Military Intervention and the Return of Absolute Monarchy: an Impediment to Political Security in Thailand
Author: Saeree Sakuna
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 11/01/2010
In 1932, the “Siamese Revolution” led by sophisticated Thai civilians and the military transformed the national regime from absolute monarchy to democracy. The revolutionary group called “Kana Radsadorn [civilian group]”, the majority of whom studied and graduated from European universities, explained that:
“…it is necessary to amend from absolute monarchy to democracy or to amend the king as a rule to the king under the law. The revolution group agreed to ‘immediately seize the power’ from the king in order to protect Siam from imperialist countries like Britain and France. The revolutionary group will not accept any state intervention done by those powerful countries…” (Tulaluk, 2006)
Besides international concerns, the revolution was significantly related to economic issues. In 1926, King Prachathipok posted the fiat to deescalate the economic crisis during WWI. One of his policies was to decrease the annual salary of bureaucrats, which caused dissatisfaction among those affected. Similar to many countries, Siam failed due to famine and food shortage, consequently, some sophisticated civilians and military officials on behalf of “Kana Radsadorn” organized themselves to solve the problem.
Ironically, “Kana Radsadorn” made the revolution without a strong democratic concern; however, the revolutionary members understood the philosophy of democracy very well due to their education abroad. After the revolution, “Kana Radsadorn” announced their first declaration, which was full of straightforward criticism against the King and the Royal Institute, especially the balance of power between the King and people (Ungpakorn 2009).
King Prachathipok was severely criticized by civil society; he finally decided to abdicate in March 1934 and moved abroad where he died in 1941. After the Siamese Revolution, amidst political intricacy, democracy was gradually established in Thailand and the first general election was held in 1933. Originally, “Kana Radsadorn” wanted to modernize Thai society by political amendment, but political power still remains among elite, upper class citizens, the military leadership, and entrepreneurs. These groups have cooperated to acquire and maintain political power since the Siamese Revolution.
Even if Thailand is a democratic country, there are a myriad of non-democratic realities happening in the State. Twelve rebellions and 8 coup d’états in 78 years of democracy are obvious evidence of political instability in Thailand. Interestingly, every rebellion and coup d’état was done with the military. For example, the leader of the first rebellion was Prince Baworndej, the royalty who had conservative idea and yearned for absolute monarchy. Another fascinating point is that the military governments can undergo self-revolution to defend themselves from any antagonists, such as Field Marshal Thanom Kittikajorn who organized a self-revolution in 1971 to eradicate the general election and prolong the military junta government. Field Marshal Thanom was the Prime Minister for 10 years or in 1963 to 1973.
In order to understand why military intervention is a part of Thai politics, it is necessary to refer back to when Thailand was governed by absolute monarchy. According to the monarchy law since in the ancient era of Thailand to present, the King had to be a generalissimo, other royalties, hence, had military positions also. In this way, Thai society has unintentionally accepted military power in Thai politics since the Sukhothai era, the first Kingdom of Thailand.
In the Siamese Revolution, the revolution leader was also military, General Phraya Phahon Phonphayuhasena. The first Prime Minister after Siamese Revolution, Phraya Manopakorn Nititada, was a noncombatant, however, after the period of Phraya Manopakorn Nititada, the political and parliamentary power was taken back to the military. General Phraya Phahon Phonphayuhasena led a coup d’état to force Phraya Manopakorn Nititada to resign and he became Prime Minister on 20th June, 1933.
General Phraya Phahon Phonphayuhasena was the first Prime Minister coming from the military, after which Thailand was governed by the military for 57 years out of 78 years since the Siamese Revolution. During those 57 years, due to coup d’états and knavish political strategies, some military governments held power for more than 4 years, such as the government of Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsongkram, which reigned from December 1938 to August 1944, and General Prem Tinnasulanon, from March 1980 to August 1988.
