Lèse Majesté, the Monarchy and the Military in Thailand

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Lèse Majesté, the Monarchy, and the Military in Thailand1
Giles Ji Ungpakorn

There is a common thread running through the political crisis in Thailand and the regional political crises that exploded earlier this year in the Middle East. In Thailand, Egypt, Tunisia and many other “developing nations”, societies had been rapidly urbanising and changing over the last 30-40 years. Yet the ruling elites and the power structures which dominated these societies, had not changed. Different events triggered uprisings and struggles, but the underlying tensions remained the same. Another appalling common thread that links Thailand to the Middle East is the way that ruling elites are prepared to use live ammunition against pro-democracy demonstrators in order to cling to power. 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. This belief is a complete myth, but at various times it has been effective in serving the interests of the conservative ruling elites. This state of affairs has constantly been challenged by mass uprisings and struggle by social movements. But in 2001 a serious challenge to the old order arose from within the ruling class itself. Taksin Shinawat’s Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT) won a majority in parliament by winning the hearts and minds of the electorate. His business-dominated party promised and delivered a universal health care system, job creation programmes and a raft of modernisation policies. In the past, elections had been about money politics, where politicians acted as personal patrons of their constituents while offering no political policies. The rise of TRT came to represent a serious, but unintentional, challenge to the conservatives in the ruling class. This sparked a military coup in September 2006, which in turn sparked the building of a pro-

1

Paper given to Pax et Bellum, Department of Peace and Conflict Research, University of Uppsala, 29th April 2011.

Lèse Majesté, the Monarchy and the Military in Thailand democracy mass movement called the Red Shirts.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

This paper will concentrate on the double act between the Military and the Monarchy and the various myths built around the Monarchy in Thailand. The challenge to the conservatives from the rise of Taksin’s TRT was catalysed by the 1997 Asian economic crisis and the new Constitution of 1997. This Constitution followed the blood bath by the Military in 1992, where pro-democracy demonstrators were gunned down in Bangkok streets. The Military’s defeat, at the hands of a mass movement, resulted in a powerful current for political reform which helped shape the 1997 Constitution. That current for reform also influenced the creation of TRT. Taksin Shinawat, a mobile phone and media tycoon, founded TRT before the 2001 elections. TRT was unique in recent Thai political history in that it actually spent considerable time developing policies. They held meetings with different social groups and came up with real policies at the time of their first election victory in 2001. TRT was a “populist” party which offered pro-poor policies and village level Keynesian economic stimuli, by pumping state money into local projects. The aim was to modernise after the economic crisis so that the Government could increase Thailand’s economic competitiveness. At the same time, this party of big business also pursued neo-liberal policies such as privatisation and the support for free trade agreements (FTAs). This was what TRT called its “dual track” policy. While benefitting big business, Government policies were at the same time aimed at making the majority of poor citizens “stake holders”. This formula ensured that the party gained overwhelming electoral support. The elite dispute which eventually led to the 2006 coup was not an argument between anti-Monarchy free-market globalised capital and conservative national capital under the leadership of the Palace, as argued by some academics in the book Saying the Unsayable2. In this book, Jackson claims that “the Monarchy provides a counterpoint to the devastations of the market....” Isager and Ivarsson write that ...”the King’s ideas may endorse a critique of globalisation and global capitalism...” and that “Taksin embodied unbridled capitalism”. The reality is that the military junta of 2006 and the military-installed government of Abhisit Vejjajiva were extreme supporters of free-market neoliberalism, while Taksin’s TRT government used
2

Background to the present Thai political crisis

See SØren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager, Eds (2010) Saying the Unsayable. Monarchy and Democracy in Thailand. Nias Press, Copenhagen.

