In 2005, the global percentage of countries with populations over 1 million and electoral democratic systems peaked at 57%. By 2018 the number had declined to 51 %. Democracy has languished particularly in mainland Southeast Asia, with Cambodia and Thailand regressing badly. While Myanmar achieved an important breakthrough in 2011, liberal values have been lacking.  As authoritarian – democratic tensions increasingly feed into geopolitics, understanding why democracy has struggled so painfully in Thailand, especially after the country appeared to cross an important threshold with its liberal 1997 constitution, has never been more important.

Grounded in history, former Australian diplomat James Wise here offers us an account focussed on the unique aspects of Thailand’s democratic predicament. In this, it is a useful complement to Benjamin Zawacki’s 2018 book Thailand: Shifting Ground between the US and a rising China, which while legitimately examining the influence of a China Model’ (i.e. market Leninism) in recent Thai political thinking, said relatively little about the deeper roots of Thai democracy.

Wise was Australia’s Ambassador to Thailand from 2010 to 2014, turbulent years which saw Bangkok paralysed, lethal clashes between security forces and Red Shirt protestors, and the fall of the last proxy Thaksin Shinawatra government, that of sister Yingluck Shinawatra.  Now working as an independent consultant, Wise has written a book that aims to provide a readable introduction to Thai politics. It must be said he has succeeded admirably. Honed by years of drafting diplomatic cables, Wise writes lucidly and succinctly, distilling complexity with ease. He writes, as he says, as an interested bystander, rather than a scholar activist.

If there is a key idea flowing through this book, it is that Thai politics cannot be comprehended without considering the legacy of Thailand’s non-colonisation. This has resulted, Wise argues, with coexistent traditional and modern conceptions of legitimate political authority.  For some Thais, political authority arises from Buddhist virtue, the greatest accumulation of which resides in the monarchy and those that serve him.  For others, political authority arises from the consent of the governed.  He chooses to describe these two schools of thought as coexisting, rather than competing, because he says that competition implies the imminent victory of one or other. Don’t hold your breath, Wise counsels.  This suggestion of stasis might be seen as essentialism. Wise, however, avoids this trap, noting that despite the 1997 constitution failing, it changed the character of Thai politics irrevocably, introducing new ideas, discourses and institutions. One of the most important of these was the increasing role of courts in Thai politics.

The treatment of the rule of law and the evolution of the Thai justice system is one of the book’s most valuable contributions. There is more to be written on this, but for now, Wise has provided a tremendously useful history of how Thailand’s courts have become makers and breakers of governments. To do this, Wise assembles an illuminating collection of anecdotes revealing how Thai views of the rule of law remain fundamentally non-Western. This goes right from the top of Thai society, with judges unable to truly accept the constitution as the highest law, to the bottom, with northern Thais preferring to trust Buddhist ethics and karmic justice than courts and litigation for dealing with the wrongdoings encountered in their daily lives. Wise also notes the lasting impact of the two structural characteristics of Thai justice. One is the status of judges as bureaucrats, kharatchakan, loyal above all to the king rather than the idea of the law as a separate sphere of authority. A second is that Thailand’s adoption of Western legal codes was undertaken largely instrumentally, to unshackle themselves from the extraterritorial court systems imposed by the colonial powers from the mid-nineteenth century until after World War I. This has meant that while Thai justice may look like a European system of codes and courts, it continues to be animated by the spirit of the thammasat, traditional Thai thinking about the cosmic order.

A small complaint here: Wise shrinks the entire transformation of the Thai legal system from 1895 – 1935, from the traditional pattern based on the Law of the Three Seals to a modern system of civil law resembling a European court system, into two paragraphs. There is probably more work to be done in understanding how this happened, including in how Thai elites dealt with their European overlords in this period.  Wise does draw, however, on the excellent scholarship of Tamara Loos in showing how ideas and norms such as “liberty” were grafted onto local equivalents and the implications of this in actual legal practice.

In fact, the way in which Wise has harvested and synthesised insights from across the breadth of Thai studies is one of the great strengths of this book, and perhaps what makes it a particularly useful book for those new to trying to understand Thailand. Writing outside of academe, Wise is less vulnerable to pressure to say something “new”, which often leads academics into narrower and narrower fields of inquiry. That is not to say that Wise does not periodically gift us with his original metaphors and encapsulations; his characterisation of the 1932 revolution as a confluence of two streams of nationalism, one royalist, the other secular, rather than a fundamental rupture, is a piercing insight though one suspects other historians of the 1932 revolution might disagree. At the same time, the pressures of making a sustained case for one theory or another can deliver some writing benefits, including sustained argument and structural coherence. This book perhaps suffers a little from being disjointed; at times the book tends to hop along from section to section via subheadings, perhaps like, guess what, a series of diplomatic cables.

If there is any reason for unease with Wise’s analysis of Thai democracy, it is perhaps its almost exclusive emphasis on the ideational roots of Thailand’s democratic malaise. This leads to an underweighting of material factors.  In recent years there are increasing indications that an oligarchy comprising the military, monarchy and Sino-Thai business groups is quietly concentrating wealth, leading to Thailand’s increasing income inequality. This group is comfortable with a political arrangement that keeps disruptive plutocrats such as Thaksin out of power, sectors like banking and telecommunications free of foreign competition, and demands for greater political participation from areas outside Bangkok limited. The incentives for this oligarchy to perpetuate royalist-nationalist ideology are obvious.

This omission does not detract from the overall value of the book. Wise in the end gives us reasons to doubt equally the thesis of Whig history, inevitable progress towards greater rights and democracy, and the pessimism of those who see a permanent Thai slide into authoritarianism. The book shows that norm diffusion and the evolution of indigenous forms of political thought, some approximating the ideas that led to the West’s institutions, are continuing unabated. Moreover, the 2019 election results were more than enough to suggest that embers of a Thai passion for democracy remain, awaiting the right time to relight. Nonetheless, in a world where global power no longer resides exclusively with the democratic West, it will increasingly be up to peoples themselves to decide their political fates, democratic or non-democratic. Which way countries go will sometimes be matters of capability, contingency and the choices of leaders. Wise’s account of how Pheu Thai’s weak party system led to its parliamentarians passing an amnesty bill late at night, without the authorisation of the party leadership, is illuminating in this respect. Had that bill not been passed, Wise concludes, the Yingluck government may well have completed its four-year term. Instead, the bill sparked a popular backlash, ultimately resulting in the May 2014 coup and the democratic regression of the 2017 constitution.