The paper conducts in-depth analysis of Thailand’s political history to reveal the reason the nation has failed to install democracy since the 1932 revolution, which ended the absolute monarchy. Thailand's political structure has undergone significant changes in response to the world’s changing environment. The country continues struggling to establish a secure democratic system despite the monarchical system established more than 700 years ago.
However, political initiatives continually collapsed leading to eighteen military coups and creation of seventeen constitutions and charters that resulted in repeat failures of restoring a democratic regime. The nation’s prospects for installing the democracy seemed bright in 1997 though in less than a decade, the foundations of democracy ruined. The country once again fell back into military hands in 2006. The paper concludes that political differences between various factions of elites and their greed of power, as well as frequent military coups destabilized Thailand. Therefore, the nation could not restore a permanent democratic regime.
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Since the 1932 political reforms that marked cessation of the absolute monarchy, Thailand has continuously struggled to establish a secure democratic system. However, political initiatives collapsed resulting in formation of seventeen constitutions and charters. After 1932, the period of transition to democracy was wrought with the dominance of military over politics in Thailand. Nevertheless, in 1997, political institutions drafted a Constitution in such a manner that stable democratic regime finally appeared possible. The series of violent civil unrest and protests forced the military to withdraw itself from politics, and democracy was restored. However, after the ratification of the 1997 Constitution, civil and political unrest in the year 2006 disrupted the nation to the extent that the King of Thailand had to call military to diffuse the situation.
The current paper focuses on the violent civil unrest in 1992 stopped with military interference in politics up to the collapse of democracy in 2006. Furthermore, it examines the factors that contributed to repeat collapse of the democratic regime from 1932-2009 and social mechanisms that interacted with political institutions causing failure of democratic regimes rather than consolidating long-lasting and liberal democracy. The paper concludes that the collapse of democracy in Thailand is not due to military involvement. However, it evolves from conflicts between socio-economic classes and the fall of political institutions to resolve these conflicts.
Brief History of the Political System of Thailand and Current Government
From 1257-1378,the Kingdom of Sukhothai followed a paternalistic style of government in the first Thai state. The King held the absolute power and paid attention to well-being of people meeting their needs. However, Sukhothai was fragmented into several provinces, and the absence of a centralized administration led to its fall in the late years of 1300s. Meanwhile, the powerful kingdom of King Ayutthaya evolved. During the Ayutthaya period, the King Ayutthaya followed a Khmer system of government based on the Hindu philosophy of divine kingship. From 1448 to 1488, Ayutthaya’s political governance underwent a major reform under the rule of King Borommatrailokkanat.
The sakdina, a feudal system, permitted everyone to hold land based on their position, satisfying both commoners and nobles. The system was effective until the 19th century. Moreover, the government installed centralized mechanism through separation of the military from the civil administration, thus enabling Ayutthaya in becoming Southeast Asia’s richest and strongest empire for three centuries. Nonetheless, during mid-1800’s, the threat to monarchy became a prime issue. King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910) decentralized the government after analyzing the need for political reform. He reorganized the structure of the local and central government that formed the foundation of the present system. The central administration was further segregated into many departments, and the appointed governor of each state led the local government. The administrative reforms were successful in maintaining the nation’s independence from colonial threats and laying a foundation for a modern system of administration.
King Chulalongkorn’s successors, namely King Prajadhipok and King Vajiravudh, showed a great interest in restructuring and restoring the parliamentary system of democracy. However, learned people educated abroad demanded an immediate transition to democracy. On 24 June 1932, they indulged in a bloodless coup and demanded the establishment of the constitutional monarchy. Seeing a possibility of bloodshed, King Prajadhipok consented to abolish absolute monarchy for the interest of his people, surrendering power to a constitution-based system of government.
The first Constitution of Thailand was signed on December, 10, 1932. Nowadays, the country has the system of a constitutional democratic monarchy, in which the Prime Minister leads the government, and the King is head of the nation. The judiciary is independent of the legislative and executive branches. After the 1932 democratic revolution, Thailand officially became a constitutional democratic monarchy, and the first written Constitution was enforced. Thereafter, the country has seventeen charters and constitutions, which reflect the highest level of political instability. Moreover, frequent military coups continue to threaten the installation of democracy in the country.