Lèse Majesté, the Monarchy and the Military in Thailand

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

a mixture of neoliberalism and state-led Keynesian economics. In the same book Hewison and Kengkij try to claim that Taksin’s economic policies were “posing a challenge to the Crown Property Bureau (CPB)! Nothing could be further from the truth. Taksin’s management of the Thai economy was bringing about a recovery from the 1996 crisis, which benefitted most large business groups, including the royal CPB and the globalised royal Siam Commercial Bank. What is more, the King’s Sufficiency Economics is little more than an ideological fig-leaf to justify les affaire economics where any ideas about state-led income redistribution are ruled out. The real dispute between Taksin and his elite opponents was neither automatic nor inevitable. In the early years of his Government, he received wide spread support from all sections of the elite. What gradually turned the conservatives against him was their fear that they would lose their privileges in the face of Taksin’s widespread modernisation programme and that they could not compete with TRT in elections. This modernisation programme involved such things as undermining local political mafia, getting rid of illegal activities like gambling and weakening the monopoly of the black market in the South by the Military. Taksin tried to upgrade the role of the police in providing Government security in the South. He legalised some forms of gambling and challenged the power of local political bosses during elections. The power of Taksin’s political machine came from the fact that TRT could win the hearts and minds of the electorate through genuine pro-poor policies. Taksin also built his popularity by reviving the economy after the 1997 recession. His political power was thus based upon the democratic process and backed up by Taksin’s wealth as a successful businessman. He used this power to try to consolidate the elected Prime Minister’s control over the army and the bureaucracy. Local political bosses found that their use of gangsters, illegal activities and money politics was being undercut by TRT’s direct links and appeal to the electorate through real policies. Many politicians faced the choice of either joining TRT or sinking into electoral oblivion. But another side to the Taksin Government was his emphasis on “law and order” at the expense of Human Rights. The Government waged a vicious war against small time drug dealers, killing nearly 3000 people and armed state repression also increased in the South. What frightened the conservatives was that Taksin had firm mass support from the electorate. Conservative ideas could not challenge this strong political base at the polls because TRT’s support was based on raising the living standards of the poor. The Conservatives hated the idea of spending state revenue on the poor. That is why they eventually turned to using a military coup.

Lèse Majesté, the Monarchy and the Military in Thailand

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Previous to this, mainstream parties, including the Democrats3, had not relied on any policies to win votes. Taksin was threatening the old networks of money politics, which had resulted in weak political parties, governing the country in corrupt and unstable coalition Governments. Taksin upset the apple cart by proving that the electorate were mature and responsive to genuine pro-poor policies. Previously, politicians and the elites had just assumed that they could enrich themselves while ignoring the majority of citizens. Governments in the past had just “muddled along” making sure that they maintained the self-interests of the elites. Workers and farmers were simply regarded as the “ignorant poor” who “did not understand Democracy”. This is still the view of the conservative elites and the majority of the Bangkok middle-classes. A good example of the conservative attitude to politics was the identical policies pursued by the New Aspirations and Democrat Party Governments after the 1997 economic crisis. These Governments used massive amounts of public funds, raised by taxing the poor, to prop up the banks and finance companies. They turned their backs on the general population. The unemployed were told to “go back to their villages” and depend on their already poor relatives. Those in work were expected to take pay cuts. The elites had always behaved like that and assumed that they could carry on doing so. The elites had also ignored the crying need to develop Thailand’s chaotic transport and communications infrastructure and to improve health care and education for the majority. Taksin and TRT saw these tasks as central to improving the efficiency of the economy. TRT’s first election slogan emphasised that the party would help Thais of all classes. Taksin saw the poor as stakeholders in society and partners in development, while the conservatives saw the poor as either people to be exploited or as a burden on society. Taksin was not a socialist. Nor was he a principled democrat or advocate of Human Rights. His vision was to build a modernised society where the state and big business could incorporate the majority of the population in development. He looked to countries like Singapore for inspiration. Taksin’s model was not incompatible with being a royalist and maintaining the Monarchy, either. It just meant that the Monarchy would be used to protect and legitimise a modern, class divided, status quo. The present political crisis started with mass demonstrations led by the mis-named Peoples Alliance for
3

The Democrat Party was installed in government by the military in late 2008, using bribery and ceorcion. The party has never won an overall majority.

