Thailand’s Trouble with Democracy

Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s The King and I tells the fictional story of Thailand at a crossroads in the 1860s, with a king hiring an English schoolteacher in an attempt to further his plan to modernize the country. Some one hundred and fifty years later, Thailand would be in reality ruled by a King who has been, for the most, on a decades-long mission to modernize his country, and to promote democratic reform in the process. As one of the more developed Asian nations, Thailand has a powerful economy and a relatively well developed middle class; two factors that have caused a serious push towards democracy in the country. By the middle of the 1990s, Thailand had passed a constitution that provided for elected governments and enshrined important civil rights for the Thai people. But the idea of democracy in principle is much easier to grasp than it is to actually implement the necessary changes to ensure that a democracy can truly function, a fact that Thailand now knows all too well. While at many points in Thailand’s recent political history it has had a form of government that fits the requirements of a democracy, with fairly elected popular governments that have extended rights to the Thai people, the country’s failure to demand respect for the outcome of elections, and the legitimacy of the governments those elections created, means Thailand’s current political system is incompatible with a true democracy.

Before arguing why Thailand is or is not a democracy, it is important to provide the specific definition of democracy that I will use as a point of comparison throughout this paper. J. Tyler Dickovick defines democracy as, “a form of regime associated with ‘rule by the people’ that signifies rights and liberties for citizens, including political rights to participate in elections and civil liberties.” Some of the crucial civil liberties that must be accessible in a country for it to be a true democracy are the freedoms of speech, assembly, and the press. Elections must be fair, held consistently, and respected in a manner that allows for successful transitions in administrations[1]. That last part of Dickovick’s definition is going to be crucial when examining Thailand’s democracy. Because, to be clear, Thailand has had an incredible number of elections, most of which have been relatively fair and open. The problem, therefor, does not lie in Thailand’s political institutions to hold elections that form governments that are able to respect and further the civil rights of the Thai people. Instead, Thailand’s inability to meet the requirements of this paper’s definition of democracy lies in the fact that a number of crucial factions within the country, from major political institutions to even the middle class, refuse to respect the outcome of popular elections. This makes any ‘successful transition in administrations,’ virtually impossible, as newly formed government’s are unable to act with legitimate authority due to a lack of respect for the popular mandate they received on polling day.

The recent history of democracy in Thailand is important, and provides a crucial foundation in understanding why Thailand’s inability to reach the necessary requirements of a democracy lies in their inability to ensure respect for the outcome of elections. In 1997, leading political figures in Thailand drafted the country’s 16th constitution, which remained in use until 2006. For the first time, the Constitution provided for the election of a bicameral legislature and a head of government, significantly expanded measures to increase government transparency, and put an emphasis on expanding human rights and, “enhance(ing) the participation of Thai citizens in the political process through public hearings and referendums[2].” The passage of the constitution brought forth massive political change in Thailand, securing greater human rights for the Thai people and facilitating fair and accessible elections. Not only was the first major election in the country after the passage of the constitution held in 2001 deemed fair, but the preceding election held in 2005 reached an unprecedented, record level of 72% of Thai voters turning out to vote[3]. Yet unfortunately, in 2006, the trajectory of democracy in Thailand would take a turn for the worst. In a military coup, the democratically elected administration was removed from power. Since then, Thailand has experienced major factions within the country withdraw their respect for election results, and with that their respect for the governments that are formed by them.

