Thailand: There is no 'crisis of succession'

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 Ordinary Red Shirts struggle for democracy, dignity and social justice, while Thaksin and his political allies wage a very different campaign to regain the political influence they enjoyed before the 2006 coup d'état.

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By Giles Ji Ungpakorn

December 14, 2013 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The hypothesis that the present long-running unrest in Thailand is primarily caused by a “crisis of succession” assumes that the Thai monarch has real power and that he has been constantly intervening in politics. That is just not the case and the real cause of the crisis lies elsewhere.

Thailand does not have an absolute monarch or North Korean-style despot in his twilight years, with factions fighting over who will be the next ruler. The Thai absolute monarchy was overthrown in the 1932 revolution, and since then, power has been shared and disputed among the military and civilian elites and the top businesspeople. For much of the time between 1932 and the mid-1980s, the elites ruled by dictatorship. But this has become harder and harder to do ever since the mass uprising against the military in 1973.

The reason for this is that the structure of Thai society has changed.[1] There are more and more workers, both blue collar and white collar, and the new generation of workers and farmers are more confident and educated. That is why the monarchy has become more important to the ruling class as a symbol of “natural hierarchy”, necessary to give legitimacy to those who abuse democracy and preside over a grossly un-equal society. The lèse majesté law is designed to protect the “holy relic” that serves such a useful purpose for the ruling class.[2]

The monarch has always been weak and cowardly, a creature of the military and the elites who surround him and use him for their own ends. He was ill prepared to become king when his older brother died in a gun accident. He was introduced to the throne during a time when the most powerful military and police faction was led by anti-royalists who had participated in the 1932 revolution. But rivals of this faction sought to use and promote the king. They came to power during the Sarit coup in the late 1950s and the monarch was promoted as part of the anti-communist struggle during the Cold War. King Pumipon was used by the Thai military and conservative elites, together with the US government, as an anti-communist symbol. He was also required to appear on TV to stop the 1973 uprising from toppling the whole old order.[3]

Throughout his reign, Pumipon has swayed like a leaf, bending in the wind and serving as a willing tool of those who happened to be in power. He failed to prevent or solve any serious crisis. He supported the extreme right-wing leader Tanin Kraiwichien in 1976, only to see Tanin swept aside by the military a year later. He supported the 1991 military coup leader Sujinda, only to see the junta destroyed by a popular uprising. His “sufficiency economy” ideology was taken to heart by neoliberal conservatives because it supported the idea that the state should not help the poor. But no one took it seriously enough to think it could really be an economic strategy which could be practically applied for economic development.

The fixation by political commentators on the monarch and the royal family may be understandable, given the way the elites make the king into a deity, but we should expect a better quality of analysis. Such an analysis should be based on historical evidence and an investigation into the political dynamics that exist in the whole of society.

The first question that should be asked is: why do the elites make the king into a deity and constantly reproduce this myth?

The more Thai society develops into a modern capitalist one, the more difficult it has become for the elites to rule over the population using crude authoritarian means. The Thai military can only justify its anti-democratic political meddling by promoting the monarch into a deity and then claiming to follow his “orders”. Similarly, politicians and businesspeople, Thaksin Shinawatra included, used the monarchy to increase their own legitimacy. Thaksin’s government kicked-off the semi-compulsory wearing of yellow shirts on one day each week.

The interesting point to bear in mind is that the frenzied promotion of the king actually accelerated from the mid-1980s onwards, as the elites were forced to make more and more concessions to parliamentary democracy. It was an attempt to slow down progress and insulate elite privileges from change.

Before former Prime Minister Thaksin had a falling out with the military and the conservatives, the king was also a willing supporter of his government, for example, praising his “war on drugs” where thousands were executed in an extra-judiciary manner.[4]

For those who believe that the king is a powerful figure even today, one just has to look at reality. How can a man who has spent years in hospital or in a wheelchair and who can hardly speak, order the army to do anything? Or perhaps he is just hamming it? After the act of speaking in public with such difficulty, after the cameras stop rolling, perhaps he jumps up from his chair and does 100 push-ups, followed by a phone call to the army chiefs, where he barks out his orders in a firm and powerful voice?

So there is no absolute monarch in his final years causing a potential power vacuum.

But what about the idea that the various elite factions are really fighting about who will control the crown prince when he becomes king? Make no mistake, all sides have agreed that the scandal-prone and despicable prince will be the next king. To place the princess, who has no male partner, on the throne instead, would immediately destroy all the “reinvented tradition” about the monarchy.

It is probably true that Thaksin paid off the crown prince’s gambling debts and that Thaksin’s rivals may fear that he would be more dominant in his use of the prince as a result. But this is a minor question because the prince will be an even weaker creature than his father. “Buying” the crown prince doesn’t result in ownership of power.