Lèse Majesté, the Monarchy and the Military in Thailand

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Democracy (PAD) in late 2005. This was after TRT’s landslide re-election earlier that year. The PAD began as an “alliance from hell” between disgruntled royalist media tycoon Sonti Limtongkul and a handful of NGO and social movement leaders. Taksin responded to the growing crisis by dissolving parliament and calling fresh elections in April 2006. The opposition, including the Democrat Party, boycotted these elections because they knew that they were very unpopular with the electorate and that they would lose. The courts then annulled the election, using the bizarre excuse that the ballot boxes were the wrong way round in the polling booths. No evidence was presented that any serious electoral fraud had ever taken place which would have changed the outcome of the vote. Later the courts were used to dissolve TRT. The NGO and social movement leaders of the PAD called on the King to use Section 7 of the Constitution to sack Taksin’s elected Government in 2006. This, the King refused to do, because the King has never shown any ability or courage to wield power. However, the PAD demands were seen as a green light for a military coup and the military obliged. On 19th September 2006, conservative sections of the ruling class came together to overthrow the elected TRT Government in a military coup4. Since then they have used various undemocratic means to maintain power, including supporting right-wing royalist mobs who took over the airports, the use of the judiciary to overthrow the elected Palang Prachachon Party Government5 , draconian censorship of the media and by killing nearly 90 unarmed pro-democracy Red Shirts in April and May 2010. 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
Coercion, Ideology and lèse majesté

4

For a detailed account of the back ground to the present crisis in Thailand see Giles Ji Ungpakorn (2010) Thailand’s Crisis and the Fight for Democracy. WD Press, U.K. 5 After it was dissolved by the courts, TRT was reformed under the name Palang Prachachon or Peoples Power Party. It won an overall majority in Military organised elections which were held in 2007, but it was then dissolved by the courts. This brought the government down in 2008.

Lèse Majesté, the Monarchy and the Military in Thailand

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

majesté law6 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 cinema7. 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 good8. Today the Government has a list of about 30 people who are “soon to be arrested”. Most recently, the head of the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) has announced that people can be charged with lèse majesté for merely using “body language”, like clapping or smiling, while someone else makes a speech. To date, the DSI has also failed to present any report on the post mortems of those shot by the Military one year ago. 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
6 7

Lèse majesté gives a green light to violence from non-state actors

The Computer Crimes law is also used in tandem with lèse majesté. See http://thaipoliticalprisoners.wordpress.com/ 8 CJ Hinke writing in http://advocacy.globalvoicesonline.org/2010/10/11/thailand%E2%80%99s-emergency-who-killed-theking/

Lèse Majesté, the Monarchy and the Military in Thailand

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

merely accused of lèse majesté by anyone, whether or not they are actually charged or found guilty. This is clear in the case of Somsak Jeamteerasakul, Jitra Kochadej, Chotisak Oonsung, my own case and that of others. 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 who voted for TRT, 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 has openly supported the PAD. 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 Red Shirt 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 and1992 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,
The Military
Republican Mood

Lèse Majesté, the Monarchy and the Military in Thailand

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

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. A Thai parliamentary committee looking into military matters reported in March 2011 that on that occasion the Military had used over a hundred thousand rounds of ammunition against Red Shirt civilians. This included 2120 deadly sniper rounds9. Previously, the Military shot unarmed protestors in 1973, 1992, 2004 and 2009 and in 1976 the Border Patrol Police, a paramilitary police force created to fight the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT), was used, along with fascist mobs, in order to murder and brutalise students in Bangkok. In most bourgeois democracies, except in times of severe crisis, the Military functions as an armed force to promote the interests of the state outside its own borders or to defend the state from other states. However, the primary role of the Thai Military is to continuously police and repress Thai citizens on behalf of the ruling class and it has done this since 1932. The only other additional role is as a wealth generating machine for the generals. The Thai Military would be totally ineffective in the very unlikely event of a war with any neighbouring ASEAN countries. It failed to stand up to the Japanese invasion during the Second World War and it could not possibly resist a serious invasion by any super power. Unlike the victorious Militaries of Vietnam or Indonesia, it has never fought a war of independence either. The Thai army therefore owns tanks and automatic weapons purely for the purpose of intimidating and killing citizens and for staging coups. Those who sell weapons to Thailand should be aware of this. On two occasions in the last 50 years the Military has been engaged in internal civil-wars. The first case was the war with the Communist Party of Thailand in the 1960s and 1970s. The second case is the civil war against Malay Muslim rebels in the South. This war is still going on today. Neither of these cases had or has a military solution and the Military has been incapable of achieving victory. Such rebellions are caused by deep rooted injustices which fuel support for the rebels10. Most of the time the brutality of the Military merely acts to refuel and strengthen the rebellions. Only a political solution can bring peace. This was the clear lesson from the war with the Communists and it is the lesson today for the South. The Military may be powerful, but there are three factors which limit its power: (1) the power of social
9

10

Prachatai web newspaper 19/03/2011. Giles Ji Ungpakorn (2010) already quoted, Chapters 4 & 5.

