A new era for Thai politics?

LSE MPA candidates Nick Bartholdy and Chaithawat Mahathamnuchok recently talked to Josh Eyre about Thai politics, past, present and future.

Chaithawat Mahathamnuchok is a first year MPA candidate at LSE, originally from Thailand. He has an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Southeast Asian Studies from Thammasat University. Prior to LSE, Chaithawat was a social studies teacher at a private high school in Bangkok.

Nick Bartholdy is also a first year MPA candidate at LSE. Born to Thai and Danish parents, Nick spent two months in monkhood in Phetchaburi, Thailand, and visits the country regularly. He has long been fascinated with the constantly shifting political landscape of Thailand and the influence of both the monarchy and Buddhism on Thai identity and culture.


Joshua Eyre: Thailand has been prominent in the news since the death of the King Bhumibol Adulyadej in October last year. Could you tell us a little about what’s been going on since then?

Nick Bartholdy: The king passed away at a crucial time in Thai politics, in the middle of a coup. While coups are fairly regular in Thailand, it has left the new King, the son of Bhumibol Adulyadej, with a difficult start to his reign. The coup has been going on for several years now…

Chaithawat Mahathamnuchok: Almost three years, since May 2014.

NB: The major division, the reason there was a coup in the first place, is because there was no consensus around whether Thaksin Shinawatra, who came into power after an election in 2001, was the right person to run the country. This is because of the big demographic split in Thailand, between the majority who live in the rural areas and people living in urban areas. The population is split about 70% rural, 30% urban, and the people in the cities generally don’t like Shinawatra. They see his policies as very populist. There have been instances where he has bought rural voters’ votes, and they see his agricultural policies as ineffective, but they’re popular with certain rural groups because they make them better off. In addition, he was seen as corrupt. He was previously the head of Thailand’s telecoms network, so he was already a powerful person. But to give an indication of how stable Thai politics are, Shinawatra was actually the first president to finish his full term as president since Thailand became a democracy in 1932, which is when we moved from being an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. A few years after this King Adulyadej became king and up to the end of his reign there were a lot of coups – very unstable – if you think that over a 70 plus year period nobody other than Shinawatra finished their term.

King Bhumibol was renowned for his innovative development projects aiming to benefit the Thai population. (Photo credit: Bangkok Post)

JE: Who has been the major opposition to Shinawatra? Is there pressure from the military or opposition parties, or a combination?

CM:  Before the last military coup occurred in May 2014, Shinawatra’s Regime had been opposed by  a group of people who called themselves as the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former Thai deputy prime minister between 2008 and 2011. At that time, Yingluk’s government tried to impose the Amnesty Bill and Suthep resigned from his position as an opposition in the Democrat Party to lead a protest against this bill.  The reason why many people joined in this protest was that there was a criticism regarding this amnesty bill that the government was trying to use its authority to bring back Thaksin to Thailand. Later on, because of demonstrations by Thais, this bill was restrained.  After that, the PDRC demanded “reform before election”.  Besides the demonstrations by anti- government protesters, there were also protests by pro-government activists.

JE: Is there a popular alternative to Shinawatra’s party?

NB Shinawatra was ousted in 2010 and the country went into military rule briefly to ensure stability. Then, to replace Shinawatra, his sister Yingluk entered power and was seen by many as just another face of her brother. She was striving to get him back into the country. So the coup that is currently happening was generated by finally getting Shinawatra out of power then having him replaced by his sister, who basically has exactly the same politics as him. So there were massive demonstrations in Thailand between two groups – the yellow shirts and the red shirts. You could view this as a conflict between the rural and the urban voters. It’s not quite so simple as that, there are deeper divisions within those areas, but it’s roughly accurate.

JE: How would you describe these groups’ positions on the political spectrum? Would one be left wing and one more right wing? What are their ideologies?

CM: Between the red shirts and the yellow shirts? Generally, the red shirts support Shinawatra, a lot of them are from rural areas, from the north eastern part of Thailand, we call it the Isan region and also from northern Thailand. Some of them are from the urban areas.  We cannot say that all the red shirts are working class or poor people from the rural areas. In fact, they are from various backgrounds.  These people benefit from the policies implemented by the Shinawatra’s government, such as healthcare policies.  Some of them identify themselves as the ones who are anti- coup. For the yellow shirts, most of them are middle class people living in urban areas and Bangkok. A lot of them are from southern Thailand. Like the red shirts, the yellow shirts are from different economic backgrounds. The yellow shirts are the one who resist Shinawatra. They believe that there was a lot of corruption in Shinawatra’s government and Shinawatra did little to prevent cronyism.

