national security and the monarchy became obvious after the victory of North Vietnam, the fall of Laotian monarchy, and the rise of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Therefore, the right-wing groups which aimed to protect “Nation, Religion, and King” emerged in Thailand in 1975-1976. One of these groups was the Villages Scout which was under royal patronage. During this period, the King and Queen appeared from time to time in scout uniform.[14] In December 1975, the King had a song called Rao Su (We Fight) composed to arouse nationalist and anti-communist sentiments among the Right. In September 1976, ex-dictator Thanom’s return to Thailand in the guise of a monk sparked dissatisfaction among students. The King, who had identified himself with students in the October 1973 uprising, changed side by, with the Queen, visiting Thanom at the temple. Kershaw views that the King’s visit “showed his disaffection from the trend of democracy”.[15] Confrontation between the Right and the Left became bloodshed on 6 October 1976. In the evening of that day, the military officers, led by Admiral Sa-ngad Chaloryu, staged the coup and the King sanctioned the State of Emergency. Two days later, the King (or, some people believed, the Queen) installed Thanin Kraivixien, a former Supreme Court judge with right-wing views, as Prime Minister.[16] Although Thanin was later ousted in October of the following year by the military, the King’s support for Thanin was still obvious when Thanin was appointed Privy Councillor less than two months later.

It is obvious that the King identified himself with the military again in 1976 because he thought that the openness of Thai politics after the 14 October 1973 uprising brought the nation into disunity. The end of monarchy in Laos also made him concern about his own survival. Kershaw views that the King is “nothing if not a ‘political animal’, ever aware of the shifting configuration of power”. [17] Morell and Samudavanija sums up:

"Those who believed that this (the 14 October uprising) meant that the royal institution had shifted its support away from the military to the people---- and, more particularly, to the students, who had led the people’s uprising--- were to discover that they had been sadly mistaken. Instead, the palace stood squarely for law and order, for conservatism in Thailand’s many traditional institutions and values."[18]

After the 6 October coup, the King supported the military as a protector of the nation. In December 1976, his address to the nation emphasised the role of the Thai military and unity among Thai people :

"At a time when our country is being continually threatened with aggression by the enemy, our very freedom and existence as Thais may be destroyed if Thai people fail to realize that patriotism and the solidarity in resisting the enemy. … Accordingly, the Thai military has the most important role in defense of our country at all times, ready always to carry out its duty to protect the country."[19]

From 1977 to 1978, personal and physical attacks on the monarchy frequently occurred. On February 13, 1977, while Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn was on his way to a military base in Northeastern Thailand’s Petchaboon province, one of the then “red” zones, he was attacked by a group of insurgents. Three days later, Princess Vibhavadi, the Queen’s lady-in-waiting, was shot dead on the helicopter by communist insurgents in southern Thailand’s Surat Thani province. On September 21 of the same year, while the King was driving back to his residence in southern Thailand’s Narathiwat province, his car was crashed by a motorbike. The next day two bombs exploded while the King was giving prizes to school representatives, 47 people were injured. On April 17, 1978, while the King’s cousin Princess Bejarat was on the road, her car was also crashed. On August 30 of that year, while taking a helicopter in northeastern Thailand, the Crown Prince was again attacked by the insurgents. Although all of the royals, except Princess Vibhavadi, were safe, these attacks made the King feel that the monarchy was insecure and thus he supported the authoritarian governments of Prime Minister Thanin Kraivixien and his successor General Kriangsak Chamanand.

The 1 April 1981 coup attempt
Thailand by the late 1970s entered the period of semi-democratic government led by General Kriangsak Chamanand (1977-1980) and General Prem Tinsulanond (1980-1988). Multi-party politics was allowed and the lower house was elected by the people. However, the military still provided the leadership of the government to ensure stability. In the 1980s, the King still acted as a patron of the government who saved his kingdom from calamity. As he stated in a 1980 BBC interview: “If you don’t defuse the bomb, it will blow up”.[20] His role became obvious on 1 April 1981 when a group of young military officers known as the Young Turks, thinking that Prem’s semi-democracy was destroying the prominence of the military in politics and thus aiming to revert to Sarit-style authoritarian regime, staged a coup against the government and successfully seized control of all strategic buildings in Bangkok. The King with his family fled to Prem’s base at the northeastern city of Korat. Queen Sirikit made a broadcast from Korat expressing the monarchy’s support for Prem. Without royal approval, the coup failed.