The first major faction that has stopped defending the outcome of elections, and therefor has undermined the legitimacy of elected governments, has been the military. In both 2006, and more recently in a 2014 coup that has kept the Thai military in power to this day, military leaders have shown a willingness to ignore the rule of law and withdraw their recognition of democratically elected governments. The military’s willingness to topple the government in 2006 not only set a precedent that the military has the power to dissolve democratically elected institutions in Thailand, but also paved the way for power to be taken away from the Thai people, argues Kevin Hewison for The Brown Journal of World Affairs. “The interim 2006 constitution has handed all power in the determination of a new and permanent constitution to the junta,” Hewison argues, citing the 50% budget increase the military received in the 2007 budget cycle as one of many clear examples of the rapid rise in power the military has experienced since their coup[4]. But the problem is not simply that a military coup took place in 2006, because relatively although less free elections would soon be held in 2007 and then again in 2011. The real problem is that the lack of respect the military displayed for the results of the 2005 election would encourage future military leaders to do the same. By 2014, leading generals once again took power after they overthrew the elected Prime Minister in May of last year. And now, building off the example set for them in 2006, the effects of the military take over are even more threatening to the future of democracy in Thailand. The International Crisis Group found in December of 2014 that, “in contrast to… 2006, the military is concentrating power in it’s own hands rather than recruiting technocrats to handle pressing economic issues and run the government[5].” The dangerous precedent set by the military with their refusal to honor the results of the 2005 election, played out in their 2006 coup, has emboldened military leaders to once again ignore the democratic will of the Thai people. The only difference is this time their actions are more aggressive, more adverse to the existence of a democracy, and with less clarity on when democracy will return.

But the military is not the only segment of Thai political society that is undermining the country’s democracy with their refusal to accept the results of elections; the middle class is as well. A vibrant middle class is vital to the existence of any democracy, so it’s particularly concerning for Thailand that their middle class is now becoming increasingly antidemocratic, and less willing to offer their backing to the outcomes of democratic elections. Joshua Kurlantzick, in his book Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government, discusses the phenomenon countries like Thailand are experiencing where the middle class seemingly turns it’s back on democracy. Kurlantzick argues that, contrary to popular belief, middle class individuals are not always inclined to support democratic movements because the, “fact that the middle class does not actually constitute a majority of the population in these (developing) nations… means democratization often empowers the poor more than it empowers the middle class[6].” In countries like the Philippines, Ukraine, and now Thailand, middle class citizens are becoming disenchanted with pro-democracy movements that promised them a better standard of living but seem to disproportionately advocate for the interests of the poorest individuals in a developing nation.

Evidence to suggest that this exact phenomenon is occurring in Thailand is overwhelming. Neil A. Englehart, Assistant Professor of Government and Law at Lafayette College, explains that there’s been no conclusive proof to suggest that the Thai middle class currently supports democratic reform in Thailand. “The Thai middle class cannot be characterized as having coherent political preferences. Some in the middle class are pro-democracy, while some are not,[7]” Englehart explains, refuting the assumption that the middle class in Thailand are inherently going to support democratic movements. Recent clashes between poor, pro-democracy Thai citizens and their middle class counterparts in Bangkok paint a powerful picture of how serious the divide is[8]. And the result is a middle class that no longer respects the results of Thai elections, undermining the ability of democratically elected regimes to function. The Thai middle class now, “fear(s) being crushed by an alliance between the elites and the poor[9],” explains Marc Saxer, director at the Bangkok office of the think tank Friedrich-Ebert Stilfung. This fear is what pushed middle class Thais out to the streets of Bangkok in protest of previous elected government, and what continues to keep them determined to ignore the outcome of democratic elections as long as they perceive democracy as not working for them.

Lastly, the crucial political institution that is the Thai monarchy is the final faction that is undermining Thai democracy by refusing to support the outcome of democratic elections. Thailand’s aging monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej is not only no longer the pro-democracy advocate he once was, but is additionally acting in a manner to ignore the results of democratic elections within the country. Professor Nick Gier, of the University of Idaho, explains that in the “Black May” incident of 1992, when attempts to promote democratic reforms turned into bloody clashes between supporters and Thailand’s military leaders, the King was crucial in his decision to intervene. “The key to settling the conflict was the Thai royal family[10],” argues Gier, explaining that the King’s decision to hold a televised meeting with the leaders of both movements, where he demanded mediation of the conflict, ended the bloodshed. The intervention also arguably led the way for greater democratic reform, as it showed the King would not tolerate violence against activists supporting greater democratic rights. Involvement from a monarch in the workings of a country’s government is in fact not unprecedented. In Spain, Slate reports in January of 2014, the country’s former king Juan Carlos I gave a televised speech in 1981 that condemned the overthrowing of Spain’s democratically elected government in a move that, “deflated the coup,” and ensured the democratic process was preserved in Spain[11]. Thailand’s monarchy, just like in Spain, can and should be an important advocate for democratic governments and a defender of the elections that created them.