JE: The king died in October and his son is the next in line for the throne. Could you tell us a little bit about the role of the royal family in Thai politics?

NB: I’ll talk a little about the history of this. King Bhumibol was widely seen as a father figure. He was revered like you wouldn’t imagine. He was widely admired for his focus on development. He essentially turned his palace into a development lab, he used to travel all over the country to neglected areas and start development projects, with a major focus on agriculture. When we moved from absolute to constitutional monarchy, you would assume the king would play less of a role in politics. But because democracy in Thailand has had such a messy history, the king has stepped in on several occasions, such as when there were massive student protests in the 1970s, during another of Thailand’s coups. Students were being shot by troops in helicopters for protesting in public spaces. To solve the situation, the king got the leaders of the ruling party and the coup together – these were seen as the instigators of the trouble. He appeared on live TV with them and they resigned and the troubles ended. So the king helped to restart the political system. And he did this on three occasions, ending bloodshed and revolutions, and while this wasn’t technically supposed to be his role, it was seen as a welcome intervention. Most Thais agree that he should have done it. It would be hard to say it wasn’t the right thing to do. A lot of people are wondering what the new king will do. He has more power than most constitutional monarchs, and he has a lot of influence because of the popularity of the monarchy, with a massive role in Thai culture.

JE: Does the monarchy have a real influence on party politics or is it more of a soft influence?

CM: According to the constitution, the king has no political authority, but he is the head of the state. But he can suggest ways forwards. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, or Rama IX, our last king, in 1974, he recognised there were challenges with the Thai economy, so when the financial crisis hit he was in a good position to encourage the government to put a new national economic development plan in place. As Nick mentioned, when the riots occurred with student protestors, the king encouraged compromise and negotiation between opposing sides. Another example of this would be in the Black May of 1992, when the king asked the head of the protesters and the general who was running the government to meet him and he encouraged the general to resign, which ended the riots.

JE: They take note of what the Thai population thinks about issues and if they need to step in they can, but they never take direct power?

NB: The royal family doesn’t have a lot of immediate political authority, but their influence over Thai political parties is huge, partly because the parties need to be seen as supportive of the king, no matter what their ideologies are. You cannot be seen to be opposed to the monarchy because they are so popular with the people, the voters wouldn’t support you anymore. Whatever the monarchy thinks and believes, parties have to adapt to fit this.

JE: Now the new king is trying to change the constitution. Can you tell us a little about this?

CM: The draft constitution has been presented to the king and the government has asked the king to sign it. But the king hasn’t signed it, so the government have 30 days to revise it and put it back to the king. The constitution will make it clear when our next election will be.

JE: Why didn’t he sign it?

NB: People expected him to sign it, one of the big issues is that it was drafted under a coup so people assume that the constitution will entrench the military powers. We don’t know whether this is the reason that the king didn’t sign it. There are rumours that the election won’t be held now until 2018, and this is causing a lot of discomfort and discussion around why is it being delayed, whether it should have been held already, whether the army is exerting too much influence in the political process.

JE: What are the big issues in Thai politics and Thai society – what will people be talking about in bars and restaurants in Thailand this weekend?

CM: One thing that people talk about is the right of the people to give their opinions on Thai politics. Just recently a graduate student at one of the universities was put in prison because he shared an article written by BBC Thailand about the king. Many people shared this article but only he was put in jail. You know now it is illegal to gather together more than five people to talk about politics because of the laws imposed by the coup government. The coup government is trying to control the media and social media, some website have been banned. You can’t access a lot of websites where they might talk about Thai politics in a negative way.

NB: The BBC is banned Thailand, for example.

JE: People in Thailand clearly want more freedom of expression. From a more social policy standpoint, are people happy in Thailand? How is employment? Is poverty a big issue?

NB: It varies a lot. Thailand is a huge country. There are about 100 different ethnicities. The conditions are completely different in different regions of the country. The cities are usually wealthier, but the cultures of different regions are very different. Thailand has one of the most successful economies in South East Asia, the second best I believe, but you wouldn’t necessarily think this if you were to visit certain regions.

CM: Second, yes, but not the best.

NB: The big issue now is that there will be a long period of mourning the death of the king and this could effect the economy, and have a knock on effect. There is serious flooding in Thailand too right now which could damage the economy.