The Death of Current Monarch of Thailand
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, one of the longest-ruling monarchs of Thailand, died October 13, 2016, at age of eighty-eight. The transition of power due to his death could become a turning point for the nation ruled by a military junta and long divided rival political groups. In 1946, Bhumibol Adulyadej had become Thailand’s monarch shortly after his brother, King Anand Mahidol, was found dead with a bullet in the palace in Bangkok.
King Bhumibol along with the military approved the appointment of high-ranking military and government officials. This military government has been ruling the nation due to seizing power in a coup two years ago and receiving legitimacy from the king. The monarch is a symbol of unity who received great affection and love from the people of Thailand. His portrait hangs in schools, government buildings, political and educational institutions as well as along highways across Thailand.
During the King’s rule, there have been 20 successful or attempted coups. In May 2014, despite a seizure of power by military junta, the monarchy has remained the form of government. His dedication and efforts in making Thailand an economic prosperous country contributed to the nation becoming upper-income in less than two decades. He tried to negotiate with military rulers to restore democracy in the nation; however, high-level disputes between various factions of political groups left Thailand under the control of military regime.
Thailand and Democracy after 1932
Thailand remained under the absolute monarchy for more than seven centuries. When the colonial era began, Western countries pressured Thailand to evolve along parliamentary, revolutionary, and republican lines because of their roots in the French Revolution and the fall of the Russian Empire. Kings took unsuccessful initiatives to prepare people for western political, economic, and industrial changes even though exercise to vote was granted to female during the first general election.
Since Thailand became a constitutional democratic monarchy in 1932 and despite its Western-style democratic system, the nation had been ruled by military governments for most of the time. The freedom of speech and political and human rights were overlooked in the twentieth century. Due to the external disturbance such as the Vietnam War, the politics of the democracy became more tensed. The military rulers with the support of the United States took control over the nation’s politics while the socialist students and intellectuals strongly opposed them.
In October 1973, student-led groups increased protests for liberating the nation from the military regime. The media received more freedom to condemn governments and politicians while socialist and revolutionary movements gained momentum resulting in frequent protests. However, conservative politicians such as Samak Sundaravej and the right-wing of military reversed the reforms that ended in a massacre and caused a blow to the democracy. Bribery and corruption in all sectors continued to rise. Politicians were elected because they had money-power to buy votes and received a return on their investments by passing corrupt budget bills.
The system of government varied between interludes of military rulers and unstable civilian ones. During democratic periods, the media accepted bribes while corruption among politicians and bureaucrats became a business practice. Every time when a coup occurred, some excuses were given to justify it. Consequently, eighteen coups resulted in creation of eighteen Constitutions in the Thai political history, and thus repeated failures of democracy.
The Protests of 1991-1992 and a Failure of Democracy
The involvement of a new elite group of Thai business tycoons and industrialists into politics disrupted traditional power structures thus challenging the military’s authority over political power. That tension resulted in the democratic breakdown in 1991. While those groups clashed for achieving a monopoly over political power, another socio-economic class emerged. As the nation’s economy continued rising and spreading its benefits to a majority of the population, a middle-class strengthened and grew equally. Figures 1, 2 and 3 show the rising of an educated middle-class as economic inequality begins to decline during the years 1981-88 and average years of schooling for Thai men and women.
Moreover, the education system experienced a consistent involvement of women and men in learning opportunities. That period of improving intellectual and economic resources corresponded to social opportunities, which promoted communication and education, and finally uplifted civil society. Thailand entered into the era of new information and media via radios and televisions which people were able to buy as the Thai economy continued to improve. Furthermore, economic prosperity had communication and information to travel from one province to another with developed transportation facilities and mobility. For instance, provincial roads increased from 5,770 km in 1971 to 28,690 in 1989.