Sometimes elites, sophisticated civilians, and entrepreneurs held seats in the parliament but the military dominated politics. Non-military governments needed to satisfy the military to maintain power. Sometimes, in order to mitigate political conflict, the military would support the civilian government, restoring the power balance when the conflict ceases. According to the contemporary political history of Thailand, civilian governments have usually been dissolved by coup d’état and replaced by military government.
Since the Siamese Revolution, the military has led many coup d’états, bringing about political instability. From the first government led by Phraya Manopakorn Nititada to the current government of Mr. Abhisit Vejjajiva, only one civilian government has lasted until the end of term, the government of Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire telecommunication entrepreneur. Besides Mr. Thaksin’s government, Prime Ministers have been forced to dissolve the government or resign from the position. Frequent changing of the government implies political instability because the government could not completely work for the citizens. The new government rarely continues the policies of the previous government. Consequently, the citizens have not gained the advantages from consistent public policies that they deserve.
Coup d’état and military intervention affect not only the government but also the Constitution. After triumphant coup d’états, the military junta or revolutionary group always abolishes the Constitution used by the previous government, otherwise, they would be punished with the charge of rebellion. Actually, rebellions and coup d’états are identical actions, a coup d’état is just a successful rebellion. The political position of a successful revolutionary group is similar to a sovereign and they therefore have the power to abolish the Constitution. Generally, military junta enforce their revolutionary command before drafting the new constitution in order to protect themselves from counter-rebellion.
The new constitution endorsed by military junta is generally considered to be iniquitous, however, in the Thai political context, the Constitution is a political representation but it is not the supreme law as some democratic countries in Europe believe. The Constitution can be (and is) effortlessly abolished. Since the Siamese Revolution, Thailand has had 18 constitutions, entrenching a cycle of political instability; the situation is quite different from countries like United States or United Kingdom.
Be this as it may, the government has never neglected to define itself along with democracy, Markus G. Jud (2010), Democracy Building editor, defines modern democracy as: “[the] form of government, where a constitution guarantees basic personal and political rights, fair and free elections, and independent courts of law.” Additionally, according to the theory of separation of power, government is one of three key elements in democracy, alongside parliament and court of law. Military intervention destroys the key elements of democracy and it consequently weakens political structure and stability.
The regrettable consequence of repeated military intervention is that Thai society has become familiar with coup d’état. In 2006, Thailand faced a serious political conflict when civilians demanded transparency from Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the so-called “Yellow-Shirt” demonstration or “People Alliance for Democracy – PAD”. A thousand people joined the PAD demonstration and requested the military to intervene in the conflict. Finally, military revolution emerged on 19th September 2006 when Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was abroad.
The leader of the revolutionary group or “Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy”, General Sonthi Boonyaratkarin, spoke to Dan River, CNN journalist about the motivation of coup d’état in 2006: “There had been a lot of vote buying during the previous election. Most of the people were not satisfied with this situation. They had called on the military to do something about it. We did it for the people of Thailand” (The Nation Politics 2006). Hence, coup d’état and military government in Thailand was required to maintain the democracy and peace in society. His explanation was in line with civilian reactions after the coup d’état, as many Thai people gave flowers to soldiers and thanked them for the coup d’état – some praised them as the “Military of People”. Many in the international community, especially democratic countries, looked at Thailand with doubtful eyes.
78 years after the Siamese Revolution, democracy in Thailand is not established. The poignant view of some Thai civilians is that coup d’état is an effective technique to suppress political corruption and hold fraudulent politicians accountable. Saneh Chamarik, chairman of the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, talked about the coup d’état in 2006: “I do not think [the coup] is about progression or regression [of democracy], but about problem solving” (Renshaw et al. 2008). The Student Federation of Thailand, on the other hand, considered the coup d’état to be an annihilation of democracy in the disguise of national security (The Nation 2006). This controversial argument is still being discussed in Thailand.
