Feature

Red Shirts and Rowdy Royals

Red Shirts and Rowdy Royals

A decade ago, Thailand was a beacon of democracy and progress in a neighbourhood mired in archaic autocracy. Three of its neighbours — Burma, Laos, and Cambodia — are trapped in the past and very far from being free. The fourth, Malaysia, is an apartheid state in which access to education and jobs depends on race. Thailand was regarded as the natural leader of the ASEAN bloc and an example for other democratizing nations to follow. Tragically, all that has changed.

Thailand is slipping backwards into authoritarianism, militarism, and repression. And a general election on Sunday, July 3, seems unlikely to change that. It’s an election in which whoever wins, Thailand’s people are likely to lose.

On the surface, the election is a straight fight between the incumbent Democrat Party of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the Pheu Thai party formally led by Yingluck Shinawatra, the younger sister of exiled telecommunications billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra — who remains a central figure in Thailand’s crisis. At stake is far more than which party will form the core of Thailand’s next government. The election is the latest skirmish in a long struggle over the balance of power between elected politicians, the military, and the monarchy. At this stage, Thaksin’s proxy party looks set to win power — and generals allied with the 78-year-old Queen Sirikit, the estranged wife of the widely beloved King Bhumibol, are likely to do all they can to sabotage that.

The election contest can only be understood in the context of multiple conflicts being fought at all levels of Thai society in the twilight years of King Bhumibol’s reign. The most momentous of these conflicts center on the palace. Because Thailand has the harshest lèse-majesté legislation in the world — any perceived insult to the king, queen, or crown prince is punishable by three to 15 years in prison — discussion of the central role of the monarchy in Thailand’s turmoil is outlawed and media reports have had to rely on tortured euphemisms and oblique hints. In theory, the country is a constitutional monarchy in which the king has little formal power but uses his moral authority to intervene at times of great crisis to save the country from disaster; in practice, the palace is enmeshed in politics and intervenes constantly, but usually through a network of loyal royalists to hide its role. Trying to explain Thai politics without reference to the role of the palace is thus like trying to tell the story of the Titanic without any mention of the ship. As Pravit Rojanaphruk, one of the country’s most outstanding journalists, wrote in a column this month: "The ‘invisible hand’, ‘special power’, ‘irresistible force’, all these words have been mentioned frequently lately by people, politicians and the mass media when discussing Thai politics, the upcoming general election and what may follow."

A few months ago, through my work as a senior Reuters editor, I gained access to the "Cablegate" database of U.S. diplomatic communications believed to have been leaked by U.S. soldier Bradley Manning. The cables revolutionize the understanding of 21st-century Thailand because unlike almost all journalistic and academic coverage of the country, they do not mince words when it comes to the monarchy. As I began work on an extensive article about the cables, I realized that because it represented an epic breach of the lèse-majesté law, it could never be published by Reuters, and I would be unable to visit Thailand again for many years. I took the decision to publish the article anyway, and resigned from Reuters on June 3 to do so. That I had to leave my job and become a criminal in Thailand just to report on the cables says all that needs to be said about the lack of freedom of information that is stifling important debate on Thailand’s future.

Two linked power struggles involving the palace are at the heart of Thailand’s crisis. The first is the battle over royal succession. The 83-year-old King Bhumibol has been hospitalized since September 2009, inexplicably refusing to return home to one of his palaces even when doctors pronounced him well enough to do so. A cable by then-Ambassador Eric G. John says King Bhumibol is "by many accounts beset long-term by Parkinson’s, depression, and chronic lower back pain." The impending end of his reign has sparked intense national anxiety in Thailand. King Bhumibol’s son and heir, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, has a reputation for being a cruel and corrupt womanizer. A notorious video showing a birthday party for his pet poodle Foo Foo — who holds the rank of Air Chief Marshal — has been widely circulated in Thailand; in it, the prince’s third wife, Princess Srirasmi, dressed only in a thong, eats the dog’s birthday cake off the floor while liveried servants look on. Thais are terrified of the prospect of Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn becoming king and overwhelmingly support his younger sister, Princess Sirindhorn. But King Bhumibol has shown no sign that he will pass the throne to his daughter — known to Thais as "Princess Angel" — and doing so would in any case fly in the face of centuries of royal tradition.

Ironically, the majority of Thailand’s most ardent royalists are among the prince’s biggest foes, because of their fears that he would destroy any shred of respect for the monarchy and also because he is widely believed to have some kind of alliance with the Thai establishment’s nemesis, Thaksin. For this reason, many royalists are rallying round Queen Sirikit in the hope that she can become regent when King Bhumibol dies and rule on behalf of one of Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn’s young sons. Queen Sirikit has placed herself in pole position for doing so — in particular, hard-line army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has long been an acolyte of the queen.

