Near the main backpacker centre of Khao San Road in Bangkok is the Democracy Monument. Most backpackers wouldn’t know it’s there or if they scan the guidebooks thoroughly enough may give it the quick once over. Largely, it’s ignored or given scant regard. The social life of the bars and restaurants having more appeal, and the guided tours are largely restricted to featuring floating markets, palaces and temples. Pity, as this neo-art deco oddity featuring artwork by an Italian and stuck in the middle of one of the city’s busiest streets has a lot to say about Thai society. Of what it is and what it isn’t, and some of which that can be more easily described than explained.
Democracy Monument is the focal point of the European-style Boulevard Ratchadamnoen Klang, a grand, wide road modelled for grandeur with multiple lanes, wide pavements, and lined by rows of trees. The building of the monument was highly unpopular at the time for ironically, it wasn’t very democratic. The locals, mostly Chinese residents and shopkeepers, were evicted from their homes and businesses to make way with barely any notice. More or less it was imposed on people, no consultation, and no appeal. In a portent of things to come then, it was much like a lot of Thai governments.
Originally, the monument was built to commemorate landmark events; the end of absolute monarchy in Thailand’s (then called Siam) and the country’s first constitution. You could say that the monument is much like democracy in Thailand itself. You might see it, have knowledge of the concept, recognise it, and sometimes experience it, but generally it remains elusive most of the time. Even when there’s an elected government, the entrenched elites ensure that the peoples’ elected representatives aren’t able to rock the establishment’s boat.
What Thailand is, is the most politically unstable country in Southeast Asia. Since 1932, the country has had 29 prime ministers from 15 different parties, not including the military. Many of those from parties were military anyway, including three field marshals and seven generals. If Thailand were in Latin America it could be called a banana republic, and in Africa would satisfy some qualification as a failed state. Governments have come and gone with disconcerting speed and wearisome frequency. You know the government is going to change it’s just a question of when. Coup, military rule, caretaker administration, civilian rule, threats followed by inevitably, yet another military takeover, usually under the auspices of establishing peace and order with a view to a return to democracy at some later, but often ever changing date. The more things change the more they stay the same.
Yet a country fitting either or parts of those descriptions would hardly attract millions of tourists every year. But this Thailand does, with Bangkok still one of the ten most visited cities in the world. I can think of no other country quite like it, so is Thailand unique in Southeast Asia then?
What Thailand isn’t is a one party communist state like Vietnam, albeit one with a free-market economy, or like Lao PDR, Southeast Asia’s forgotten land. It hasn’t been in the grip of a continuous and brutal military dictatorship for years bent on isolationism and almost hermitically sealed like Myanmar. The key denominators there are isolationist and hermit-like. It doesn’t have a civilian strongman maintaining power for decades like Cambodia. For all its experiences of undemocratic rule, Thailand doesn’t quite qualify as a de-facto dictatorship either- it’s had elections and governments have changed peacefully, more so latterly. They just don’t manage or aren’t allowed, to stay in power. It hasn’t managed to extricate itself from autocratic nationalist post-independence rule like Indonesia or managed long periods of continuous civilian rule like the Philippines. Given that in both instances, these have occurred relatively lately. It is also not a capitalist multi-cultural pseudo-democracy like Malaysia or like Singapore. The latter so much more like a corporation than a country that it’s sometimes referred to as Singapore Inc. Not quite one-party states, but on the other hand, no room for any other parties.
What Thailand is politically is a nation flirting with democracy but yet to fashion a balance to represent the views of the people with the entrenched interests of the elites. Like Cambodia, Brunei and Malaysia (yes them too, the Sultan of Kedah), Thailand is a monarchy. The regent, King Bhumibol or Rama IX of the Chakri Dynasty and hugely popular, is the world’s longest reigning monarch having been on the throne since June 1946. His dynasty goes back to the 1700s, and Thai royalty back as far as the 13th century, maybe even further.
Back in the day a patchwork of Thai principalities stretched from Vietnam across the Mekong and Chaophraya rivers to the Gulf of Martaban along the Andaman Sea in southern Myanmar. For centuries the Kingdom of Thailand, the Chinese called it Xian the Portuguese converted this to Siam, was ruled by an aristocratic class with royal blood and by commoners with royally bestowed ranks and titles.
The last absolute monarch, Rama VII, and deposed in 1932 by military coup in the guise of the People’s Party led by (later) Field Marshal Luang Phibunsonggram, or Phibun as he was widely known. Civil servants and military officers then emerged as a new aristocratic class. Thailand’s military took advantage of the constitutional change from absolute monarchy to fully embed themselves in the country’s politics, and they’ve been there ever since.