It is interesting to consider why the King took side by joining Prem at Korat. It must be noted that the Prem era was a compromise between senior generals and bureaucrats controlling key ministries of Defence, Finance, and Interior, and businessmen, controlling the lower house and the remaining ministries. The restoration of Sarit-style regime that was the purpose of the Young Turks might bring about uprising like the 14 October 1973 incident and thus destroyed unity and order which the King had emphasised so far. As Jenkins and Bowring states : “[the King’s] intervention was to protect a legitimate government which the monarchy saw as an acceptable ‘middle way’ balance between military and civilian groups from ambitions and hot-headed officers”.[21]

The 1991 NPKC coup and the 17-20 May 1992 riot
Facing a campaign for a prime minister chosen from the House of Representatives, Prem resigned in 1988 and paved the way for Chat Thai (Thai Nation) Party, led by Chatichai Choonhavan that got majority votes in the election to form the government. Chatchai’s government was full of business-based politicians and known as the “buffet Cabinet” which, in traditional Thai concept, refered to corruption. Conflict of interests between the coalition parties occurred. In addition, labour organisation and peasant protest emerged for the first time since the 6 October 1976 coup. Meanwhile, the conflict between the government and the military over military budget and Indochina policy increased continually. Eventually, Supreme Commander Sunthorn Khongsompong and his clique, who called themselves the National Peacekeeping Council (NPKC), staged a coup in February 1991.

Considering the King’s reaction, on the second day of the coup, he appeared on the television with the coup group. It is reported that the King, thinking that Chatichai’s cabinet reshuffles were ‘comic’, and that the Prime Minister was personally responsible for not controlling the internal situation, supported the coup. Kevin Hewison even argues that Sunthorn sought royal approval before staging a coup.[22] Royal support for the NPKC was obvious in late 1991. When the draft constitution that included four provisional clauses designed to sustain military influence for a further four years was delivered, protests against these clauses increased steadily. However, the King seemed to support the draft. It is reported that the draft constitution, which was faxed to the King in Chiangmai, was returned in the same manner, with some minor alterations.[23] In his birthday speech in December 1991, the King stated:

"These days, we are all confused by such questions as “To change or not to change”, “To promulgate or not to promulgate”, “To change after it is promulgated” or “To promulgate after it is changed”. We don’t know what will be decided, but let it be workable; and if it works well, let it work on; if it does not work well, that is, if it does not work smoothly, it can be amended."[24]

From the King’s speech, it can be argued that the King wanted to see the military maintain the influence in politics for some years. In this speech, the King also, again, emphasised on unity and order by stating that “anything can be changed, but one should not quarrel to the point of hitting each other on the head resulting in the bloodshed”.[25] Hewison states the King’s speech implied that “the principles embodied in the constitution were not particularly important, but its promulgation was necessary so that instability could be avoided”.[26]

In March 1992, the election under the new Constitution was held. Pro-military Samakkitham Party formed the government and invited General Suchinda Kraprayoon, one of the 1991 coup makers, to be the prime minister. Suchinda’s acceptance brought about demonstrations, led by Chamlong Srimuang, the head of Phalang Dharma Party, and reached the peak on 17 May 1992. Soldiers were deployed to crack down on protesters. On 20 May, the King intervened by summoning Prime Minister Suchinda and Chamlong at Chitralada Palace. The King insisted on his opinion given several months ago by stating that:

"The draft Constitution had been amended all along; it had been changed even more than originally expected … let me say that when I met General Suchinda concurred that the Constitution should first be promulgated and it could be amended later. … And even lately General Suchinda has affirmed that it can be amended. It can be gradually amended so that it will be eventually improved in a ‘democratic way’. Thus, I have already mentioned the way to solve the problem many months ago."[27]

In addition, the King asked Suchinda and Chamlong not to confront each other because “this country is our country, not the country of you two”. He further posed a question: how could you be proud of yourself as a winner on the debris?[28]

From his speech, it is clear that the King did not take the cause of conflict seriously. Instead, he chose to interpret this conflict as a personal one between Suchinda and Chamlong. In other words, it is likely that the King in fact agreed with the military’s prolongation of power. However, Suchinda resigned few days after having an audience with the King and democracy was restored.

Conclusion and the Future
It is obvious that King Bhumibol has always emphasised order, unity, and discipline. He hesitantly supported democracy because he feared it might open the way for radical movements and/or disorder that might destabilise the nation and, to some extent, the monarchy. Thai political situation from 1973-1976 was a good example for examining the role of the monarchy. When the King saw that the students, with whom he had identified himself in the 14 October 1973 uprising, became too radical and leftist, he changed side by supporting the 6 October 1976 coup and choosing the ultra-rightist Prime Minister. In 1981, considering Prem’s semi-democracy as a middle way to ensure stability, the King disapproved of the revival of Sarit regime by the Young Turks. Again in the early 1990s, dissatisfied with corruption and conflict of interests among the coalition parties in the Chatichai government, the King supported the NPKC coup and its prolongation of power to ensure stability of the nation.

However, since the mid-1990s, realising that politics should not overly depend on his guidance and that his successor, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, is obviously less capable than him[29], the King has less intervened in politics and tried to support democracy unequivocally. When the People’s Constitution was being drafted in 1997, it is rumoured that the King instructed the armed forces to support the draft.[30] Even Hewison, who had stated that the King preferred order to democracy, admitted that: “The King appears to support the 1997 Constitution like he has no other charter. That’s a position different from the past”.[31] When Thailand faced the Asian Economic Crisis in 1997 and there was a call for a ‘national government’ led by non-elected former Prime Minister Prem Tinasulanond, the Privy Councillor, the King did not answer the call.[32] But the King still exercises three powers of a constitutional monarch, namely the power to be consulted, to give advice, and to caution. During the late 1990s economic crisis, for example, the King appealed to Thais to observe the customs of self-sufficient economy. It is hoped that when King Bhumibol, who is at the age of 77 in 2004 and is going to celebrate his Diamond Jubilee in 2006, leaves the scene in the near future, the Thai monarchy will be institutionalised completely.

