Viewpoint: Did Thai king help stifle democracy?

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image captionThailand is in deep mourning after the passing of the king on 13 October

After the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand is preparing for Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn to succeed him on the throne. The king's declining health seemed to coincide with the beginning of a decade-long political crisis, writes Serhat Uenaldi, and in the end Thai democracy died long before the king.

The king himself helped kill off democracy in the fateful year of 2006, when he endorsed a military coup against the popular Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and gave royal assent to an interim cabinet.

Mr Thaksin, a telecommunications billionaire, had been swept to power in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. He managed to get Thailand's economy back on track by introducing mildly redistributive policies that benefitted people in previously neglected provincial areas. As a result, he became the first prime minister to complete a full term in office. His popularity soared, partly at the expense of the monarchy.

Previously, King Bhumibol had been regarded as the supreme patron of rural Thailand, initiating hundreds of development projects. With Mr Thaksin's rise many came to realise that an elected leader could improve their lives and lead to real structural change. They no longer felt dependent on a supposedly benevolent monarch who ruled by birthright.

But royalists began to fight back, spearheading a movement against Mr Thaksin which they formed in late 2005. Thaksin, however, proved resilient, backed by the majority of Thais. Poll after poll showed his apparently unbeatable popularity.

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image captionThaksin Shinawatra now lives outside Thailand in self-imposed exile

Without Bhumibol's blessing, he could never have been ousted by a coup in September 2006. Its leaders were granted an audience with the king immediately afterwards which was a clear sign of royal support.

If due democratic processes had run their course, Mr Thaksin's economic policies may or may not have proven unsustainable, and his negative human rights track record may have become unacceptable to the majority of Thais. That would have been for the voters to decide. But Thailand's royalists appear to have made that decision for them.

Seen in this light, it seems easy to conclude, as some have done, that King Bhumibol was the one to blame for the political mess that followed. In the wake of the 2006 coup, criticism directed at him as the country's most potent anti-democratic player mounted. Mr Thaksin's supporters, journalists and academics began to examine his political track-record critically, in spite of the existence of a law against defaming the monarchy which allows for up to 15 years imprisonment for each act deemed insulting to the king or a member of his family.

Royal charisma

However, the question of whether man makes history or whether history makes a man - a king, in this instance - looms large over the assessment of King Bhumibol's reign. Is it justified to hold him responsible, or was he in actuality a weak king who simply found himself at the centre of forces that were even bigger than the demi-god he was supposed to be?

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As so often, the truth lies in between. Thailand's turbulent politics can be best explained by the interplay between King Bhumibol as a leadership figure and Thai society at large. The point is that the king could not have become invested with the authority he had if that authority had not served the purposes of broad sections of the Thai people.

When King Bhumibol acceded to the throne in 1946, the Thai monarchy was at a low point after a revolution that ended absolute monarchy in 1932. The king's star only rose when military dictators started again to actively cultivate the charisma of the royal institution to promote royalism to fight communism in the 1950s. Royal traditions were invented or revived, the monarch was paraded around the countryside and abroad, old beliefs in Buddhist and Hindu sources of royal strength were nurtured.

In the king's name

And this is how King Bhumibol's reign worked. The enormous power he seemed to hold was in a way given to him by those Thais who drew on royal charisma as a source of legitimacy. The king's advice was what people made of it and what people made of it depended on their interests.

Whenever unionists rallied against privatisation by parading images of the king, whenever slum dwellers on royal land referred to their historical bond with the monarchy to counter threats of eviction, whenever a bureaucrat devised a scheme with reference to the king's guiding words of wisdom, whenever businesses attached a royal emblem to the front of their headquarters, whenever military generals purported to protect the king while carrying out coups against civilian governments, they were at the same time strengthening their own position and entrenching the centrality of the monarchy.

image copyrightHOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images
image captionIn 2007, pro-democracy protesters held up images of the king to demand a return of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra

An example of this was the king's repeated but failed attempt to instil a so-called "sufficiency" mind-set in his people through his vague concept of a "sufficiency economy" - focus on balanced development that stresses environmental and social responsibilities as much as conventional measures of economic progress. But while environmentalists and opponents of neo-liberalism used the idea to back their calls for a more sustainable and less exploitative economy, nostalgic social conservatives claimed royal sanction for their vision of a country eternally fed by rice farmers who were content with their lot.

Opponents of a welfare state and advocates of the free market needed only refer to the king's approval of trade and consumption in the context of sufficiency. In his 1998 birthday speech, King Bhumibol, the nation's biggest capitalist, was quick to clarify that people's frugality should not be excessive and that the consumption of luxurious goods was permissible - a message well-received among Bangkok's middle and upper class.

And certainly it was not the king alone who killed Thai democracy. It was the people who profited from his stamp of approval for the coup. They feared that Thaksin was a threat to the monarchy, and therefore to their own source of legitimacy.

But coups did not solve their problems. In King Bhumibol's later years, more and more Thais started to question the power of the king because Mr Thaksin had indeed initiated a slow drift away from power based on royal charisma towards leadership based on democratic legitimacy.

Consequently, the authority derived from latching on to royal charisma has weakened. It is doubtful that the next Thai monarch will be able to restore the carefully calibrated symbiosis between the monarchy and those sections of the Thai public who had for decades benefitted the most from working towards it. Rumours of the death of that symbiosis might not be exaggerated. Then, Thai democracy might rise again like a phoenix from the ashes.

Serhat Uenaldi is the author of Working towards the Monarchy: The Politics of Space in Downtown Bangkok.

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