For more than 80 years, Thailand has been struggling to build a stable and functioning democracy. On the afternoon of Thursday 22 May, that process was set back again with the country’s 12th military coup. Once again, Thailand has seen its constitution torn up, and its political leaders detained.
The military announced it was taking control of the government, banned political gatherings of more than five people, and imposed a nationwide curfew. Explaining the move to the nation, army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha claimed that the purpose of the coup was to bring peace to the streets and unity to the people.
But Thailand is far from united. The danger now is that myth, not sense, will come to define Thai citizenship in the wake of the army’s intervention. And even worse, with political rights curtailed, calls for unity will do nothing but destabilise the nation and threaten the security of all Thai lives.
Political rights in Thailand have been hard-won indeed and while most of the country’s coups have been peaceful, others haven’t. In 1973, 1976 and 1992, protesters who fought for wider participation and democratic government were gunned down in the name of protecting the nation. Since 2006, many more have lost their lives fighting for a stronger democracy.
But the country has ultimately failed to build a strong civil society that can support a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and economically segregated mix of communities. And that failure has left Thailand ripe for military intervention on the pretext of “unity”.
This idea of Thai unity is based on a historical myth, one that puts enormous pressure on people to conform and leaves little room to express themselves freely. Thai students are taught a national history based on the premise of historic independence; unlike its South-East Asian neighbours who were all colonised by Western powers, Thailand has supposedly been able to maintain its distinctive traditions and its unique way of life.
Radio and TV shows regularly discuss the reasons why foreigners love Thailand, Thai food and the Thai “character”. Interspersed throughout all TV schedules are endless depictions of the Thai king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, projected to the country as a stabilising influence – and for the most ardent royalists as “the father of the nation”.
All of these ideas have a basis in history, but they have also long been used to restrict what it means to be a citizen of the Thai nation. During the Cold War in particular, the idea that Thailand was defined by a unique set of cultural and social markers was propagated both by the military regimes that governed the country and by the United States, which sought to support authoritarian rule.
Maintaining stability was everything; the myths that bound all Thais together became tools for building a civil religion to protect the country from communism. In this climate, ideas of cultural citizenship became dominant. With political freedoms restricted, the commitment to securing a unique Thai way of life became a key way to unify the country’s fragmented political and economic constituencies.
It was also used on numerous occasions to sanction violence, most notably in 1976, when students protesting the imminent return to military dictatorship were gunned down within their university walls.
The charge that they were “not Thai” struck a powerful chord in a society that had been swamped with pro-American, pro-Royalist, pro-Thai propaganda for over a decade. With civil liberties suspended, hysteria reigned, and violence against those accused of defaming the monarchy and the nation was accepted as legitimate.
Just keep quiet
The world has changed since the Cold War, but many of the myths about what it means to be Thai remain. While Bangkok, home to the United Nations in Asia, frequently holds conferences and seminars about the importance of universal rights, the rights of Thais themselves come with heavy qualifications.
Most notable among these is the lèse-majesté law, which condemns Thais to up to 15 years in prison for remarks deemed critical of the monarchy. It fails to receive the level of international criticism that similar laws earn elsewhere.
Conventions like these are dangerous, not just because they impede citizens' freedoms, but because they maintain a climate of uncertainty and fear. Their ultimate effect is that Thai political life, which in principle is governed by a constitution, is just as much controlled by deep cultural taboos that limit behaviour, thought and speech.
Refusing to show respect for the king, to take pride in the country, to maintain the image of harmony to foreign tourists can all too easily be deemed “un-Thai”. At a time of crisis, particularly with the formal constitution suspended, these taboos risk dominating the lives of all Thais.
In the coming days, there will be many reactions to what has happened in Thailand. Some Thais will celebrate what they hope to be the end of a political conflict that has lasted years. Others will be angry at the suspension of their rights, but will be kept from articulating how they feel for fear of the consequences.
The ultimate tragedy, though, is that the myths that have been perpetuated to keep Thailand together will now be used to tear it apart.
Matthew Phillips has received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)