Thailand’s rulers, military or otherwise, have steered the country between competing powers depending on which held the ascendency at the time. During World War Two, with Japan on the rise and the Western powers in retreat, Phibun declared war on both America and Great Britain siding with Japan’s wartime Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere. Japanese intervention helped defeat the French in the Thai-French War of late 1940-41, but the gain was short-lived. Thailand got a big chunk of Cambodia but had to give it back as a price for no post-war retribution for its dalliance with militaristic Japan. Phibun had the Victory Monument built in Bangkok to celebrate the outcome and seems to have imagined that Thailand, serving as Japan’s junior partner in driving the Europeans and Americans out of Southeast Asia, would be rewarded with further territorial enhancement. Instead, nothing of that sort happened and Thailand was treated as just another occupied territory by the Imperial Japanese Army. That was, treated rather badly.
At the height of the Cold War, Sarit Thanarat seized power - twice as it happened, in 1957 and again in 1958. He visited Washington expressing his determination to govern Thailand with a firm hand. This went down well with the US Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, a staunch anti-communist who was then busy espousing his notorious Domino Theory. Emboldened, Thanarat's subsequent actions were to declare martial law, dissolve parliament, ban political parties, and arrest hundreds of politicians, journalists and dissidents. To be fair, he also launched the first Thai governmental programmes of rural economic development, particularly in the impoverished provinces of northeast Thailand; and he undertook a major expansion and improvement of the national education system. He also purportedly went after corruption, a facet of the previous regimes, but something endemic in the country then and now, and which seemingly permeates nearly all of society.
Upon his death in 1963, Thanarat was succeeded by another military man, Thanom Kittikachorn, a close associate, who was to become one of Thailand’s longest serving leaders, and one of the most authoritarian. Kittikachorn promised to restore parliamentary democracy and appointed a commission to write Thailand’s eighth constitution since the revolution of 1932. It was adopted in June 1968, and elections were held in February 1969. Kittikachorn’s own United Thai People’s Party won a parliamentary majority in an election where less than half the electorate voted, and Kittikachorn continued as both prime minister and minister of defence.
Under Kittikachorn Thailand became heavily involved in regional geo-politics. He opened Thailand up to the US military, then engaged in their war in Southeast Asia. Thailand was seen as a key pillar in fight against communism in the region, which secured them massive US economic aid. In return he sent Thai combat troops to South Vietnam (they had also served in the Korean War). Three quarters of all the ordnance dropped against Laos and North Vietnam was by US bombers based in Thailand. Prostitution soared due to US service personnel visiting Thailand for RnR from which point, for better or worse, the Thai tourist industry was established to what it is today (not to say it’s all about sex, which it’s not).
In 1971, Kittikachorn even staged a coup against his own government. He dissolved the cabinet and the parliament, suspended the constitution, and established a nine-man military directorate to rule Thailand. His rule and that of his cohorts, principally the so called “Three Tyrants” was characterised by allegations of human rights violations, corruption, and nepotism and became increasingly unpopular. There were mass protests culminating in a watershed for Thai politics, the student uprising of October 1973, which saw Kittikachorn and the other tyrants flee into exile first in the US and then Singapore.
With him gone democratic rule was established albeit briefly (1973-76) when King Bhumibol appointed Sanya Dharmasakti, as prime minister. Sanya Dharmasakti was of one of the most influential of Thailand’s politicians drafting the 1974 constitution and as prime minister until 1975. From Dharmasakti until the next military coup, the country was run by Seni Pramoj, his brother Kukrit Pramoj and then Seni Pramoj once again. Seni Pramoj had been Thailand’s ambassador to Washington when Phibun unilaterally decided to declare on both the US and Great Britain, but chose not to deliver the message.
In October 1976 came the infamous Thammasat University massacre, and another army led coup which installed Thanin Kriangsak an ultra-conservative judge, who began a series of purges of liberal Thai society. His regime was unstable and Kriangsak was another forced to step down to be succeeded by the then army commander-in-chief, Prem Tinsulanonda.
