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11 April 2010

The root of Thailand’s violence

Can democracy take root when you have a god-king?

By Sholto Byrnes

The latest reports are that at least 20 people have been killed and 830 injured as street battles in Bangkok once again capture the world’s attention. This follows the demonstrations that shut down large parts of the Thai capital last month. But a long-term resolution to the dispute is nowhere near — these scenes will be a regular occurrence for months, and probably years.

In that light, it’s worth exploring the deep background to the conflict between the “red shirts” protesting against the current government and the yellow-shirted marchers who occupied the Thai capital’s airport in 2008.

The current prime minister, the Eton- and Oxford-educated Abhisit Vejjajiva, won office only after the army coup of 2006 forced out the elected premier, Thaksin Shinawatra, and the constitutional court banned the People’s Power Party, which was widely seen as the successor to Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party and hence a vehicle for the now exiled former leader.

So, goes the simplistic analysis: the red shirts are fighting for democracy and the monarchist yellow shirts, many of whose leaders were members of Abhisit’s Democrat Party, want to keep power in the hands of the aristocratic and business elite, right?

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Poster-boy for republicans?

Up to a point, Lord Copper (although Lord Buddha might be more appropriate, as will become apparent). Thaksin undoubtedly won his first election by a large majority in 2001, and would have been re-elected convincingly in 2007, had he been able to participate in politics.

But he is hardly a poster-boy for democracy. There have been long-standing and widespread allegations against him of corruption — for which he was convicted in 2008 (although whether he had a real chance of being acquitted is a moot point). Some suggest that Thaksin or his proxies are paying the red shirts to protest. Others accuse him of having authoritarian tendencies and of harbouring the desire to turn Thailand into a republic.

It was to emphasise this that his opponents wore yellow, the royal colour, a very potent symbol in a land where the king is perhaps not quite God, but getting close to it.

And this leads us to why a purely political solution may not last for very long. For us, to say that a leader has been elected democratically pretty much closes down any argument about legitimacy. This, however, is clearly not the case in a country that has had 17 military coups and nearly 30 prime ministers during King Bhumibol’s 64 years on the throne.

The monarchy — absolute until 1932, “constitutional” since — has been the source of stability and unity for every evolving and successor version of the Siamese state going back to the 13th century. If the current king is “revered”, the adjective universally used to describe him, it is not just because he is an amiable chap, a skilled jazz musician, inventor and sportsman of austere demeanour who has stepped in numerous times to end confrontation — even though all those things may be true. It is also because he is heir to two traditions of kingly authority that place him on an entirely different plane from the often venal politicians who may find favour in the ebb and flow of popular opinion.

The Thai kings are seen as dhammarajas, monarchs who rule according to Buddhist principles and who demonstrate by their acts that they possess the most superior virtue. They live by their own code, the thotsaphit rachatham, which guides their behaviour. As Paul M Handley writes in his biography of the present monarch, The King Never Smiles:

The following of the ten kingly virtues is the source of the king’s undisputed authority and sovereignty. Without making him absolutely superior — only the dhamma is superior — the thotsaphit rachatham represents the uniqueness of his sacrality, distinguishing him from the highest monks.


A future in doubt

In itself, this theory provides for as strong a justification of power as, say, the “divine right” of kings to rule preached by Louis XIV and, less successfully, by Charles I. But the Thai monarchs also draw on another tradition, that of the devarajas, the Hindu god-kings of the ancient Khmer Angkor kingdom.

Although the early Siamese states of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya were both Buddhist, their rulers incorporated this remnant of the region’s Hindu past both into their coronation rituals and into the mythologies surrounding their kingship.

The 1932 constitution may have reduced the monarch’s absolute powers, but it still described him as “king of the world . . . full of merit from the former life, and incarnation of God”. When the monarchy is invested with such awesome authority, the claims of democracy seem weak and, most importantly, lacking in legitimacy in comparison.

By most accounts, King Bhumibol has been a wise and beneficent ruler who has earned the immense prestige and affection in which he is held (and those who doubt that should try stopping anyone in the street in Bangkok to ask their opinion). And it is, of course, for Thailand and its people to determine what form of government they choose to have.

But so long as the institution of the monarchy is seen to be so superior to any form of democratic process, and so long as any disruptions of that process, whether it be by military or judicial means, can be justified as actions taken to defend the monarchy, it is hard to see how democracy can really bed down and become the norm rather than an intermittent exception in Thailand.

Thaksin’s achievement was to give voice to the rural poor who felt ignored by the Bangkok elite. The mass of his supporters would almost certainly not want any change to the king’s status. But at some point there will have to be a new reckoning in which the royal sphere is more clearly demarcated from the political — not least so that no one can justify violence in the name of protecting the king. Otherwise, the long-term future of the monarchy, when the ailing King Bhumibol is no longer around, must be open to doubt.