Following the March elections which were described as “free but not fair”, Thailand formed a new reconditioned government in July as it moves away from the last half-decade of military rule. Thailand has been plagued by political instability since the establishment of a constitutional monarchy and uneasy progression towards democracy in 1932. True to form, democracy and Thai politics continue to have a tumultuous relationship as democratic principles struggle to maintain illegitimacy against the prevailing influence of the military and a deeply engrained cultural attachment to the monarchy. This instability in Thai politics, as well as the unique economic challenges that Thailand faces as a middle-income country, have formed a key point of debate; is democracy in Thailand viable or will Thais be stuck in ‘wongjorn ubart’ or the evil cycle. Like most other countries globally, Thailand grapples with the common political challenges of economic disparity between urban and rural populations, intergenerational tensions, and disputes over the allocation of state resources. The question is then, why have these shared challenges affected Thailand so dramatically and resulted in over 30 coup attempts since 1912?
One crucial ailment contributing to Thailand’s struggles with democratic integrity is the government’s lack of the necessary dispute settlement mechanisms to mediate these debates, effectively exacerbating Thailand’s coup culture and re-creation of over 20 new constitutions since 1932. This chronic instability and tendency to revert to politicking over policy-making is attributed to two fundamental shortcomings of Thailand’s democratic transition. The first being a government influenced by 5 institutional branches and the second being Thailand’s lack of investment in human capital.
Unlike other democratic regimes, Thai politics is still heavily influenced by the military and monarchy which exert significant authority over the other government branches; the legislature, executive and judiciary. In this way, Thailand not only lacks effective consultation, but this interference cripples the necessary checks and balance processes which prevent disagreements from escalating to disputes and inhibits the repressive military interventions which have become commonplace in the exercise of Thai politics. Thailand’s lack of investment in enquiry-based learning is another crucial component sustaining Thailand’s current political landscape. With extremely nationalistic rhetoric and vision for Thailand’s nation-building dominating political discourse, education in Thailand is predominantly rote learning. Paired with a series of laws including sedition, criminal defamation, and Lèse-Majesté, Thailand’s education system discourages the active questioning necessary for stable democratic systems and which empower citizens to actively engage in policymaking. The maintenance of Thailand’s coup culture despite the introduction of ‘free’ elections and movement away from its military dictatorship past also has a series of ramifications on Thailand’s economic prosperity.
While Thailand maintains reasonably independent institutions to stabilize their macro-economic policies, fosters a relatively open economy, particularly in manufacturing, and manages strong institutions which practice the rule of the law, the hesitation to liberalize Thailand’s education system has led to the country being stuck in “middle-income trap”, or as having a per capita gross national income between approx. US $1000-12000. Consequently, Thailand’s middle and lower class are stagnated above subsistence level but below the quality of life available to other Asian countries who have successfully transitioned to ‘high income’ such as Singapore and Japan. The tragedy of this economic stagnation is only intensified by the evidence of Thailand’s economic potential, it was second only to China in achieving an impressive GDP growth of 9.2% in a 10-year period.
Although the 2014 coup d’état and Red Shirt-Yellow Shirt conflict came with large scale and lethal street violence, commentators such as former Australian ambassador to Thailand, James Wise notes that although Thailand has experienced over 20 coup d’états, bloodshed has only occurred in a handful of instances involving military intervention in 1973, 1976, 1992 and 2010. Thailand has otherwise been “very good at coups” and has also been highly successful in assimilating its large Chinese minority through generations of inculcation and an inclusive vision of state membership. Although Thailand’s inability to foster stable politics has crippled the country’s potential prosper and open up avenues for free thought, it is important to note that the politics of Thailand is not a politics of race.
While the absence of colonialization preserved a traditional political authority with its own set of challenges, particularly with the monarchy as the apex of a highly hierarchical society, Thailand has succeeded in a wide range of areas and has pulled 10’s of millions of Thais out of poverty in the last 30 years. Although Thailand’s king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, controls an inordinate amount of capital, being the richest monarch in the world with an estimated wealth of $30 billion, more than both Brunei and Saudi Arabia, Thais remain deeply connected to a vision of Thailand with a monarchy. Nevertheless, stable democracy and avenues for education are imperative pre-requisites for the upward mobility and economic prosperity that the Thai people deserve. Although the introduction of democracy has been imperfect, open elections are a promising starting point for a more politically open and informed Thai society. For a country with its own unique set of political and economic idiosyncrasies, the central question should not be so much who should govern but how should Thailand be governed differently.