All this begs the really big question as to why the present military high command and the conservatives, including the Democrat Party, are so opposed to Thaksin. The answer cannot be found in the problem of the succession. Neither can it be explained by claiming incorrectly that Thaksin is a closet republican. The long running Thai crisis is a result of an unintentional clash between the conservative way of operating in a parliamentary democracy and a more modern one. It is equally related to attempts by Thaksin and his party to modernise Thai society so that the economy could become more competitive on a global level, especially after the 1996 Asian economic crisis.

Thai political leaders since the early 1970s had always adopted a laissez faire attitude to development, with minimal government planning, low wages, few trade union rights and an abdication of responsibility by governments in improving infrastructure. This strategy worked in the early years, but by the time of the 1996 Asian economic crisis it was becoming obvious that it was seriously failing. The consequences of this economic crisis are far more important to the understanding the Thai political crisis today than concentrating on the so-called problem of succession.

In the first general election since the 1996 crisis, Thaksin’s party put forward a raft of modernising and pro-poor policies, including the first ever universal health-care scheme. Because the Democrat Party had told the unemployed to go back to their villages and depend on their families, while spending state finances in securing the savings for the rich in failed banks, Thaksin was able to say that his government would benefit everyone, not just the rich. Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party won the elections. The government was unique in being both popular and dynamic, with real policies, which were used to win the election and were then implemented afterwards. Previously, the old parties had just bought votes without any policies.

Thaksin’s policies and his overwhelming electoral base came to challenge many elements of the old elite order, although this was not Thaksin’s conscious aim at all. In the last 20 years the Democrat Party has never managed to win more than a quarter of the national vote, often it was much less. Local political and criminal mafia were edged out of power by Thaksin’s electoral machine. The military could not compete in terms of democratic legitimacy and support. The middle class started to resent the fact that the government was helping to raise the standard of living of workers and poor farmers. This is the real basis for the prolonged crisis in society and it explains why the conservatives, the middle class and the Democrat Party are so strongly opposed to democracy.

It would be a mistake to see the present crisis as merely a dispute between two factions of the elite. It has another important dimension that cannot be ignored. We need to understand the role of the Red Shirts. One way of understanding the “dialectical” relationship between Thaksin and the Red Shirts is to see a kind of “parallel war” in the Red Shirt/United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship struggles against the conservative elites, where thousands of ordinary Red Shirts struggle for democracy, dignity and social justice, while Thaksin and his political allies wage a very different campaign to regain the political influence that they had enjoyed before the 2006 coup d'état.[5] However, at the same time, Thaksin remains very popular with most Red Shirts.

Destroying parliamentary democracy may be the aim of Democrat Party strongman Sutep Tueksuban and his middle class protesters. Yet, the more intelligent members of the ruling class know that another military coup, or a rolling back of democracy by other means, will not make it easier to rule over the majority of the electorate who have been politicised by the Red Shirt movement and have come to expect the government to produce policies which are beneficial to the majority. There is no easy way out for them.

If the king were to die soon, and there is no indication that he will, nothing will change. The crown prince is even less capable of supporting democratic reforms than his father.

Turning the clock back on democratic change will inflame the divisions. To achieve real democracy, the undemocratic elements need to be crushed politically by a mass movement. Otherwise we shall end up with just a grubby compromise and the prospect of another crisis breaking out some time in the future.

[Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a political commentator and dissident. In February 2009 he had to leave Thailand for exile in Britain because he was charged with lèse majesté for writing a book criticising the 2006 military coup. He is a member of Left Turn Thailand, a socialist organisation. His book, Thailand’s Crisis and the Fight for Democracy, will be of interest to activists, academics and journalists who watch Thai politics, democratisation and NGOs. His website is at]


[1] “Thai Spring?” Paper given at the 5th Annual Nordic NIAS Council Conference organised by the Forum for Asian Studies/NIAS. 21-23rd November 2011, Stockholm University, Sweden.

[2] Giles Ji Ungpakorn (2011) “Lèse Majesté, the Monarchy, and the Military in Thailand”. Paper given at the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies (Pax et Bellum), University of Uppsala, Sweden, 29th April 2011.

[3] Giles Ji Ungpakorn (2010) “Thailand’s Crisis and the Struggle for Democracy”. WD Press, U.K.

[4] Giles Ji Ungpakorn (2007) “A Coup for the Rich”. WDPress, Bangkok.

[5] “Thailand: Reconciliation as Betrayal. The Parallel War: Taksin and the Red Shirts”. Paper given to the Thailand Research Group, Institute of Asian and African Studies, Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany, October 2012.