Lèse Majesté, the Monarchy and the Military in Thailand

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

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. The Military never had absolute power, even in the 1950s and 1960s and always had to take into account the views of social movements, technocrats, powerful politicians and big business. This is even more the case today after decades of economic development and social movement struggles. The 2006 coup could never have been successful if the royalist PAD and most of the NGOs had not given the green light to such actions11. The lack of organisation among Taksin’s TRT supporters in 2006 also helped the Military to take power. There was no Red Shirt movement at the time of the coup. After the coup the military junta, which held power for just over a year, was weak and incompetent. Staging a coup d'état is one thing, running the country is quite another. This further exposed the weakness of the Military and its reliance on other sections of the ruling class. When the Red Shirts were eventually formed after a new general election in 2007, the Military had to use behind the scenes actions to get rid of the elected Peoples Power Party (PPP) Government12. One important thing which the Military did in 2008 in order to wreck the Government, was to refuse orders from this elected Government to defend or re-open the international airports which had been blockaded by extreme right-wing PAD mobs. The Military is split into squabbling factions which are often a law unto themselves. These factions use their armed strength to threaten each other. Those who engage in military watching are often over-obsessed by the various factions and their leaders, forgetting the big picture and the actions of other societal players. There is a long tradition in Thai studies of merely concentrating on the ruling elites to explain everything. Social movements, left-wing parties or trade unions are dismissed out of hand. The majority of citizens are seen as ignorant and trapped in a patron-client system, unwilling and unable to make up their own minds or

11

Giles Ji Ungpakorn (2010) already quoted, Chapter 2. 12 TRT was dissolved by the courts in 2006 and it reformed as PPP. In 2008 PPP was dissolved and reformed as the Puea Thai Party. These parties consistently won the majority of votes in general elections held between 2001 and 2008.

Lèse Majesté, the Monarchy and the Military in Thailand act independently of a political boss13.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The military factions are purely about self-interest with little ideological differences. They are also linked to various retired soldiers, businessmen and politicians. When a military unit launched a deadly attack on the military commander in charge of suppressing the Red Shirts at Rajdamnern Avenue in early April 2010, they acted out of a factional interest, not democratic principles. They were unhappy with the temporary monopoly of power in the army by the “Eastern Fighters” faction (Burapapayak) from the 2nd Infantry based in Prachinbury. When political crises occur and the Military faces opposition from mass movements, some military factions or individuals support the democracy movement, hoping to gain from the demise of rivals. Later, they may change sides. The changing position of major general Chamlong Si-Muang is merely one example, although a highly politicised one. In 1992 he was part of the pro-democracy movement. In 2006 he became part of the leadership of the PAD. Before that in the 1970s he took part in the blood bath against leftist students. Factionalism ensures that no one is allowed to hold on to top military positions for long. For historical reasons, the army is the most powerful section of the armed forces. The navy sided with factions of the elite that were on the losing side in the past, for example, siding with Pridi Panomyong in the 1940s and 50s, and the air force has been under developed. The police were powerful for a brief period under Police General Pao Siyanon in the 1950s, but they were soon despatched to forth rank in the uniformed pecking order. The Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces is a purely ceremonial position. Real power lies in the hands of the army chief who can mobilise soldiers and tanks on the ground to suppress demonstrators and to stage coup d'états. The position of chief of the army is rotated to ensure an equal distribution of opportunities, but rival factions scramble for “their man” to receive promotion. Since the death of Field Marshal Sarit in the 1960s, there has been no single military strong man. Since the overthrow of the military dictatorship in 1973,
Good examples are Fred Riggs (1966) Thailand. The modernisation of a Bureaucratic Polity. East West Press. USA. David Morell & Chai-anan Samudavanija (1981) Political conflict in Thailand: reform, reaction and revolution. Oelgeschlager, Gunn & Hain. David Wilson (1962) Politics in Thailand. Cornell University Press. John Girling (1981) Thailand. Society and politics. Cornell University Press, USA. And also Anek Laotamatat in his 1995 book in Thai: “The Tale of Two Democratic Cities”. Matichon Press.
13

