Royalty and democracy make an unhappy match

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 June, 2012, 12:00am

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On Sunday, Thailand will commemorate the 80th anniversary of the abolition of absolute monarchy. After so long, however, not only has democracy struggled to take root, the monarchy has refused to step aside. Instead, it continues to dominate the political body and obstruct democratisation, deepening political polarisation.

Critics argue that the almost unrestrained power of the king, protected by the lese-majeste law, has hindered development of elective institutions. Thai royalists often paint the domain as tainted by bad and immoral politicians. This has led to a new political culture in which the monarchy claims it has a right to intervene when it feels it is necessary.

Because of the incessant glorification of the monarchy throughout the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the intimate attachment of politics and society to the monarchy has served, metaphorically speaking, as a cell that prevents Thais from expressing unconventional thoughts. Thus, politics has remained intrinsically monarchist, with but a thin veneer of democratic characteristics.

This peculiar form is called 'royal democracy' in Thailand, constructed according to the Bangkok-centric vision of power which is essentially royalist and nationalist. In this construct, the monarchy has been defined as an indispensable institution that demands popular submission without conditions. The king has become more than just a head of state; he is now a demi-god, a highly moral figure, who must not be violated.

Paul Handley, in his revealing book The King Never Smiles, rightly explains that the king has always been a political player, debunking the myth that he is above politics. While governments have crumbled along the way, the king has consolidated his place in politics. The royal intervention in May 1992, shortly after bloody clashes between the army and pro-democracy groups, crowned him the stabiliser in politics.

But many aspects of absolute monarchy seem irreconcilable with modern values of democracy. Years of political manipulation have made many Thais more aware that their country has never been truly free from absolute monarchy and democracy is still chained. This has given birth to a phenomenon of ta sawag, or awakening, which is posing a challenge to the monarchy's political domination.

Thailand has arrived at a critical crossroads. Eighty years on, politics seem to have gone nowhere. The royal institution is not ready to stop interfering or undergo reform. But the more it resists change, the more it detaches itself from reality, and this is dangerous for its survival.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University's Centre for Southeast Asian Studies