CM: The government’s response to the flooding has been interesting too. The floods are affecting the area around my home town. I have talked to my friends and they have said that some people perceive that the government didn’t act fast enough in response to this crisis. At first, the people helped each other, then normally the government steps in to find a solution. And it’s not just about finding a solution to the current problem, we need to make sure there isn’t so much damage from flood in the future, too.

JE: Thailand is a Buddhist country, but does Buddhism have any official role in Thai politics? Does it have an influence on politics in a more indirect way?

NB: The role of Buddhism is important when you consider the monarchy too. The Thai national identity is tied very closely to the monarchy and to Buddhism. In a sense, these are the two pillars of the national identity, which are very strong because with such geographic and ethnic diversity across the country, it can be hard to bring people together. For the government and the country itself, it’s important to put the spotlight on the things that bring Thailand together rather than the differences, to prevent areas from wanting to secede. For example, in the south of Thailand, part of Malaysia was given to Thailand, a few provinces in the south, which is a Muslim area. This region doesn’t want to be part of Thailand, they have been trying to secede for a long time. Encouraging Buddhism is one of the ways the government is trying to strengthen the Thai identity there, sharing Buddhist texts, building monasteries, this kind of thing. There are some temples that might only have one monk and are guarded by the army, even if there isn’t really anyone attending these monasteries. It’s a symbol of nationalism, in that way it’s used as a political tool. But it also has a huge effect on the culture, in terms of people’s lives and how they think about the world. Around 95% of Thailand is Buddhist. It’s a huge every day thing, as I think it is in countries where religion is a part of life in a way it isn’t quite so much in places in the west. People practice religion in Thailand in a very real way. When I spent some time as a monk in Thailand, one of the most incredible things I would see was how poor people, who don’t have much at all, would wake up at 5AM to cook a dish and give it to me on my morning alms round. They gain nothing from this other than karmic benefits, which are crucial to Thai Buddhism. In that way I think there is a huge difference between having religiously guided morals and values in our belief system, and actually practicing religion. People are very devoted, but this is changing. People don’t enter monkhood at the same rate, people don’t know where religion is heading, but it’s very important nonetheless.

Over 90% of the Thai population practice Buddhism and many Thai men spend at least a short period of their lives as a monk. Wat Chiang Man, in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand, is just one of more than 30,000 buddhist temples in the country. (Photo credit: Heinrich Damm)

JE: It’s interesting, some countries would use military service as a national service to bring people together, but this spiritual national service, as a cultural tradition, helps to bring people together.

NB: The government don’t exactly push it. I think they are in favour of it, but it’s more of a tradition. You could think of it as similar to a bar mitzvah or confirmation – it’s tradition, people take it to varying degrees of seriousness. Some people just go in for a week to get it over with. Some people will go in for 40 years and make it their whole life, taking it very seriously. The Buddhist monks, especially those who have been there for a long time, are widely seen as important cultural symbols.

CM: In Thai education, when I was a student, in school teachers taught us the concepts we should respect in our everyday lives. First was the nation, second was the king or the royal family, and third is religion. Normally, in elementary school, every morning we would sing the national anthem and pray. Every day! And every Friday we would sing a song for the king. This is something we would absorb. It is part of our culture. It would be a Buddhist prayer, in Pali. But, for all the respect for the royal family, people want more freedoms. For example, a bill just passed in Thailand looking at policy around internet use and digital media. A lot of Thais don’t agree with it but we can’t stop it. We signed a petition on change.org, about 50,000 people signed, but the government didn’t listen and just passed the bill.

JE: I feel that in the UK we sign petitions and they go nowhere. There are challenges with all shades of democracy and none of them feel satisfying when it doesn’t go your way.

NB: An important question in Thailand is around whether democracy is the right way to go. This is an argument that comes from the people who oppose Shinawatra. It’s such a rural country. So many people don’t have an education about the democratic process and how it works. So is it responsible to put decisions into the hands of the people when they don’t understand a lot of how it works and what is at stake? This is part of a wider discussion around whether we should be trying to spread democracy. It has a lot of limitations. There’s also the issue that if we don’t have democracy, how could we be confident that we’d have anyone better, anyone more responsible in power? I would say that generally what’s best for Thailand would be stability, with an uncorrupt politician running the country in the best interests for the country. With the royal family, we just have to hope that the new king will do as good a job as his father did.

CM: We have had more than 27 elections and 19 constitutions since we became a democratic nation. This is too many, we need stability. This needs to be our priority.

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