[1] Thak Chaloemtiarana, Thailand: The Politics of Despotic Paternalism (Bangkok: Thammasat University, 1979), pp. 310. King Bhumibol is the first monarch who visits the Northeast region.
[2] He married Queen Sirikit, a royal descent, in 1950. She bore him four children: Princess Ubonrat in 1951, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn in 1952, Princess Maha Chari Sirindhorn in 1955, and Princess Chulabhorn in 1957.
[3] This can explain why the King’s birthday, 5th December, became the National day in the Sarit era, displacing 24th June, the day that the People’s Party abolished the absolute monarchy.
[4] Chaloemtiarana, Thailand: The Politics of Despotic Paternalism, pp. 333-334.
[5] David Jenkins and Philip Bowring, “The power wielded by a constitutional monarch” Far Eastern Economic Review, June 19, 1981, pp. 53.
[6] Roger Kershaw, The Changing Face of Monarchy in Southeast Asia (Essex: H.G. Leates Ltd., 1979), pp. 19.
[7] David Morell and Chai-anan Samudavanija, Political conflict in Thailand: Reform, Reaction, Revolution (Cambridge, Massachusettes: Oelgeschlager, Gunn & Hain, Publishers, Inc, 1981), pp. 66-67.
[8] Ibid., 67.
[9] Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker, Thailand: Economy and Politics (New York: Oxford Univesity Press, 1997), pp. 301.
[10]Morell and Sumudvanija, Political Conflict in Thailand, pp. 69.
[11] Niti Vatiwutipong, “His Majesty The King and Thai Politics,” in The Thai Monarchy (Bangkok: The Public Relations Department, 2000), pp. 98.
[12] Kevin Hewison, “The monarchy and democratization,” in Political Change in Thailand: Democracy and Participation, ed. Kevin Hewison (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 64.
[13] Ibid., pp. 64-65.
[14] Charles F. Keys, Thailand: Buddhist Kingdom as Modern Nation-State (Bangkok: Duang Kamol, 1989), pp. 96.
[15] Roger Kershaw, Monarchy in South-East Asia: The Faces of Tradition in Transition (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 138
[16]There was a rumour that Queen Sirikit sought to dominate the court. However, her youngest child Princess Chulabhorn denied the rumour on nationwide TV in 1986. See John McBeth, “Voice of the palace: The royal family denies some persistent rumours” Far Eastern Economic Review, September 4, 1986, pp. 30.
[17] Kershaw, The Changing Face of Monarchy in Southeast Asia, pp. 20.
[18] Morell and Samudavanija, Political Conflict in Thailand, pp. 69.
[19] Keys, Thailand: Buddhist Kingdom as Modern Nation-State, pp. 100.
[20] Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian, “The Monarchy and Constitutional Change Since 1972,” in Reforming Thai Politics, ed. Duncan McCargo (Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2002), pp. 66.

[21]Jenkins and Bowring, “The power wielded by a constitutional monarch,” pp. 53.
[22] Hewison, “The monarchy and democratization,” pp. 70.

[23] Ibid., pp. 70.
[24] Phongpaichit and Baker, Thailand: Economy and Politics, pp. 366.
[25] Ibid., pp. 366.
[26] Hewison, “The monarchy and democratization,” pp. 70.

[27] Michael Kelly Conners, Democracy and National Identity in Thailand (London: Routledge Curzon, 2003), pp. 130.
[28] Vatiwutipong, “His Majesty The King and Thai Politics,” pp. 101.
[29] Prince Maha Vijaralongkorn (born 1952), the only son of the King and Queen, was designated Crown Prince in 1972. He cannot win respect and reverence his father commands and is not as popular as his younger sister, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn . In an interview with the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in 1981, the Queen criticised that her son “does not give enough time to his people”. The Queen also accepted that her son was “a bit of a Don Juan” and his family life with his official wife, Princess Somsawali, with whom he has a daughter, was “not so smooth”. One of his women, Yawathida Pholprasert (her official name is Sujarinee), bore him four sons and one daughter. Now he already divorced Princess Somsawali and turned his back on Yuwathida. In 2001, he married a 29-year-old palace official, Srirasmi, with whom he still has no child. See Richard Nations, “The queen as mother: Queen Sirikit makes some surprisingly candid remarks in assessing her son’s role as crown prince” Far Eastern Economic Review, December 18, 1981, pp. 10.
[30] Conners, Democracy and National Identity in Thailand, pp. 130.
[31] Cited in Shawn W. Crispin, “Leading the Way: King Bhumibol favours democracy in the new political era,” Far Eastern Economic Review, December 16, 1999, , accessed August 8, 2002.
[32] Kershaw, Monarchy in South-East Asia, pp. 151.