But Queen Sirikit, like her son, is a profoundly divisive figure. She has explicitly linked herself to the "Yellow Shirt" mass movement that helped topple Thaksin and successive governments that supported him, and her decision to attend the funeral in 2008 of a young Yellow Shirt woman killed in a street battle with police sparked unprecedented online criticism of the monarchy in Thailand and has exploded the myth that the palace is above politics. Queen Sirikit had long been a backer of the hated son she once described as a "black sheep," but after some blazing rows she seems set on trying to win the throne for herself. That would almost certainly result in violent conflict in Thailand, possibly pitting the pro-queen factions of the military against other army units resentful over Queen Sirikit’s influence.

Besides the conflict within the palace over the succession, there is also a conflict among the palace, military, and parliament over ascendancy in charting Thailand’s destiny. The military has long been the dominant force in Thai politics, usually in alliance with the royals. Elected politicians have generally had very limited real power. Thaksin changed all that, and his ascent to power and subsequent ouster in a 2006 coup sparked national conflict that has compounded the succession struggle. Thaksin won overwhelming electoral mandates in 2001 and 2005, and he imposed his authoritarian "CEO style of management" on the country. He was deeply corrupt and had little time for democracy, but he delivered genuine benefits, especially to the country’s poor, and was rewarded with immense and lasting popularity. But by breaking Thailand’s unwritten rule that politicians should operate within narrow boundaries and leave most of the real power in the hands of the generals and monarchist bureaucracy, Thaksin became seen as an existential threat to the palace, and the establishment is determined to prevent his return to power.

Underlying these key power struggles are many others. Thailand’s crisis also involves a class conflict in the rigidly hierarchical society, with the rural and urban poor broadly backing Thaksin against an establishment unwilling to allow the "uneducated masses" to decide who runs the country. The conflict also has a regional dimension: Thaksin is very popular in the north and the impoverished Isaan region in the northeast, while the Democrats maintain a traditional stranglehold on the more prosperous south of the country. And it’s partly a contest between competing economic visions — the populist crony capitalism espoused by Thaksin and the "sufficiency economy" model promoted by King Bhumibol. At the deepest level of all, the conflict is about what it means to be Thai, and whether Thais must have unquestioning reverence for authority and the monarchy or become a more open and democratic society.

Thailand, a strategic crossroads and transport hub in Southeast Asia, is also a key battleground in the economic and geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China. The United States has long been a key ally of Thailand’s military and monarchy, a relationship forged during the war against communism in Indochina. U.S. diplomats see Thaksin as more willing to work with China, though he studied in the United States and also considers himself a friend of America. China is increasingly courting the Thai military, and some analysts even see the succession struggle in geopolitical terms: Princess Sirindhorn speaks fluent Mandarin and is very close to China’s government; the Chinese have built a special compound outside Beijing for her to stay in during her frequent visits. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn is a diplomatic disaster, and a planned trip to China in 2007 had to be canceled because of his unreasonable demands for special treatment. Queen Sirikit is an ardent Thai nationalist wary of outside influences.

One troubling insight shines through very clearly in the U.S. cables: Leading members of Thailand’s establishment not only hate Thaksin, but they are terrified of the prospect of him regaining power and wreaking revenge on those who have wronged him. Moreover, with the king old and ill, the royalists do not want to risk a pro-Thaksin party holding office when he dies, as that would give Thaksin and his allies a huge advantage in determining how the succession struggle plays out. For all these reasons, if his sister Yingluck wins the election, she is unlikely to govern for long: The establishment is likely to resort again to Yellow Shirt mob violence, a judicial intervention, or even another coup to unseat her. And that will tear Thailand even further apart.

But an election result that keeps the Democrat party in power would be no better in terms of solving Thailand’s strife. The party is almost certain to come second, according to opinion polls, and if it forms the next government it will have to do so in a coalition with the Bhum Jai Thai party of Newin Chidchob, a politician who even by the depressing standards of Thai politics stands out as being particularly venal and dangerous. Many Thais will feel their political aspirations, expressed democratically via the ballot box, have again been ignored by the elites. And Thailand’s national agony will continue.

One further crucial struggle is being fought in Thailand today. It is between those who believe there needs to be a frank and open national debate about the role of the monarchy and the influence of the military in 21st?century Thailand, and those who seek to suppress and criminalize such discussion. The leaked cables contain strong evidence that King Bhumibol is in the former camp. Queen Sirikit and of course the military are strongly opposed to such debate. They seem to have failed to realize that they are standing against the tide of history and the march of technology. They cannot stop Thais from becoming informed in private, and if they outlaw public discussion and fail to evolve, the result is likely to be violence and the possible end of the Chakri dynasty. Only debate and compromise can save Thailand from further conflict. And that’s another reason that the leaked U.S. cables are so valuable. If they can help destroy the lèse-majesté law once and for all and promote debate, they will have done a great service to a proud but troubled nation.