The Explainer: Thailand at the crossroads

That was Rex Harrison playing the role of the King in “Anna and the King of Siam.” Since the 1930s, Siam’s been officially known as Thailand and both the Rex Harrison movie, the musical, “The King and I” with Yul Brynner, and even Chow-Yeung-Fat’s latest version have been viewed unfavorably in that country.

Tonight, we’re going to consider a future in which Thailand has no king; and along the way, we’ll explore just how uneasily democracy can sit with the authoritarian institutions of our precolonial past.

I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.


I. Undemocratic Asians


On June 12, 2006, the royals of the world gathered in Bangkok, to be wined and dined. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the accession to the throne of Phumiphon Adunyadet, King of Thailand.

The event was a veritable Who’s Who of the remaining crowned heads of Europe, the Emperor of Japan, and various crowned heads of the Middle East and Southeast Asia. They were gathered to recognize the longest-reigning monarch in Thailand’s history and today, the longest-serving head of state in the world.

It was a remarkable event in another way: in our part of the world, only Thailand has avoided being directly ruled and colonized by a European power. This Bangkok ceremony, then, can be considered a glimpse into what might have been, for people like ourselves. Before Western colonization, and for a long time during, the system of government truly Asian was the absolute, hereditary, monarchical kind.

Still, if the focus was Thailand’s king, he was a king in the mold of most of the remaining monarchies of the world –a symbol, rich in ritual but deprived of actual power, a traditional anchor for a rapidly modernizing, democratically ruled society.

Mere months after all this royal gilt, glitz and glamour,slightly ove a decade of democratically-elected government came to an end. Thailand found its government overthrown by the military in a coup d’etat on September 19, 2006. The king was notably silent. Reporters began to point out that the king had only refused to endorse coups twice, in 1981 and 1985 and in both cases, without royal support, the coups failed. The king’s silence was interpreted to mean that he endorsed the coup. Democracy came to an end and wouldn’t be restored until over a year later.

The reign of King Phumiphon covers an almost unimaginable period from our inevitably young, and in-a-hurry, modern perspective. Think of all the many elections and changes we’ve seen, and how, for the Thais, the opposite seems true in terms of their experience with democracy.

When he ascended the throne, Manuel Roxas had just been elected President of the Philippines; and his reign has lasted all the way through to-

The present administration: that’s ten Philippine presidents, four Philippine constitutions, a dictatorship, two people powers, and going on three generations.

Indeed when King PHOOMEEPHON was photographed here with President Macapagal, he was still pretty much a decorative figure. Yet something remarkable would take place: as the Philippines seemed inclined to abandon democracy, and experiment with strongman rule, Thailand began to inch towards more democracy, and an increasingly crucial role in this would come to be played by the king.

At the time this photograph was taken with President Marcos, Asia was in the grips of an era of strongman rule; and yet after decades of military dictators disguised as prime ministers, it was in 1973 that Thailand gained its first civilian prime minister after a week of student demonstrations in Bangkok. But by 1976, military rule was back and would continue until the 1990s, when the king once more intervened and lent his prestige to efforts to restore civilian government and embark on democratic parliamentary elections.

To be sure, back when this was still the first national flag of what was then known as Siam, the kings of Thailand were the absolute rulers of their kingdom. The present Chakri dynasty was founded in the 17th century, and boasted warrior-kings who ruled over an empire stretching to present-day Cambodia and Burma in its heyday. But by the early 19th Century, the kingdom faced pressures from the European imperial powers.

King Monkut, fourth of his dynasty and who reigned from 1851 to 1868, is the gentleman on your screen; our opening clip was Rex Harrison’s portrayal of this modernizing monarch. He negotiated treaties with the West and embarked on modernizing the institutions of his kingdom.

He was succeeded by one of his sons, King Chulalongkorn, who reigned from 1868 to 1910, and after whom the famous Thai university was named. He continued his father’s reforms, abolishing, among other things, the practice of kneeling –indeed, basically crawling- in the presence of the king. Most of all, he prevented the outright colonization of his kingdom by the Western powers. He also abolished debt-slavery in 1905, incidentally the kind of slavery we had prior to the arrival of the Spaniards.

Chulalongkorn’s modernizations didn’t include giving up many wives, but even all his wives and all the many children he had –he had, count it, seventy sons- didn’t ensure the continuation of the Chakri dynasty’s absolute power. Two of his sons would follow him on the throne.

In 1932, a coup took place, and the grand-uncle of the present king was stripped of his governing power.  He abdicated the throne, and the elder brother of the present king ascended the throne as the last King of Siam. In 1939, Siam was renamed Thailand.

