Giles Ji Ungpakorn
For the last forty years the Thai ruling class has maintained its power through the Military, the Monarchy and occasionally by the use of an electoral system dominated by the money politics of business controlled political parties. The naked coercive power of the Military and other state institutions is complemented by the ideology of the Monarchy. This is achieved by imposing and socialising the belief among the population that the King is an all-powerful god who is to be loved or at least feared. Obviously this belief is a complete myth, but at various times it has been effective in serving the interests of the conservative ruling elites.
Mainstream accounts of Thai society and politics always include the cliché that “the King is loved and respected by all Thais”. This may have had some truth at certain periods in history, yet it overlooks the constant changes in public opinion and the severe repression, especially the use of the lèse majesté law, and also the manic propaganda associated with the ideology of the Monarchy.
Today there are people serving up to 18 years in prison for merely criticising the Monarchy. The lèse majesté law in Thailand represents a gross attack on the freedom of speech, freedom of expression and academic freedom. It is a fundamental attack on Democracy carried out by the Military, the Palace and the elites. The practical impact is that Thailand has struggled for years to achieve a fully developed democracy, a free press and internationally accepted academic standards in universities. Lèse majesté prisoners are tried in secret courts and denied bail. The royalist judges claim that the offense is “too serious” and “a threat to national security”. Thai dictatorships have used the excuse that their opponents were seeking to “overthrow the Monarchy” in order to kill unarmed demonstrators in 1976 and 2010. Jail terms for lèse majesté are draconian. ‘Da Torpedo’ (Daranee Chancheangsilapakun) is in prison for 18 years and prison conditions for her are appalling. ‘Red Eagle’ (Tantawut Taweewarodomkul) has recently been sentenced to 13 years for just managing the UDD USA website. Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the web manager of the independent Prachatai newspaper faces 50 years in prison for not removing other peoples’ web-posts. A student faces lese majeste charges for not standing up for the King’s anthem in the cinema . Others are sitting in jail awaiting trial.
Since the 2006 military coup d’etat there has been a 2000% increase in new lèse majesté prosecutions. In 2009, an all-time high of 164 new lèse majesté cases were pursued. Although reporting about all lèse majesté cases is restricted due to the Thai media’s self-censorship, the conviction rate for such cases tried between 1992 and 2005 averaged 94%. Furthermore, there are no lèse majesté cases on record in which defendants were allowed to enter into evidence what they said was true or for the public good. Today the newly elected Pua Thai Government is increasing lèse majesté repression.
Lèse majesté is not just about censorship, violence and intimidation by the state. The widespread use of the law and the manic promotion of the Monarchy by the Military and others, is a green light for royalist thugs and other non-state actors to commit violence or make threats against citizens. It applies to all those who are merely accused of lèse majesté by anyone, whether or not they are actually charged or found guilty.
Yet despite this repression there is now a serious republican mood among millions of citizens. The reason for this is that, since 2006, the Military and the conservatives have systematically destroyed the democratic rights of millions of people, using the excuse that they were “protecting the Monarchy”. The King also remained silent when the Military gunned down pro-democracy demonstrators in April and May 2010 and the Queen openly supported the dictatorship.
It is ironic that the majority of both the opponents and supporters of the Monarchy, believe today that Thailand is run by the King in some kind of Absolute Monarchy system. For most republicans in Thailand, the King is the root of all evil and has ordered military coups and dominated politics for his own benefit. For most royalists, the King is an Absolute Monarch, a Constitutional Monarch and a “benevolent god” all at the same time! Reason does not come into the royalist thinking. Yet, the King’s power is a myth, created for ideological purposes by the ruling class, especially the Military. How does this myth work and how is it enforced?
Despite the fact that millions of Thais believe that the centre of power among the conservative elites today is the Monarchy or the Privy Council, the real centre of power, lurking behind the Throne, is the Military. The Military has intervened in politics and society since the 1932 revolution against the Absolute Monarchy. This is because the revolutionary Peoples Party led by Pridi Panomyong relied too much on the Military rather than building a mass party to stage the revolution. Yet it is also a cliché to just state the number of coup d’états that have taken place in order to say that Thailand is plagued by coups. The power of the Military is not unlimited and it relies on the ideology of the Monarchy and an alliance with businessmen, civilian technocrats and corrupt politicians in order to supplement its violent means of coercion.
At important moments in history, the power of the Military has been significantly reduced or kept at bay by social movements and popular uprisings. The post 1973 and 1992 periods are good examples. It would be more accurate to state that the Military is an important centre of power among many. Other elite centres include big business, political bosses and high ranking bureaucrats. What is unique about the Military, however, is its weaponry and decisive ability to topple governments through coup d’états. The Military has a monopoly on the means of violent coercion which it has been prepared to use by gunning down unarmed protestors in the streets. The latest example was in April and May 2010 when over 90 people died.
The Military may be powerful, but there are three factors which limit its power: (1) the power of social movements, (2) the power of other sections of the elite which hold economic and political power, and (3) the fact that the Military is divided by factionalism. The Military also has to repeatedly obtain legitimacy by claiming to protect the Monarchy. This is because of its obvious weakness in claiming democratic credentials which are extremely important in modern Thai society.