The Return of Absolute Monarchy
Another important situation which closely connects military intervention is the return of absolute monarchy. Actually, according to the Six Principles of Kana Radsadorn, the fourth principle is “to protect the equality of Thai people”. This principle was affirmed by two notable situations. Firstly, in 1933, the government undifferentiated when civilians wanted to prosecute the King (Chuorrawan 2009) and secondly, in 1935 or a year after the death of King Prachathipok, the Civil Court confiscated the property of King Prachathipok (Kobtham 2010).
It is known that the Siamese Revolution took the country from absolute monarchy to democracy but the revolutionary group’s objective was gradually distorted by royalties, elites or even sophisticated civilians and military. Pichit Likitkijsomboon (2007), professor of economics, Thammasat University, explains that:
“Thai politics since the coup d’état on 16th September 1957 was under conservative authoritarians who dominated the state by military and bureaucratic hierarchy. By conservative authoritarians, the form of government would be switched between military junta and democracy. Political parties and the governments do not have genuine executive power but they would be manipulated by conservative authoritarians. In economics, conservative authoritarians would deprive private investment and exploit proletarians in urban and rural areas to work for them.”
Conservative authoritarians become more powerful since 1957 and their importance was emphasized in the government of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat (1959-1963). Field Marshal Sarit promulgated a policy supporting the King and royal family, the “Royal Project”. Since that time, the image of the King and royal family has been enhanced in the sight of Thai citizens and society. It can be assumed that Field Marshal Sarit wanted to gain the support of the king and royal family against opponents such as Field Marshal Pleak. Little by little, with the honorable activities of King Bhumibol and the royal family, Thai society came to admire them and appoint them as a center of Thai people. However, simultaneously, a distorted idea of royalism gradually emerged.
The concept of royalist was firstly and publicly emphasized in the people power demonstrations of October, 1973 and 1976. The assembly of students and civilians at Jitlada Palace held the portrait of the king and the queen during their march along Ratchadumnoeun Road. However, in the situation of October 1976, protesters were violently assaulted by military and police by unfounded accusation of anti-royalism and communism.
Royalism was emphasized again in Black May, 1992. At that time, students and civilians protested against the government led by General Sujinda Klaprayoon, facing military weaponry. Finally, the conflict was mitigated when King Bhumibol played the role of mediator between General Sujinda and the protest leader, Major General Chamlong Srimueang. Hence, the King’s image as a charismatic leader was strongly reinforced and his social power was solidified.
After Black May, civil society became aware of the tensions between democracy and military intervention, and produced the 1997 “people constitution”, leading to civilian government for almost 10 years. Despite instability during this time, Thai society did not request the assistance from the King; politics and royalty seemed to be separated. However, royalism flourished again with the “60 years on the Throne Anniversary” of King Bhumibol on 9th June 2006, at that time, the government led by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra induced people to wear yellow-shirt to celebrate the gigantic royal ceremony, and public channels continuously broadcast images of the King and royal institute.
The yellow-shirt took on a new significance when Mr. Sondhi Limthongkul protested against the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006. Mr. Thaksin was accused to be involved with corruption and some notorious issues. In order to escalate the political pressure, Mr. Sondhi established “People Alliance for Democracy – PAD” and used the yellow-shirt as a group symbol (Thailand Political Base 2009). Besides opposing the Prime Minister, Mr. Sondhi used yellow-shirt to imply that everything he and PAD did was for the King. Mr. Sondhi always claimed that PAD was supported by the royal family and any group opposed PAD should be considered anti-royalist and should not be in Thailand anymore, linking the concept of royalist to nationalism. Mr. Sondhi also said that he would like to transfer the state power of the Thaksin government to the King and his idea was accepted and supported by many conservative authoritarians, royalists, elites, and military.
