PAVIN CHACHAVALPONGPUN WRITES Thailand has become a “forgotten kingdom.” Despite a myriad of domestic troubles, ranging from the growing absolutist monarchic power, the remaining authoritarian rule, the highly politicized judiciaries, to the heightened legal harassments against pro-democracy youths, Thailand is virtually free from international pressure and sanctions. Even its closest ally, the United States, has been silent about the shrinking democratic space in this Southeast Asian country. Why?

Last month, the Thai Constitutional Court ruled that Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha had not exceeded the maximum eight years allowed in office, paving the way for his return from a five-week suspension. Prayuth was the coup leader who in 2014 overthrew the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, whose brother Thaksin had served as the elected prime minister from 2001 to 2006 before being overthrown himself.

Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha

Following the latest coup, Prayuth appointed himself as prime minister. And when an election was held in 2019, the pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party was able to form a government and invited Prayuth to lead the new government. The lengthy premiership of Prayuth effectively entrenched the position of the army in politics. And the fact that the Constitutional Court ruled in his favor suggested that the Thai judicial system was fraudulent and operated on behalf of the political elites.

Meanwhile, the royal reforms proposed by the young protesters completely fell on deaf ears. In the middle of 2020, a new political movement driven by the young generation was formed in Thailand. The young protesters took to the streets to demand urgent royal reforms. A series of protests were organized and sustained at least until the end of 2021 when the palace brought back the draconian lèse-majesté law which imprisons anyone up to 15 years for their criticisms against the monarchy. Earlier, it was suspended at the order of the newly crowned King Vajiralongkorn, apparent as part of his attempt to craft a new image. But the unrelenting anti-monarchy wave prompted the palace to revive this legal instrument to silence critics of the royal institution.

Since the outbreak of Thai protests, there has been no sign from King Vajiralongkorn of his willingness to work with democracy. Instead, Thais have witnessed the mounting absolutist power of the monarchy. For example, Vajiralongkorn ordered the amendments of the constitution to empower his position. He no longer needs to appoint a regent to oversee the royal affairs while he travels overseas. Because of his frequent visits to Germany, this new rule permits him to manage Thailand on a foreign soil—an issue that was raised in the German Parliament. He also transferred all assets of the superrich Crown Property Bureau under his sole possession, making him the indisputable richest monarch in the world, with an estimated wealth up to US$60 billion.

Since his enthronement, it has been evident that he has adopted a new style of royal governance. If “love” defined the previous era under King Bhumibol Adulyadej, “fear” now characterizes the current reign under Vajiralongkorn. Fear has served as a useful governing tool used to keep under control political elites as well as the public. The new king has routinely demoted, dismissed, even imprisoned many officials working under him, while humiliating them through the pages of the Royal Gazette. Exactly where his legal power is derived from has been a subject of controversy. As for disloyal subjects, transnational pressive tactics have been implemented, with a number of anti-monarchists across the Thai borders with Laos and Cambodia have been abducted, killed or forcedly disappeared.

But lately, there have been some changes within the walls of the palace. After the protests dissipated, it seemed that Vajiralongkorn has adopted a less controversial lifestyle. He now resides mostly in Thailand, refraining from commuting so frequently between Bangkok and Munich, hence reducing chances of being a target of German paparazzi. This includes no more riding a bicycle in a tiny tank top. He also appears in public only with his queen, Suthida, rather than flaunting the threesome relationship involving the second wife, Royal Noble Consort Sineenat. Indeed, Sineenat has disappeared from the public eyes, swirling up gossips that questioned her wellbeing and whereabouts.

The acclimatized behavior of Vajiralongkorn, while calming the tense political atmosphere, may cause some difficulties for future protests. Because there have been no new issues concerning the king, it will be difficult to call for another round of protests. Even if a protest could be organised, the protesters might have to revisit their demands for royal reforms proposed two years ago. Whether the public would continue to support the old demands is a challenge for the entire youth movement.

Therefore, Thailand is trapped in stagnation. True, the next election may come in May 2023. However, knowing that the military and the judiciaries are on the side of the current regime makes the next election, and the path toward democratization, less promising. The opposition parties are not working in unison. The Thaksin-backed Pheu Thai Party may win more seats than the last election. But Thaksin’s putatively pro-monarchy position has put distance between his party and the current political generation. In the meantime, the progressive Move Forward Party has been attacked by Thai royalists. The party has been accused of breeding anti-monarchism—the accusation which gives legitimacy for its future dissolution (and certainly helps contextualize the Pheu Thai Party’s desire to avoid the anti-monarchy charge),

Amid multiple internal problems, Thailand, on the world’s stage, still appears as a “normal country” when juxtaposed with seemingly more problematic states, like Myanmar. The United States has been reluctant to criticize the Thai regime, letting alone criticizing the still-revered monarchy, for fear that it could further drive Thailand into the Chinese orbit. It has also been reluctant to engage with democratic forces inside the country, apparently abandoning its earlier interventionist approach vis-à-vis Thailand. China, on the other hand, has made clear its position of accepting the current government. It is quite happy to make money with the Thai regime, particularly in the face of the unsure position of the United States.

Within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a norm has been further cultivated. This norm is based on an acceptance of a loose and informal alliance among outright authoritarian, or semi-democratic, regimes in Southeast Asia — especially Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia — in defense against an intrusion of democracy. This informal alliance is creating a large dark hole within Southeast Asia.

The term, a “forgotten kingdom,” is thus not an exaggeration. While the world is busy dealing with greater threats to the international community, including the war in Ukraine, the growing clout of Russia and the leadership question in China, Thailand is left unattended. The global spotlight is elsewhere. This could allow authoritarianism to thrive in Thailand. While the political elites have taken advantage from the country being forgotten by the world, the younger protesters who have fought for democracy seems to suffer the most, from both internal and external alienations.


Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University.       


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