When we return,  we’ll look at the ambivalent relationship between democracy and Thailand’s king.


II. Potentially empty throne


That was the fanciful closing scene of “Anna and the King of Siam,” showing the King Chulalongkorn’s accession. From Chulalongkorn’s time until his grandson, the present king, Thais were able to stand in front of their king. In the late 1950s, the King of Thailand began restoring hitherto discarded traditions, including the practice of subjects kneeling before their king.

Since the absolute power of the Thai monarchy was overthrown, the country has had 17 temporary and permanent constitutions, 14 of them in the reign of the present king alone.

As we saw in the previous segment, the present king may have little formal power, but with the support of his early prime ministers, he has built up his personal prestige and the magnificence of the monarchy, by restoring old rituals and engaging in the advocacy of agriculture and aid to the poor.

A question haunting Thais, however, is whether the unprecedented reverence for the present king, can be inherited and enjoyed by the Crown Prince, seen here in this Wikipedia photo. The Crown Prince is a pilot, actually participated in counter-insurgency operations against Communist rebels in the 1970s, but has had a controversial personal life. If the present king has been widely understood to be a stabilizing influence in Thai politics, what will happen when his son takes over? Recent events in Thailand are often understood in the context of a battle over the future of the monarchy and those who support that monarchy.

Here’s the flag of the Prime Minister of Thailand. In the past, the Prime Minister was usually a general, and more often than not, a dictator. Indeed, Thailand’s had elected legislatures only infrequently: in 1946, shortly before the present king ascended the throne, and since 1997 –briefly interrupted by the 2006 coup, which was widely reported to have been supported by the king. The present king began as a kind of decoration to legitimize military dictators. As he grew older, he nurtured his prestige so that he could influence the rise and fall of governments. Around the king are generals, businessmen, and a middle and professional class in Bangkok that took their power for granted.

Until this man, a billionaire businessman, was elected Prime Minister in 2001. The ruling class of Thailand received a nasty shock when it realized Thaksin Shinawatra could rise to power, and then hold on to it, by appealing directly to the poor, especially farmers in rural areas. In the past, prime ministers had always put forward the king as the source of all charity and goodness; now Thaksin appealed directly to voters, by offering them government programs.

As we saw earlier, in 2006, the generals, supported by the Bangkok middle class, and businessmen and politicians uneasy over what they considered Thaksin’s populist but corrupt rule, ousted him. His partymates reorganized and won twice even after the Constitution was replaced. And twice,  Thaksin-identified prime ministers were removed by the courts, after People Power by groups proclaiming they were loyal to the king, while accusing Thaksin of all sorts of crimes.

Kicking out Thaksin in a coup, and the courts kicking out Thaksin-affiliated prime ministers twice, and furthermore using People Power in the streets, has led to Thaksin’s supporters adopting protests in the streets as an effective tactic to get what they want, too: most spectacularly, in early April, where the 14th Asean Summit ended up hastily canceled after Thaksin’s supporters stormed the Summit venue in the resort city of Pattaya.

Thaksin and his supporters accuse this man, the present Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, of being a tool of businessmen, allied with the generals and the Thai middle class, who preach democracy but who are afraid when it doesn’t go their way.

Emboldened by their success in forcing a cancellation of the Asean Summit, Thaksin’s supporters –known as Red Shirts, in contrast to the royalist, middle-class, and military-backed Yellow Shirts- continued their protests in Bangkok until a military crackdown and state of emergency led to their leaders calling off the protests.

But this may all be a temporary truce. Observers noted that the King didn’t indicate where his sympathies lay, either way. There was much speculation over whether this was due to the king’s age and ill health, or whether political experience tells him that he risks throwing away a lifetime’s accumulated mystique, by supporting the government and triggering outright defiance from Thaksin, who so far, has carefully avoided directly criticizing the monarchy.

But a prime Minister, Thaksin, in exile and facing accusations of financial wrongdoing; two prime ministers ousted by court cases, and the present, non-Thaksin-affiliated prime minister hanging on due to military support, seems to bode ill for Thailand as a democracy.

The question of the army hangs heavily over the political future of Thailand. During the recent demonstrations in Pattaya, and then in Bangkok, the police, for example, seemed powerless. It was the army that decided whether the streets were clogged by protesters or not.

Foreign observers have been less shy about tackling the future of Thailand, both as a monarchy and a democracy. The Asia Sentinel, for one, has published many provocative articles like this one, on line.

So we honestly don’t know if the Garuda, that mythical bird in the royal emblem of Thailand, will remain the symbol of its government much longer. But in a way, what we get a glimpse of, in Thailand’s modern history, is of what society and politics might have been like for us, had our original societies remained uncolonized.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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