Thai king's birthday raises questions about monarchy's role in politics

Pavin Chachavalpongpun says the Thai king's birthday only highlights the monarchy's diminishing influence on a nation facing political chaos

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 December, 2013, 9:30pm
UPDATED : Friday, 06 December, 2013, 2:09am

King Bhumibol Adulyadej celebrated his 86th birthday yesterday, which was also Thailand's national day. This much-anticipated event came amid escalating political conflict between the Yingluck Shinawatra government backed by her fugitive brother, former prime minister Thaksin, and its opponents in the old establishment camp represented by the elitist opposition, the Democrat Party.

Street protests have returned to Bangkok, leaving at least four dead and a dozen injured. On the surface, the anti-government forces are claiming to fight for the elimination of the supposedly corrupt Yingluck government. But, on a deeper level, the relentless protests expose the opposition's failure to compete with Thaksin's proxies in the game of electoral politics. From 2001 until 2011, Thaksin and his political nominees triumphed in every single election, while the Democrats have failed to lead at the polls since 1992.

A few weeks ago, Yingluck's controversial amnesty bill gave the opposition an opportunity to question her government's dubious motives. Due to public pressure, the government was forced to put it back in the drawer. Yet, the protesters refused to give up their anti-government campaign. Led by former Democrat lawmaker Suthep Thaugsuban, they have successfully invaded and occupied state offices, including the finance and foreign ministries and Government House.

The aims are clear: to disrupt the functioning of government and create a situation of ungovernability. A tactic of inciting violence was thus adopted to invite the military to intervene. So far, Yingluck has assigned the police to deal with the demonstrators but barred them from using force. The military has assisted in the operation, in a very "limited" manner.

The army is reluctant to get involved this time for two main reasons. It learned valuable lessons from the coup of 2006 and its deadly crackdowns against the red shirts in 2010. Another coup would prompt the red shirts, now gathering at a Bangkok stadium, to come out in protest against it.

The other reason is that the army has worked intimately with the so-called "network monarchy" - a political network centred on the monarchy - in dominating Thai politics. But the monarchy today is weakened partly because of the ill health of the king. When nobody gives an instruction, no move might just be the best one for the military.

With the military refusing to risk its political position, Suthep has instead called for a royal intervention, referring to Section 7 of the constitution which stipulates that the king is able to appoint a prime minister in a time of crisis. But, already, a large segment of Thai society has voiced strong objections to an appointed prime minister, seeing it as a breach of democratic principles.

The king himself is in a difficult position. As a political actor, he has never been neutral and this prevents him from exercising his full authority. Members of the old establishment are anxious about their future without the king, given that his reign is coming to an end. The current crisis reflects such anxiety on their part.

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