The eighties saw Thailand drawn into the post-Khmer Rouge crisis unfolding in Cambodia. Thailand became a supporter, albeit by default, of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Tens of thousands of Cambodian refugee lived in squalid camps along the border between the two countries. Vietnamese troops then fighting the Khmer Rouge reportedly would sometimes encroach onto Thai territory to pursue Khmer Rouge forces, prompting clashes with Royal Thai troops. For Thailand, Cambodia exists as a geo-strategic buffer against the powerful and feared Vietnamese. Thai reasoning was that if Pol Pot was fighting Vietnam, he must be with us, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. During some of this period Pol Pot lived in a Thai government sponsored villa outside Trat in the east of the country, and having his hemorrhoids treated by doctors in Bangkok. All up, probably not a good look internationally.
In 1992 there was Bloody May (Black May), a military crackdown against protests of the government of Suchinda Kraprayoon, which resulted in deaths, arrests, and disappearances. There were widespread reports of torture of those detained. Kraprayoon overthrew the government of Chatichai Choonhavan, and called his government the National Peace Keeping Council. Choonhavan was a soldier politician and chairman of the Thai National Party, who was prime minister from 1988 until the coup of 1991. His overthrow sparked Black May after the interim government appointed by Suchinda then appointed him as prime minister. Bangkok’s streets filled with an estimated 200,000 protesters and peace was only restored after royal intervention and Suchinda resigned.
He was replaced by Meechai Ruchuphan, a civil servant, as caretaker prime minister, who was in turn succeeded just months later by Anand Panyarachun, a career diplomat. Panyarachun was succeeded by the democratically elected Chuan Leekpai, leader of the Democrat Party and Thailand's first prime minister to come to power without either aristocratic or military backing. He was defeated in the 1995 election, but assumed power in late 1997 following the fall of the Chavalit Yongchaiyut administration, which was held responsible for the economic crisis that beset Thailand in 1997. Chuan Leekpai became prime minister for a second time from 1997-2001. His administration was criticised for many economic reforms, human rights abuses and corruption.
Following Leekpai’s second term was Thaksin Sinawatra, the tycoon from Chiang Mai. His major electoral tactic was the politicising of Thailand’s poor, especially those in Isaan, the country’s impoverished northeast, hitherto marginlised and ignored. Sinawatra was relected in 2005 but it wasn’t to last long. The Army led coup of September 2006 overthrew Sinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai (“Thais Love Thais”, the Red Shirts) and reinstalled martial law under General Sonthi Boonyaratglin via interim leaders. The general was Thailand’s first ever Muslim head of the military.
Fresh elections were held in 2007 under a controversial new constitution (now suspended) drafted by the military. The TRT had been dissolved by the constitutional court. The People Power Party (PPP), or Thaksin's proxy party, gained the majority, a result that was challenged in court by PAD, the People’s Alliance for Democracy, or Yellow Shirts, led by Abhisist Vejjajiva, educated at Oxford and born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He became prime minster (2008-11) after the constitutional court removed Somchai Wongsawat from office. During this time there were major protests in Thailand especially Bangkok.
In May 2011, the Pheu Thai Party, which maintains close ties to Thaksin, nominated his sister Yingluck as their candidate for Prime Minister in that year’s elections. His sister Yingluck, similarly got offside with the elites, and was then also deposed in a coup. The military coup of 22 May 2014 led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, Thailand’s Army Chief, revoked the 2007 constitution and Thailand has been under the rule of the military albeit through the National Council for Peace and Order ever since. At one time they imposed a curfew, though allowed dispensation for tourists making their way from the airport to hotels. After all, a buck is a buck, or a baht.
According to a recent article in Asia Nikkei penned by a former Thai foreign minister, Thailand's political structure can be characterised as a ‘bureaucracy with a military spearhead, supported by an entourage of place seekers and hangers on such as academics, media personalities, white-collar workers and professionals’. The real power behind Thailand’s military-backed governments is invariably the country’s conservative elites, who sit at the apex of society, and are described as ‘modern aristocrats’. They are conservative in their thinking, perceptions and behaviour. They ‘prefer order and stability in society, and view themselves as the natural leaders and rightful protectors of national institutions, especially the three main pillars of Thai society -- the nation, the Buddhist religion and the monarchy. ‘
They adhere to a belief in the unique characteristics of Thailand, reflexively embodied in what they call the "Thainess" of traditional values, of discipline, and of authority relationships, and are oblivious to other stakeholders. They dislike conflict and confrontation. They ‘love the authority they have, and the discretion it conveys to use power as they see fit, and they shy away from concepts of transparency and accountability. They resist or ignore claims of wider access to information, advancing the over-riding requirements of state security as their justification.’