Lèse Majesté, the Monarchy and the Military in Thailand

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

generals must take their turn at the feeding trough. The Military has extremely lucrative commercial interests in the media and in the state enterprises. Profits line the pockets of generals. This, and the rampant corruption connected to military purchases, drug dealing, illegal logging and cross-border smuggling, all add up to a strong incentive for the Military to try to retain political influence so that they can continue their activities. The wealth of the Military also helps in turn to maintaining its power. Retired military officers often take up a career in money politics, using their wealth and connections to obtain seats in parliament, but as retired officers they no longer have direct control over any section of the armed forces. It is interesting to note that since the 2006 coup, military spending has dramatically increased. Violent coercion is never enough to maintain political power. Legitimacy must also be built through socialisation and the use of ideology. “Democracy” as an ideology is extremely powerful in Thai society and has been so for decades during which mass movements have repeatedly challenged dictatorships. That is why past military dictatorships have never been able to claim that they were good “dictatorships”. They always tried to say that they were “democratic” or “temporary regimes in the process of developing Democracy”. Despite the high number of coup d'états in Thai history, there has not been a stable and long lasting military junta since 1973. The Democracy Monument, in the centre of Bangkok, built by an antiMonarchy military dictator, General Pibun Songkram, in the 1930s, has come to symbolise the popular ideology of Democracy and it means that the army could never pull it down, even in the 1960s and 1970s. The strength of the ideology of Democracy among citizens means that the ruling class has had to accept elections and parliaments, even though their democratic nature is often distorted. For the conservative elites, Democracy is alright so long as they are not challenged by left-wing political parties like in the 1970s14 or so long as the election process can be devoid of any political debate about real policies. This is why they favour money politics, where politicians build personal relationships with their constituents through money and political patronage. Political bosses and factions from various parties took turns at enriching themselves while in unstable coalition governments. That state of affairs was undermined by the emergence of Taksin’s TRT in the 2001 election. For the first time in decades a political party offered real policies, delivered on them after the election, and built a mass base of support as a result. Because the Military has always had a problem with trying to legitimise its actions by quoting
14

Giles Ji Ungpakorn (2010) already quoted, p 132.

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“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. For Niti Eawsriwong, the Military need to gain legitimacy by shouting out that they are protecting the Throne, because they are in a potentially vulnerable position. Their natural allies among the business elites and the civilian politicians and bureaucrats are unreliable because these allies only tolerate direct military intervention in politics in a crisis situation. The Military’s only firm allies are the right-wing middle-class, who are weak15. “Nation, Religion and Monarchy” are the three pillars of the elite’s conservative ideology. Since the 1992 uprising against the Military, they have sometimes reluctantly added “the People” as a forth afterthought. One can observe this in the slogans displayed outside military bases. However, the most important element in the three pillars ideology, as far as the army is concerned, is the Monarchy. “Religion” is difficult to use as a coercive force due to the fact that not all Thais are Buddhist and the fact that the type of Buddhism practiced in Thailand emphasises personal merit-making rather than congregations of people being given regular lectures by priests. In addition, the version of Buddhism, designed by the elites in the past, does not give any political power to the “Song” clergy in case they might become political rivals. More recently, the management of Buddhism was centralised under the control of the military in the 1960s and there was an attempt to de-politicise monks in order to prevent a left-wing Buddhist movement16. “Nation” might seem to be a powerful symbol, and it is. Yet, ever since the 1930s there has been an underlying tension between “Nation” and “Monarchy” because the former implies a more collective idea,

15

Matichon on line 3rd January 2011 (In Thai). 16 Thak Chaloemtiarana (1979) The politics of despotic paternalism. Social Science Association of Thailand.

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with collective interests, whereas the latter is concentrated in one single individual or group17. “Nation”, in a more egalitarian concept, was also the ideology of the revolutionary Peoples Party in 1932, the Maoist Communist Party and many of the social movements today. What is more, the Thai Military did not play any part in any independence struggle against Western Imperialism. That is why “Monarchy” best serves the narrow and elitist interests of the Military. It is also a very powerful ideology that reinforces the idea of a rigid and historically “natural hierarchy” in society. 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 internet18. 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
17 18

The Monarchy

Kullada Kesboonchoo Mead (2004) The rise and Decline of Thai Absolutism. RoutledgeCurzon. And even shown on Australian TV in April 2010.