But now, as the world’s oldest monarch at age 87, the King not only seems less inclined to intervene in violence between protestors who want a return to democratic governance and those who don’t, but he also appears to now be openly disregarding the results of elections. Michelle L. Nguyen, in her study The Continual Breakdown of Democracy in Thailand: A Case Study on the Role of Elite Competition, Modernization and Political Institutions in the Democratization Process of Thailand, argues that King Bhumibol is now actively acting against the interests of the democratic government, specifically by working with the military in a joint attempt to ignore the results of the 2005 democratic election. “Within hours of the (2006) coup, the King gave the coup leaders his blessings,” Nguyen explains, furthering that, “this approval from the King effectively revoked the monarch’s previous decision in the 1990s to remove the military from Thai politics[12].” In an incredible break from his previous position, Nguyen highlights how the king’s choice to openly support the military in their decision to undermine the existing democratic government by simply not recognizing the results of the recently held election, which again was an election where over 70% of the entire country voted. In this decision the King not only allowed military governance to once again return to Thailand, but also became the third major faction of Thai political life that has chosen to reject the outcome of an election.

Thailand has certainly had singular moments of success when it comes to their attempts to become a true democracy. The 1997 Constitution that provided real civil rights to the Thai people, the unbelievably free and fair 2001 elections, and the record voter turnout during the 2005 elections are all success stories of the Thai democratic movement. However analyzing those moments alone simply cannot give us an accurate picture of the state of democracy in Thailand in 2015. Because of an institutionalized disrespect for the outcome of elections from the military, the middle class, and the Thai monarchy, elected governments are not considered legitimate and smooth transition between democratic administration are impossible. Because of this, Thailand fails to meet the requirements of a modern democracy, set out in the definition provided in this paper. But that does not mean that hope is lost. I genuinely believe that convincing the Thai middle class that democracy is good for them could radically change Thailand’s future ability to transition into a democratic state. Bridging the cultural divide between the urban middle class in major cities like Bangkok, and the rural poor in the north of the country, can unify the Thai people into a powerful force that can stand against future military coups. The people of Thailand should not be at odds with one another when it comes to securing greater rights, democratic representation, and most crucially, respect for the elections that create their popular government. If Thailand is ever to become a democracy, it seems as if it will need to be the people who push their country to shed some of the customs of their past, namely their refusal to accept the outcomes of elections.

[1] Dickovic, Tyler J, and Johnathon Eastwood, Comparative Politics: Integrating Theories Methods, and Cases. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013)

[2] Dressel, Bjorn. “Strengthening Governance Through Constitutional Reform.” The Governance Brief, no. 13 (2005).

[3] “Unprecedented 72% Turnout for Latest Poll.” The Nation, February 10, 2005

[4] Hewison, Kevin. “Thailand after the “Good” Coup.” Brown Journal of World Affairs, no. 14 (2007).

[5] “A Coup Ordained? Thailand’s Prospects for Stability.” International Crisis Group, 2014.

[6] Kurlantzick, Joshua. Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.

[7] Englehart, Neil. “Democracy and the Thai Middle Class.” Asian Survey, 2003.

[8] Kurlantzick, Joshua. Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.

[9] Saxer, Marc. “How Thailand’s Middle Class Rage Threatens Democracy.” Social Europe. January 23, 2014.

[10] Gier, Nick. “Thailand’s Buddhist King Cannot Save the Day.” University of Idaho- Nick Gier. January 1, 2010.

[11] Keating, Joshua. “Why Juan Carlos Had to Go.” Slate. June 1, 2014.

[12] Nguyen, Michelle. “The Continual Breakdown of Democracy in Thailand: A Case Study on the Role of Elite Competition, Modernization and Political Institutions in the Democratization Process of Thailand.” Developmental Studies — Brown University, 2011.

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