For them order has been restored, however temporarily. The streets of Bangkok no longer swarm with Yellow Shirt protests of the middle class, or of the working class Red Shirts. The mass people's movements are described as ‘exhausted, physically and financially, by drawn out protests and rallies’. Most are in check, neutralised by charges against their leaders; some have been checkmated by administrative measures. For the conservatives any reform of Thailand is about ‘the consolidation and perpetuation of the power of the modern aristocratic class.’ They are characterised as being beyond reproach and accountable to no one, a trait they share with elites in other Southeast Asian countries.
To outsiders the seeming lack of accountability at the upper echelons of Thai society has been the target of much acerbic criticism. One wit even penned an article saying that Amnesty International would launch a campaign to highlight the “cruel and inhumane” practice of transferring high-ranking officials from one position to another as punishment for wrongdoing or corruption in Thailand. Loss of face was all they said, so having corrupt and incompetent officials subjected to the life-destroying punishment of having to be employed in another high executive position with full benefits and privileges, including government-paid luxury cars for personal and business use was tantamount to human rights abuses was shocking!
Even when they try to present a transparent face of accountability it can backfire. Police Major-General Paween Ponsirin was the most senior police official entrusted with the investigation into human trafficking after mass graves were discovered in southern Thailand in May 2015. Unfortunately for Thai elites, he did his job too well. More than 30 graves were discovered in the Thailand-Malaysia border area. Many of the bodies were believed to be Rohingya Muslims. Others were refugees from Bangladesh. Ponsirin said that his investigation had implicated senior military and police officials in the racket. His determination to find see through the investigation put him in confrontation with senior Thai officials and he has been forced to seek asylum abroad.
Similarly, key political opposition figures can be threatened and silenced. In 2010, the military strategist of the anti-government Red Shirt protestors, Major-General Khattiya Sawadipol or Seh Daeng as he is commonly referred to, was shot in the head by bullet fired by a high-powered sniper’s rifle while waiting to address a rally in Bangkok. Several theories exist as to who was behind the attempt but, no one has ever been charged with his murder, and probably never will be.
Like many other Southeast Asian nations, public office in Thailand is seen as means for officials to enrich themselves at the expense of the public purse. One example is that of Suphoth Sublom, the Transport Ministry permanent secretary. In 2011, his house was burgled by a gang of robbers. Sublom’s house was full of cash, purportedly kickbacks from the planned extension of the Bangkok subway. Police said they confiscated some 17 million baht from the gang. The Ministry official claimed it couldn’t have been more than 5 million. The public weren’t surprised by the extent of the corruption. Some commented the only surprise was the robbery gang bra bigger truck for the loot.
All this aside, Thailand has managed to come a some way to creating a democratic polity. The people have been empowered, especially recently and aided by modern information technology, they have tasted and experienced their sovereign rights. Social media is something authoritarian regimes the world over are increasingly struggling to combat. Things no longer can be hidden and knowledge is often power, or the means to question and publicise.
The attempts of Thailand’s modern aristocrats to dominate the political class and civil society will likely lead to further conflict and confrontation. They need to reconsider if Thailand is ever to emerge as a democratically stable and progressive country. What’s intersting is that the Thai military relies on recruits many of whom are from Isaan, recently politicised as the Red Shirts. How long will they stay complicit at the whim of the elites without wanting a say.
Across the road from the monument is kilometre zero, the point from where road distances from Bangkok are calculated for major roads in Thailand. From there national route 1, 3 and 4 are measured to Chiang Rai in the very north, east to Trat Province on the border with Cambodia, and north to Nong Khai, near the bridge to Laos.
While the Italian architect put some interesting details in its bas relief panels on the bases of the wings, most people never get to see them as braving the traffic swarming around the site can be a bit daunting. There are plans afloat to turn Rajadamnoen Road into Bangkok's "Champs Elysees" which includes underground tunnels to make access to the monument easier and safer. But like Thailand’s return to democracy, it seems that the plans are on hold.
It is somewhat ironic that not far from the monument is the Kalahom Department in Phra Nakhom, the Ministry of Defence housed in a large colourful wooden building - Thailand’s equivalent of the Pentagon. Given the continued role of the military in Thai politics; past, present and doubtless future too, it’s just a short journey between two, but Thailand’s struggles with democracy have covered a lifetime.
The current regime has drafted another constitution, Thailand's twentieth version. It's planned to put this to a referendum in the coming months. Word is the draft looks to embed the military even more into Thai politics. Watch this space.