Lèse Majesté, the Monarchy and the Military in Thailand

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

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 billionaire19. 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. He came to the throne after his elder brother died from gunshot wounds to the head in 1946. His brother’s death was either a suicide or a gun accident involving Pumipon. Either way, Pumipon was aware of the circumstances of his brother’s death, but chose to keep them a secret, allowing 3 innocent palace staff to be executed and allowing the left-wing politician Pridi Panomyong to be falsely blamed for the incident by his political opponents. During the late 1950s and early 1960s he was used by Thailand’s corrupt and despotic ruler, Field Marshall Sarit Tanarat, to build a strong coalition between the Military and the monarchists20. The Monarchy had fallen into disrepute and was very unpopular among the people in the 1930s and 1940s, before and after the successful revolution which overthrew the Absolute Monarchy in 1932. Even key military leaders had republican leanings in those days. Sarit and the monarchists used the Cold War as a means of building up the prestige of the conservative elites. King Pumipon was systematically promoted as the symbolic figurehead of this “anti-Communist” alliance and Pumipon became very fond of the corrupt and brutal dictator Sarit. Even the U.S. government helped out by distributing photos of the King to villagers in rural areas as part of the fight against Communism21. Any house without such a picture would be deemed as “red”. When Sarit died, his deputies, Generals Tanom and Prapart, became the next bunch of corrupt military rulers and Pumipon carried on working with them. Never once did Pumipon speak up for Democracy or social justice. Never once did he criticise corruption. The Military promoted the King and his so-called “Royal Projects”, but over the years these projects have had little impact on the standard of living of the majority of Thais.
19

Forbes 2009 and 2010. 20 Thak Chaloemtiarana (1979) already quoted. 21 Katherine Bowie (1997) Rituals of National Loyalty. New York: University of Columbia Press.

Lèse Majesté, the Monarchy and the Military in Thailand

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

In October 1973 the military regime was overthrown by a mass popular uprising and Pumipon was called upon by the elites to step in and protect the status quo. This he did by appearing on television and announcing a new civilian government after it was clear that the Military had lost. Thus he also managed to pretend that he was a “democratic king”. But the dark clouds of class struggle were looming. This was at the height of the Vietnam War and the students and social activists in Thailand were looking for real social change. They were attracted by the ideas of the Communist Party. Pumipon joined up with the Military and conservative elites in promoting right-wing paramilitary groups, such as the Village Scouts, who attacked the students and the Left. The end result was a bloody crackdown at Thammasart University in October 197622. Pumipon supported this crackdown, the military coup that followed, and the general repression and censorship under the new dictatorship. He justified this by saying in December 1976 that Thailand had had “too much democracy”. By the mid 1980s the democratic space in Thailand was opening up, as a compromise was reached with the Communists, and an elected civilian government came to power. Soon this was toppled by a new military coup in 1991 because of rivalries between the Military and civilian politicians. As usual, Pumipon supported the military leaders. However, a mass popular uprising and street fighting in Bangkok in 1992 ended the dictatorship. When it was clear that the army had lost after 5 days of street fighting, Pumipon appeared again in public in order to claim his democratic credentials and to save the position of the ruling class. Democratic elections were held and the political elites fell over each other to grovel and praise the “Great King”, while promoting and re-promoting his “super human talents”. By doing this they increased their own legitimacy. There is nothing innately true or historically correct about the statement that “Thais have a special regard for the Monarchy”. Yet, even most foreign observers are reluctant to spell out the facts about the Monarchy. This is because journalists and academics who write about Thailand face the lèse majesté law. One honourable exception to this generalisation is Paul Handley23. But Handley can never set foot in Thailand again until we have true Democracy. His book is a wealth of information about the Monarchy, although many
22

Katherine Bowie (1997) already quoted. Also Giles Ji Ungpakorn & Sutachai Yimprasert (2001) State Crime - in a crisis of change”. 6th October Fact-Finding and Witness Interviewing Committee, Bangkok, Thailand. (In Thai). 23 Paul Handley (2006) The King Never Smiles. Yale University Press.

