Thailand, renowned for beautiful beaches, magnificent temples and flavourful cuisine, is one of the most popular countries, a Buddhist ‘land of smiles’, with incoming tourists numbering 11.15 million last year. But behind the smiles, Thailand’s military has seized power 13 times since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932 and continues, as in Pakistan, to dominate the political and economic levers of power. Unlike Pakistan, however, it escapes scrutiny and negative criticism, although since 2015, Thailand has been rated ‘not free’ on the Freedom House Index.
Recent developments in domestic politics have brought these aspects to the fore. In last May’s elections, in a stunning reversal of expectations and the rejection of a decade of military-backed rule, the Move Forward Party won 151 of the 500 seats in the lower House, a few more than the front-running Pheu Thai (For Thai) Party led by Paetongtarn, the daughter of the ex-prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. Pheu Thai agreed to join Move Forward and four smaller parties, making a coalition of more than 60% of seats in the new Parliament. Would Thailand then adhere to its authoritarian playbook which sees elections as a necessary evil rather than an essential democratic criterion of who holds power? Or would it break the cycle of coups, parties judged illegal and street violence that have plagued Thailand for many decades?
There were four million first-time electors, though voters under 26 are not a large bloc in ageing Thailand and form only 14% of the 52-million electorate. But they were energetic in backing Move Forward as the party urging radical reform of the country’s institutions and rejecting any truck with the military-aligned parties of the outgoing government led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who steered the coup that ousted an elected government in 2014, and which won only 15% of the seats this time. Move Forward’s 43-year-old leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, a Harvard graduate, declared himself ready to be the country’s 30th prime minister, saying “People have had enough… Now, it’s a new day.” But predictably, this was not to be. The military-drafted Constitution of 2014 allows senators appointed by the junta to vote for the next prime minister, and Move Forward/Pheu Thai numbers were insufficient to outvote the 250-strong Senate.
Fearing Move Forward’s progressive agenda that called for drastic changes to Thailand’s bureaucracy and economy, to stop the military from intervening in politics, to limit its budget and end conscription, and to amend the controversial lèse-majesté law by which criticism of the monarchy can incur a sentence of 15 years — the very issues that inspired a months-long student-led protest movement in 2020 — the military and its supporters blocked Pita from taking office. And the pliant judiciary, empowered by the military-inspired Constitution, was again ready to dissolve one or more of the reformist parties. Pita himself was suspended from Parliament on July 19 by the constitutional court.
Pheu Thai’s durability is remarkable considering the efforts made over the past 17 years to weaken the influence of Thaksin Shinawatra who founded its first incarnation, Thai Rak Thai, in 1998. To rural masses, Thaksin is loved as the first leader to pay attention to the millions living outside glitzy Bangkok, but his government was deposed by a military coup in 2006 and a successor party dissolved by the courts in 2008. After Thaksin went into exile to avoid imprisonment, his sister, Yingluck, won a landslide in 2011 but was disqualified by the courts, and her government ousted by a second coup in 2014 after relentless street protests orchestrated by military-cum-Establishment circles. The junta led by Prayuth then headed the country, during which time, civil and political rights were restricted along with a surge in lèse-majesté cases, political opponents were sent to ‘attitude adjustment’ camps, and dissident activists either disappeared or died. Thailand’s current Constitution was introduced by the junta, effectively binding the country into a military-guided democracy.
At the elections of 2019, Pheu Thai won far more seats than any other party, but was again obstructed from forming the government. The party’s message has been consistent; universal healthcare and village-based micro-credit schemes for rural and low-income communities. The 2020-21 pro-democracy riots brought forward demands to reform the monarchy and for growing republicanism. “For many years no other political force has been able to offer an alternative to Pheu Thai in terms of policy, charisma, or in being able to communicate directly with the people,” says Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, “and because the last coup resulted in two military-backed governments which failed miserably in economic performance and dealing with the Covid pandemic, the popularity of Pheu Thai remains high.”
The vote to dispossess Move Forward was taken only hours after the return from exile of Thaksin, who had been the first prime minister to lead an elected Thai government through a full term of office. In backroom deals, Pheu Thai brokered a power-sharing accord that excludes Move Forward, but includes parties associated with the generals who led the 2014 coup and were resoundingly rejected in May’s election. Thaksin’s eight-year sentence was commuted to one year and he will spend that year in a comfortable hospital. Pheu Thai asserts that Move Forward’s commitment to changing the royal defamation law made it impossible to rally enough support from other parties and the Senate. Therefore, the reformist Move Forward, with most votes and most seats, now languishes in the Opposition. Pheu Thai also claims they had no choice but to ally with pro-military parties, because Thailand’s electoral rules, rewritten after the 2014 coup, made it impossible for its candidate, Srettha Thavisin, to take office without backing from the military-royalists.
These manoeuvres bring to an end months of political impasse. Srettha, with 482 votes out of 727, was duly accepted as the prime minister by the Senate and Thailand’s king on August 22. Srettha leads a fragile coalition of 11 parties including two affiliated with the outgoing prime minister, Prayuth, and military-backed parties that overthrew Pheu Thai governments in coups in 2006 and 2014. Pita noted somberly that the coalition “contradicted the wishes of the people.”
Srettha states his coalition will support Pheu Thai’s platform of boosting the economy, increasing the minimum wage and ending mandatory conscription, will support the legalisation of medical cannabis and try to change the Constitution to make the country “more democratic”, while leaving the royal defamation law untouched. He promised to tackle poverty and inequality after years of anaemic economic growth and a feeble recovery from the pandemic, which has battered the tourism industry.
The past decades of Thai politics have been marked by the tussle between pro-Thaksin parties and the military-cum-royal Establishment. Will this tension now come to an end? It is relevant that the revered King Bhumibol, the longest reigning Thai monarch, died in 2016, replaced by his controversial and less acceptable son. Another quandary is why Thailand is not derided as an authoritarian dictatorship like its neighbours, Cambodia or Myanmar. Significantly, its foreign minister has been the only non-Burmese allowed to meet the detained elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, in Myanmar. One answer is that it presents a fragrant mien to the outside world, the essence of soft power. Another is its ties with the United States of America which dominates the image-building global media. Thailand is one of three non-NATO allies in East Asia and has a treaty alliance with Washington, though like other Asean members it now walks a careful path between the US and China.
Krishnan Srinivasan is a former foreign secretary