Because the Military has always had a problem with trying to legitimise its actions by quoting “Democracy”, it has relied heavily upon using the Monarchy to shore-up its legitimacy. At the same time, the Military also needed to promote the Monarchy because royalist feelings were never automatic among the Thai population. This process was initiated in the 1960s. Today the Military always claim that they are “protecting the Monarchy” and that “they are the loyal servants of the King and Queen”. We see the generals in photo poses, supposedly taking orders from royalty. Yet it is the generals who are really in charge of the Palace. The Palace willingly cooperates in this arrangement, gaining much wealth and prestige. Claiming legitimacy from the Monarchy is a way to make the population afraid of criticising the Military and all the elites, and the draconian lèse majesté law is in place to back this up.
If we are to understand the role of the King in Thai society, we have to understand the double act performed by the Military and the Monarchy. For ruling classes to achieve hegemony in most modern societies, they require both coercion and legitimacy. The Monarchy symbolises the conservative ideology which gives legitimacy to the authoritarian actions of the Military and their allies. It is a double act of “power” and “ideological legitimacy”. In this double act the weak-willed King Pumipon has no real power, but he is also a willing participant.
For the double act between the Monarchy and the Military to work, the general population have to be socialised and coerced into loving and fearing the Monarchy. It is undoubtedly true that millions of Thai people have in the past had a high regard for King Pumipon as a result of this socialisation and coercion. It is also true that millions now hate the King and even more hate the Queen because of their support for the bloody destruction of Democracy since 2006. Nearly the entire population despise the Crown Prince, having seen his thuggish behaviour and the way he forces his women to pose naked in photos that are then distributed around the internet.
King Pumipon is a weak and characterless monarch who spends his useless and privileged life in a bubble, surrounded by fawning, grovelling, toadies who claim that he is a “god”. He is a pathetic creature who should not in any way be pitied. He has played a significant ideological role in preventing democratic rights and the development of Social Justice. Yet he is seen by most Thais as a powerful figure.
Pumipon has always been a willing tool of the military, which has obstructed Democracy and the economic development of the mass of the population. For Pumipon this resulted in great rewards. He amassed so much wealth from the work of others, that he is the richest man in Thailand, the richest monarch in the world and the world’s 8th richest billionaire. Yet he preaches that his “subjects” should be happy in their poverty. His toadies have to constantly project a photo of him with a drop of sweat falling from his nose. The photo is always the same one, since Pumipon has seldom done anything to work up a real sweat. He also allows the use of crawling and special royal language in his presence without any sense of shame.
Today is not the first time that there has been a republican mood in Thai society. The Monarchy was in disrepute ever since the later years of King Chulalongkorn (Rama 5th) at the end of the 19th Century. The monopoly of power held by the Royal Family was causing friction between them and the newly created military and civilian bureaucracy. By the time King Rama 6th came to the throne, the Absolute Monarchy was doomed. Rama 6th was lacking in political ability and spent most of his time writing plays and spending the nation’s wealth. This led to an unsuccessful rebellion. After him, Rama 7th added to the republican mood by making the population pay for the 1930s economic crisis. This was the last straw and resulted in the Monarchy’s eventual overthrow in 1932. Yet the leaders of the 1932 revolution were forced to make compromises with the conservatives and retained the Monarchy in a Constitutional form. This was because their Peoples Party lacked a strong enough mass base. Of course, retaining a Constitutional Monarchy has benefits for any modern capitalist ruling class in that it helps to reinforce a conservative view about the natural order of things.
The vast parasitic organism of the Thai ruling class maintains its legitimacy partly by creating a false image that Thailand has an “Absolute Monarchy”, where the King is an all-powerful god. At the same time it is claimed that the King is a Constitutional Monarch, above politics. The clear contradiction is not important for the entire idea is a myth that the population are meant to swallow through the process of socialisation and coercion. They are also meant to believe that the King is an artistic god and a scientific and engineering genius who has selflessly protected the nation from strife.
When the generals staged coups or intervened in politics, they were not following orders from Pumipon. Pumipon was always shy, timid, and weak-willed ever since he accidently came to the throne. Pumipon never had any leadership qualities.
By struggling against the dictatorship in a collective manner, millions of pro democracy activists have ceased to revere the Monarchy but they still retain in their minds the myth about the power of the institution. They believe that the Monarchy is all powerful and is therefore the force behind all the destruction of Democracy and all the killings. This has the danger of letting the Military and the rest of the ruling class off the hook. It also carries with it a sense of deep fear of the omnipotent King, commanding the Military and the Bureaucracy from his hospital bed. This can lead to paralysis in the struggle for Democracy. Yet the open discussion and debate about the true nature of the Military-Monarchy alliance, which would help to overcome the lingering belief in this ruling class myth, is very much hindered by the level of censorship and the lèse majesté law.
About the author: Dr. Ungpakorn was Associate Professor of Political Science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University until early 2009, when he fled into exile in Britain after being accused under Thailand’s horrendous lèse majesté laws. You can find his blog here. He is also a prolific writer, and you can download his book ‘A Coup for The Rich’ here.
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