Lèse Majesté, the Monarchy and the Military in Thailand

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

of his conclusions are debateable. Despite claiming that the King is all powerful, there are many important occasions in history where Handley shows that the King was not heeded and he did not get his way. These include the overthrow of the Tanin Kraiwichien Government in 1977 and the popular uprising against Sujinda Kaprayoon’s military junta in 1992. Both these regimes were favoured by the King. 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 193224. 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. Over the years the King never showed any serious power in practice. As head of an institution that derived mutual benefit from all regimes, whether military dictatorships or elected Governments, he was happy to play his role. Under Taksin, the King even praised the Government’s extra-judiciary killings in the war on drugs25.
24
25

Kullada Kesboonchoo Mead (2004) Already quoted. King’s speech on 4th December 2003.

Lèse Majesté, the Monarchy and the Military in Thailand

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

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. He went with the flow. When Taksin was Prime Minister, he praised Taksin. When the soldiers staged a coup, he praised them. His rambling speeches use obscure language so that the elites could make their own interpretations to suit themselves and Pumipon does not have to take any responsibility for anything. The speeches are reproduced by the elites like sacred texts, but they contained little of substance. It is the interpretation by the elites and their media that matters. When the generals decide to do anything, they stage an elaborate play in order to make us think that they are going to the palace to “take orders”. In fact they are there to “tell” the King what they have already decided to do. Pumipon nods in agreement or is unavailable for an audience, depending on the advice he gets from the Privy Council. The advice is not based on decisions made only by General Prem Tinsulanon, the Privy Council Chairman. It is based on the consensus of those in power in the Military, the civilian bureaucracy and the business elite. That is the coordinating role of the Privy Council. After Pumipon’s nod of agreement, the generals come out of the palace and announce to the public that they have “taken orders” from the King. That way they can build legitimacy for their actions and fear among those who wished to oppose them. The dominant academic view which sees the King as all powerful, includes Paul Handley26, Duncan McCargo27, Same Sky (Fa Deaw Kan) Press 28, Kevin Hewison29, Michael Connors30 and Niti Eawsriwong31. There is a suggestion by these academics that Pumipon organised the 2006 coup and has been manipulating politics since the 1970s. The same view is expressed in the collection of chapters published in the book “Saying the Unsayable. Monarchy and Democracy in Thailand”, edited by SØren Ivarsson and
26 27

Paul Handley (2006) already quoted. Duncan McCargo (2005) Network Monarchy and the legitimacy crisis in Thailand. The Pacific Review 18(4) December, pp 499-519. 28 See Oct-Dec 2005 edition of the magazine (in Thai) and also the book “The 19th Sept Coup” published in Thai in 2006. 29 Kevin Hewison (2008) A Book, the King and the 2006 Coup. Journal of Contemporary Asia 38 (1). 30 M. K. Connors, M.K. (2003) Democracy and National Identity in Thailand. Routledge Curzon. 31 Niti Eawsriwong (2008) Review of The King Never Smiles, made at the Thai Studies Conference that year. http://www.prachatai.com/ 17/1/2008.

Lèse Majesté, the Monarchy and the Military in Thailand

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Lotte Isager32. Most contributors to this book believe that Pumipon, as head of “Net Work Monarchy”, is a powerful king. The “elephant in the room” which no one writes about in this book is the Military. An honourable exception is the chapter by Han Krittian, who writes about how the Monarchy...”has been manipulated in order to legitimise attacks on opposition factions”. What is interesting is that Saying the Unsayable is available for sale inside Thailand, unlike my books which criticise the Military, and which are banned. Does this mean that the Military and the elites want us to believe that the King is all powerful? Most of these intellectuals rely on the socialised official version of the nature of the Monarchy. Also, consciously or unconsciously, they rely on the old Maoist analysis, from the Communist Party of Thailand, that under-developed countries like Thailand have yet to complete their bourgeois revolutions and are therefore “semi-feudal”. This analysis sees the major confrontation among the elites as being between the old semi-feudal order and the new rising capitalists. It is a mechanical application of the 1789 French Revolution to Thailand in the 21st century. In fact by 1848 the European capitalist classes had more or less co-opted the remaining kings or feudal lords into their local capitalist class and were no longer prepared to lead any more revolutions for fear of stirring up the masses. Set into the context of the 2006 coup, the belief among many is that the coup was the result of a conflict between the “feudal” Monarchy and the capitalist Taksin. This “Neo-Maoist” position has also been proposed in detail by Kasian Tejapira33. The Maoist (and Stalinist) analysis of under-developed countries characterised them as being “semifeudal”, since the “National Democratic Revolution” or bourgeois revolution had yet to be achieved. Unlike the analysis of Marx or Trotsky’s theory of Combined and Uneven Development, Capitalism still needed to be established by a grand patriotic coalition of leftists and capitalists in order to fight the feudalists. This school of thought ignores the fact that the ruling class networks which support the Monarchy also include the major bankers and industrialists and even Taksin. They also ignore the capitalist nature of the King’s own investments. They therefore believe the Yellow Shirt accusation that Taksin and TRT are “cryptorepublicans”. This is also the logic of Duncan McCargo’s network conflict and the logic of those who believe in the 2006 “Royal Coup”. Yet Taksin has repeatedly vowed that he is a loyal subject of the King and there is no reason not to believe him.