Since the Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy made a coup d’état in 2006 because of the PAD movement, General Sondhi Boonyaratkarin worried that violence would emerge if PAD supporters clashed with the pro-government group, which was also quite significant. There was a period of silence after the coup d’état in 2006; however, the conflict appeared again when UDD or United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship was found. Thai society knew UDD as a pro-Thaksin group; because many UDD members wanted Thaksin to come back to Thailand and work as a Prime Minister again. They also opposed and criticized PAD, military government, and Mr. Abhisit.
The situation escalated when UDD blocked the main road in Bangkok and requested Mr. Abhisit, current Prime Minister, to dissolve the government. According to UDD, the current government was non-democratic because the Prime Minister and the government were not voted by majority of people. Also, UDD doubted in the independence of the court when Constitutional Court dissolved the political parties which supported Mr. Thaksin, Thai Rak Thai and People Power Party, while maintaining the Democrat Party led by Mr. Abhisit, current Prime Minister. Moreover, UDD claimed that Mr. Abhisit did not have the capability to be a Prime Minister, and that the country was run by conservative authoritarians, elites and military.
Presently, UDD is confronting the allegation of being anti-royalist. The criticism started when the Queen and the Princess went to the funeral of a PAD member and eulogized the deceased. After the funeral, criticism of the royal institute’s role and power was spread on the internet. The government tried to block over a hundred websites criticizing the royal family. Therefore, Thailand was back to the situation in October 1976 again, but this time, the involved parties were increased; it was not limited between protest and the government [or military] but between UDD, anti-government, Student Federation of Thailand, some local NGOs and civilians on one side, and PAD, the government, pro-government, some local NGOs and civilians on the other side.
The government promoted propaganda to discredit UDD, blocked the television channels, and identified UDD as anti-royalist and terrorist, but criticism on the role of royal family and privy counselor remained. In order to unite people, the government everyday broadcasted documentaries of royal institute through public television channels. Such government policy consequently reestablished the idea of absolute monarchy that had been abolished during the Siamese Revolution.
The author will stop short of narrating the details of military intervention and the return of absolute monarchy by the Thai military. There are a myriad of believable and unbelievable stories about those situations; however, one thing that cannot be concealed is that military intervention and absolute monarchy led by military violates human security, especially, political security.
Political Security in Thailand
There are many ways to conceive of human security, but there is a clear relationship with political security. According to Ramesh Thakun (1997), Vice Rector, Peace and Security, United Nation University:
“Human security refers to the quality of the people of a society or policy. Anything which degrades their quality of life – demographic pressures, diminished access to or stock or resources, and so on – is a security threat. Conversely, anything which can upgrade their quality of life – economic growth, improved access to resources, social and political empowerment, and so on – is an enhancement of human security”
Human Security Network (2001) describes:
“A humane world where people can live in security and dignity, free from poverty and despair, is still a dream for many and should be enjoyed by all. In such a world, every individual would be guaranteed freedom from fear and freedom from want, with an equal opportunity to fully develop their human potential. Building human security is essential to achieving this goal. In essence, human security means freedom from pervasive threats to people’s rights, their safety or even their lives.”
Generally, human security refers to any needed security for humans and no harm to the security of other humans.
Political security describes a situation in which “people [are] able to live in a society that honors their basic human rights…political security [should be] against torture, political repression, ill treatments and disappearances” (UNDP Human Development Report 1994) and according to Bajpai Kanti (2000), professor of International Studies, Jewaharlal Nehru University: “the threats to political security are government repression, systematic human rights violations and militarization.”
On 20th September 2006, after the coup d’état, Human Rights Watch (2006) stated: “The coup d’état should restore the basic human rights and not violate any political expression of civilians.” Brad Adams, the Director of Human Rights Watch of Asia said:
“The government of Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra severely violated human rights but to abolish the basic human rights [as coup d’état did] was not the correct solution…Thailand should solve political problems by the rule of law and people should have the freedom of choice, to independently select the state leader by themselves.”