As business prospered, the middle-class became more assertive and grew larger. Changes in mobility, media, and literacy created a new mass society. According to modernization theories, the nation’s middle-class growth and benefit from increase in social and economic resources are quite obvious. In such a situation, the political conscience and political voice of public become stronger and less tolerant of political and electoral corruption. These modernization theories are confirmed by the public protests of May 1992 popular as Black May protests. After the coup of 1991, General Suchinda Kraprayun’s illegal rise to the premiership, pro-democracy groups revived themselves. They formed a Campaign for Popular Democracy, which leaders demonstrated large protest and organized hunger strikes against the military regime.
On May 17, 1992, nearly 200,000 middle-class people assembled in Bangkok for a demonstration. The protests became a turning point in the political history of Thailand because the middle-class had become powerful enough to raise a strong political voice. Moreover, the rioters arrived from more than 30 Thailand’s provinces making people outside of Bangkok raise their voice for democracy. Unfortunately, the demonstrations met a similar fate to the protests of 1973 and 1976. The military fired on the unarmed protestors that killed sixty people; the violence continued over three nights. Hence, after experiencing political turmoil from the 1980s to early 1990s caused by military and elite group disunity, the nation found a way to democratic consolidation when such an incident gave a major jolt to restoration of democratic reforms and democracy.
Corrupting Democracy: Thaksin and Political Polarization (1997-2006)
The Black May protests were the resultant of frequent collapse of the democratic regime. They led to more political reforms when promulgating “The People's Constitution” in 1997, aiming to maintain a balance of powers between strengthened government, anti-corruption institutes, and separately elected senators. Constitutional Courts, election-control committee, and administrative courts were created to strengthen the control and balance of politics and democracy. As 1997 came nearer, the nation’s prospects for restoration of democracy appeared bright. A new political institution had evolved with new political actors, and a new Constitution reflected the shifting of power. With mechanisms centered on eliminating power abuses and fighting corrupt electoral processes, the Constitution and the citizens of Thailand were ready for restoration of peaceful democracy.
However, in less than a decade, the foundations of democracy ruined, and the country fell back into military hands in 2006. Initially, the military had decided to reclaim its power. However, the mechanisms of the 2006 collapse are more complicated and disclose deeper concerns in Thai politics than military rulers who seemed hungry to retain power. Although the nation’s democracy was parliamentary, it was, more presidential in practice.
The Constitution of 1997 increased the authority and powers of the premiership and separated the legislative and executive branches from one another, thereby sabotaging the mutual dependence, which the Prime Minster should possess with his parliament. Political institutions aimed at existence of party polarization as another destabilizing mechanism. Although parliamentary democracies decrease polarization in the party, Thai politics encountered intense polarization because of increasing struggle between the supporters of Thaksin and anti-Thaksin Thais. In short, the 2006 collapse of democracy was an outcome of the mechanisms that created an unstable environment and reduced the chances of democracy in Thailand.
Thailand has struggled for more than eighty years to create a stable balance between traditional system of absolute monarch and promises of modern democracy. Since the 1932 revolution that withdrawal several powers from the monarchy, various Thai elite groups, including military, tried to uphold the power. Even during the period of political stability, the power regime was a sham democracy controlled by military rulers. Eighteen coups caused a failure of democracy as well as disunity between military junta and different political groups, further diminishing the hopes of resorting democratic regime.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej implemented economic reforms, which resulted in emergence of a new socio-economic class after the democratic collapse in 1991. During 1990s, the nation experienced a consistent economic growth and inequality began to decline. Thailand explored new resources of investments as well as took initiatives in industrialization; and new business opportunities helped in eliminating the poverty. The country witnessed steady growth of middle-class, and new employment opportunities increased. The political crisis of the 1990s led to the successful restoration of democracy for a short period. However, in less than a decade, the political institutions established by the Constitution were dissolved, and military took control of power to support the premiership of Thaksin who was corrupt business elite. Therefore, political differences between various factions of elites, their craving for power, and frequent military coups destabilized Thailand.
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