32 33

SØren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager, Eds (2010), already quoted. Kasian Tejapira (2007) “The dilemma of the Thai bourgeois revolution.” http://www.prachatai.com/ 15/10/2007 (In Thai).

Lèse Majesté, the Monarchy and the Military in Thailand

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

In the case of the British Monarchy, Christopher Hill34 shows that the return of the Monarchy after Cromwell’s death was part of a need to crackdown on the radical movements of the poor, such as The Levellers and Diggers, who had been an important ally of the rising capitalists during the revolution35. The new Monarchy of Charles 2nd may have claimed to be appointed by God, but was in reality appointed by the new rising capitalist class. There was a need to “reinvent history”36 to show that the power and privilege of this new capitalist ruling class was ancient and “God-given”, interwoven with the Monarchy, and not really created by revolution from below against the feudal order. The English capitalists brought back the Monarchy in a different form, while claiming an ancient continuity, in order to use the Monarchy as a modern capitalist institution for enforcing conservative views against the rising working class. Today British and European ruling classes use their monarchies in order to promote conservative ideology. Yet, unlike Thailand, because of the strength of the working class, they are forced to frame such ideology in democratic terms. This is why the kings and queens of modern Europe are not promoted as sacred mythical beings, to be loved and feared. In Thailand, the revolutionary transformation towards a capitalist state did not take the same form as the early Bourgeois Revolutions in England and France. Capitalist transformation occurred in a revolution from above by King Rama 5th of Bangkok, around the 1870s, in order to deal with the threat of Western Imperialism. In many respects the revolution of King Rama 5th was similar to the Meiji Restoration in Japan37. Both were transformations to capitalist nation states in the face of imperialism. There is no doubt that the mainstream image of the Monarchy is that of a very powerful institution and person. Socialisation and coercion enforce this view among the public. But the Marxist theory of alienation helps us to understand that widely held beliefs and appearances are often not the truth. We can also understand when socialisation and coercion can work and when it fails to work. We know that the capitalist ruling class boosts its power by getting us to believe that the market, the family or the Monarchy are “natural

Christopher Hill (1959) The English Revolution 1640. An Essay. Lawrence & Wishart, London. Paul Foot (2005) The Vote. How it was won and how it was undermined. Penguin / Viking. 36 Eric Hobsbawm (1995) Inventing Traditions. In: E. Hobsbawm & T. Ranger (eds) The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge University Press. 37 Neil Davidson (2004) The prophet, his biographer and the watchtower. International Socialism Journal No. 2:104, p. 23.
35

34

Lèse Majesté, the Monarchy and the Military in Thailand

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

institutions”. This socialisation is helped by a feeling of lack of power among the general population. However “the mist clears from people’s eyes”, as they are now saying in Thailand, when people decide to fight collectively38. It is this feeling of fear and lack of status and confidence in Thai society, which is encouraged by the ruling class because it helps to make us believe that the Monarchy is all powerful. Yet it is an instrument to strengthen, not the Monarchy as an ancient institution, but the entire modern Thai capitalist class. This is why Taksin39, the Military, the civilian bureaucracy and the big corporations all support and promote the Monarchy. By struggling against the dictatorship in a collective manner, millions of Red Shirts 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.

38

Georg Lukács (1971) History and Class Consciousness. Merlin Press, London. 39 Taksin’s TRT Government promoted celebrations of the King’s 60th anniversary and also decreed that everyone should wear the King’s yellow shirts every Monday.

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