OPINIONS

Long live the King

Last Wednesday, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra – younger sister of exiled billionaire politician Thaksin Shinawatra and the current leader of the political party he founded – was removed from office by Thailand’s Constitutional Court. This week, now-ex-PM Yingluck – the least corrupt prime minister in modern Thai history – faces a five-year ban from politics at the hands of the country’s National Anti-Corruption Commission.

These moves – together, the fourth such ousting an elected prime minister hailing from Thaksin’s party since 2006 – are only the latest in a decade-long struggle that pits Thailand’s aristocratic establishment against a tycoon they view as a traitor, its urban middle class against newly empowered rural masses and King Rama IX’s privy council against the very man set to succeed to the throne.

Thaksin’s 2001 election victory – the first of five in a row by parties he controls – represented a dramatic break from 20th century Thailand’s parade of corrupt coalition governments interspersed with frequent military coups. Here was a man with establishment credentials – he made his fortune through monopoly contracts granted by contacts in the Thai military – who spurned established methods and established power centers, instead deciding to create his own constituency through populist policies.

But to his opponents Thaksin would still be simply the latest and most capable in a succession of corrupt party leaders that made millions off the business of governing while convincing the less-educated sectors of the general public that he represented their interests, were it not for a deeper royal struggle with which the fight against the Shinawatra family has become inextricably intertwined.

Thaksin has thrown his lot in with Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, a playboy with mistresses in every corner of the world and a longtime outcast in palace politics. The American ambassador even described Thaksin in 2005 as having “invested in crown prince futures.” The prospect of the prince becoming Rama X – as the present king wishes and succession rules dictate – is a threat to the existing royal establishment (which is linked closely with the political, business, and military establishments in a web called the “network monarchy”). It is surpassed only by the prospect of Maha Vajiralongkorn as king overseeing another decade of Thaksin rule, this time unfettered by the machinations of the political elite, like the recent moves against Yingluck.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), the longest-serving head of state in the world and one of the longest-reigning monarchs in world history, will likely pass away soon. With each passing year, the importance to the “royalist” forces (ironically, it is the self-designated royalists who are most opposed to the king’s stated wishes for succession) of holding Parliament, by any means necessary, in order to amend the royal succession law only grows.

The first such attempt – a 2006 military coup against then-PM Thaksin orchestrated by Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda (himself seven years older than the king) – failed in its primary objective of restoring Thailand to the pre-Thaksin “tutelary democracy” status quo. Instead it gave rise to a pro-Thaksin popular movement, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (also known as the Red Shirts), which joined the anti-Thaksin, “Yellow Shirt” People’s Alliance for Democracy, already protesting on the streets of Bangkok.

On the night of the coup, Thaksin was at the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. While he has not returned to Thailand since to face the corruption charges the coup leaders brought against him, he has repeatedly addressed Red Shirt rallies from exile in Dubai. When the coup leaders called a new election, a pro-Thaksin party won again. Within months, the Yellow Shirts stormed the capital, blocking the doors to Parliament and seizing Suvarnabhumi International Airport.

Two politically motivated Constitutional Court rulings deposed two pro-Thaksin prime ministers in late 2008, and the resulting unelected government, led by PM Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democrat Party, became the target of several new rounds of Red Shirt demonstrations. At the height of the protests in 2010, a government crackdown led to 91 deaths; Thaksin supporters alleged that the Thai military fired on protesters.

The most recent protest movement began when PM Yingluck attempted to pass an amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return to Thailand (while also exonerating Abhisit of murder charges surrounding the 2010 crackdown). This movement, which calls itself the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, is led by a charismatic, belligerent, and nationalist former Abhisit deputy named Suthep Thaugsuban. Working with this new group, the royalists have given up any hope of defeating Thaksin at the ballot box, instead openly calling for a temporary end to parliamentary democracy and the imposition of a royally-appointed oligarchy to “reform” Thai politics and rid the country of all traces of the Shinawatra family.

***

Discussion of the royal aspects of the present political fight is still tightly limited by Thailand’s lèse-majesté law, which forbids criticism of the king, the queen, and the crown prince on pain of a 15-year prison term – >thus making even well-established facts about the Royal Family (like the fact that the king probably killed his predecessor by accident in 1946, or that the king and queen have been estranged since the mid-1980s) sound like conspiracy theories to those who have heard only the official, public line.

Even foreign journalists are beholden to the dictates of lèse-majesté. While BBC reporter Jonathan Head managed to escape a threatened prosecution under the lèse-majesté law in 2008 – in part because his reporting had generally hewed closely to the royalist line – Reuters editor Andrew MacGregor Marshall had to resign from the company in 2011 in order to publish an exposé on the Thai monarchy based on recently leaked U.S. diplomatic cables.

But like the anti-democratic nature of the royalist program, the succession fight is increasingly out in the open: PM Yingluck’s cabinet meetings in the months prior to her dismissal featured a prominent portrait of the Crown Prince, while Princess Chulabhorn – seen as a supporter of alternative succession options involving her sister Princess Sirindhorn – frequently displays symbols of the anti-Thaksin protest movement on her Instagram page.

This weekend, PDRC leader Suthep argued that the removal of PM Yingluck leaves a power vacuum that can only be filled by an appointment by the president of the Senate, as the lower house was dissolved by Yingluck prior to a February election that was boycotted by the opposition and annulled by the Constitutional Court. But the Senate is also without a president, and the Constitution states that only the prime minister can submit the name of a new Senate president for royal endorsement.

In short, just about anything could happen now. The latest news is that Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, who recently solidified control over additional military posts, has warned the officers under his authority against any attempt at a coup.

The larger struggle – of which the political fight, the palace disputes and the protests and street violence are only the most visible parts – will no doubt continue as it has continued since the 1932 revolution against the Thai absolute monarchy. The Thai establishment has proven that it will stop at nothing to resist the rise of true democracy in Thailand. But with Thaksin, Yingluck and their legions of supporters – and for the first time since Pridi Banomyong, the leader of the 1932 revolution, was framed by an official investigation for the murder of Rama VIII – Thai democracy at least has a name, a face and a chance.

Contact James Bradbury at jbradbur@stanford.edu.

About James Bradbury

James Bradbury is an international politics opinion columnist for The Stanford Daily. His goal for "Outside the Bubble" is to provide accessible, (hopefully) informative and slightly opinionated context for the week's world news headlines. James is a sophomore from McLean, Va. majoring in linguistics. To contact him, please email jbradbur 'at' stanford.edu.
  • Wildly imaginative

    Written out of pure fantasy and misquoting even the most simplistic of theory like “network monarchy”, perhaps the writer would do well to look up what Duncan McCargo really meant with that term or, better yet, stick to linguistics in which subject the author hasn’t even got a degree to show for.

  • Earth Calling James

    Full of his own opinions and misguided (he called) “facts”. James, I suggest you focus more on your studies instead of trying to express political opinions on the subject & country that you know very little about & can’t properly translate.

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