The international community was interested in basic human rights violations due to coup d’état in 2006, but unexpectedly, the military junta did not limit or violate basic human rights of the people as many human rights organizations were worried about. People could express their political perspective and thoughts via a political demonstration opposing military junta.
However, military intervention could bring about something more rigorous than freedom of expression; that is social welfare inaccessibility. Military intervention always emerged to cut off the state power of government. By political power yearning, the ultimate goal of military intervention is to build new military government or military junta.
The military normally has a different and relatively narrower vision of development than other social sectors, and the military government has not governed the state well. For example, the military government of General Sulayut Julanon, which was appointed by revolutionary group in 2006, and the government undertook failed health care reform. Despite promises of free health care (to replace a subsidized system), hospitals, clinics, and healthcare service centers are underfunded, and the Thai people ultimately lost their social benefits, compromising their basic rights and security.
Another factor violating human security, particularly political security, is the return of absolute monarchy. There are at least 3 people imprisoned by Article 112 Lèse-Majesté charge: Ms. Daranee Charncheunksilapakul, Ms. Boonyeun Prasertying and Mr. Suwicha Thakor. All of them have been detained for at least 10 years without the right to appeal.
In Thailand, Lèse-Majesté law was promulgated since 1908 to prohibit defamation or insult of the Royal Institute: “Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to 15 years.” (FACT 2008). This law and the importance of the King were emphasized by the revolutionary group in 2006, who named their coup d’état: “Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy”. Therefore, the state regime was changed from democracy to constitutional monarchy.
Bawarnsak Uwanno (2009), Fellow of the Royal Institute and Secretary-General of King Prajadhipok Institute, stated:
“…In fact, all democracies agree that freedoms have limits, but that such limitations must be placed by law enacted by the people or by their representatives. No country would say that freedom of expression allows a person to verbally attack, insult or defame anyone. On the contrary, every country agrees that freedom of expression can be limited when it comes to the need to protect the reputations or honor of others…”
According to Bawarnsak, Article 112 should remain in the society. For him, democracy principally limits the freedom of expression, therefore, the king or royal institute which is supposed to be the state head should be protected by Article 112. This is a clear example of royalist propaganda in Thai society.
Author agrees with Bawarnsak in that some limitation of freedom of expression is necessary. However, the most important democratic principle is “equality”. In Thailand, the king has power to intervene in state affair, as has happened in previous political conflicts. He indirectly criticizes government officials, politicians, and militaries. Such rights of the king to engage with politics should extend to all citizens. Article 112, however, distorts the concept of equality beyond recognition, and unjustly limits the democratic rights of citizens.
Besides, Thai society has a distorted perspective on constitutional monarchy. Markus G. Jud (2010) clarified that:
“Constitutional monarchies, i.e. a king or queen are head of state while the constitution guarantees nevertheless all basic rights as in any democratic republic and sets clear limits to duties and competences of the monarch. Such a king can be regarded as a stabilizing factor rather than as a danger for a democracy.”
Conversely from the definition, Thai monarchy has an endlessly manipulating hand in political affairs and coup d’état, similar to the period of absolute monarchy before Siamese Revolution in 1932. David Camroux (2010), Research fellow, specialist in Southeast Asia, Science-Po University Paris interviewed through France24 reports that: “…The army plays a big role with the monarchy; there is the network that King Bhumibol has supported the army…” Camroux’s statement is in line with the allegations of “Red-Shirt anti-royalists”, and, if he were Thai, would be enough to justify the limitation of his freedom of speech under the political weapon of Article 112.
Government propaganda intentionally blurs the lines between dissent, the Red-Shirt opposition movement, anti-royalists, socialists, and terrorists. Such behavior unintentionally devalues the honor of the Royal Institute and escalates political conflict. Ultimately, the Thai people lack the political security to think, express, and present the political perspective.
 Some anti-government people were not members of UDD.
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Bio: Saeree Sakuna is a Thai citizen and scholar.