The political unrest that currently engulfs Thailand is no new phenomenon in Thai politics. Since the military coup in 1932 that ended absolute monarchy in Thailand, coups and new constitutions have been a regular occurrence in the country. Thailand also has seen various grass-roots demonstrations and protests movements such as the student demonstration at Thammasat University in 1976, and the anti government protests in both 1992 as well as in 2010.
Despite the seeming normalcy of the current events in Bangkok, these events represent a very different political reality than that which Thailand has previously experienced. For the first time the ‘network monarchy’ (described by various analysts as including key institutions like the monarchy, bureaucracy and military) has played little role in the conflict.
Previous street demonstrations, particularly those mentioned above, have been resolved with the use of military intervention, often with bloody results, killing dozens.
The monarchy has also been a key circuit breaker in political confrontation in the past. An enduring image of the 1992 conflict in Thailand was when the anti-government protest leader Chamlong Srimuang and Prime Minister Suchinda Kraprayoon prostrated themselves in front of King Bhumibol who ordered them to resolve their differences. There have been few images in Thai history that represent the power through persuasion of King Bhumibol so emphatically.
However, so far in this political conflict, these institutions have failed to play an active role.
In January, there were brief indications that the Thai military may intervene to resolve the situation. After several months of protests, the head of the army Prayuth Chan-Ocha stated that: “wherever conflicts become violent and insoluble the military will have to solve them”. The statement is consistent with a long-standing view within the Thai military of its role in ‘Thai style democracy’; that is as an active participant in the politics of the country, resolving tensions when necessary through non-democratic means.
However, since making this statement, the military has been showing signs of backing away from this position. By late February, it had become clear that the circumstances required by the head of the army for intervention were beginning to eventuate. There were several deaths resulting from bombings and street skirmishes between protest groups. However it was at this point of intensification of the conflict that Prayuth Chan-Ocha backed away from his previous statement by proclaiming that: “The military doesn’t want to use force and weapons to fight against fellow Thai people who have different political view points.”
After four months of a crippling shutdown that has been showing signs of seriously damaging the Thai economy, this indecisiveness is very different from the way the military has acted in other crises. In 2006, for example the military acted decisively to overthrow the government in an overnight coup while then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was out of the country. This change in behaviour could be a sign of recognition on the part of the Thai military that its use of force in an increasingly politically conscious society could do irreparable damage to its reputation.
The palace has proved be even less active in attempting to find a resolution to this crisis. One of the few statements by the King regarding the conflict came on his birthday celebrations on 5 December last year. In his speech Bhumibol vaguely referred to the ongoing political crisis when stating that: “Thais…must continue to perform at the best of their intention for the achievement of common interest; that is safety and security of the Thai nation”.
These vague references to disunity and the need to work towards consensus, contrasts strongly to the assertiveness of the King in 1992, and the overall effect that it had. The statement made in December seems to have had little effect on the fervour of protesters in Bangkok.
The lack of the King’s public intervention is most likely due to this fragile health. With an imminent transition to a less popular Crown Prince, it is a possibility that the sort of influence previously exerted by the current King is unlikely to be exerted in the future.
The inability or lack of willingness of the ‘network monarchy’ to exert itself on the events unfolding in Bangkok represents a major shift in the political landscape of Thailand. Where previously these institutions exerted influence on the politics of the country through military coups, or conflict resolution, they are, and will increasingly be, confined to the bases and palaces of the country. This power vacuum is largely being created, and filled, by the growing culture of grassroots political activism that has polarised the country.
In recent times there has been an understanding of a growing political divide between urban, middle class, educated Thais who mostly reside in Bangkok and, a rural poor group. This new paradigm, which is showing signs of overwhelming the ‘network monarchy’, is something quickly being understood by both sides in this political conflict and they are altering their actions accordingly. In relation to a move of the main anti-government protest sites away from the streets and into a park in Bangkok, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban stated: “We are trying to minimize the effect (of the protests) on the Bangkok people, who by and large are our supporters”. The statement shows that in Suthep’s mind, the people of Bangkok hold a unique status in Thailand and are central to the movement’s attempts to overthrow the government.
Red shirt protest leaders have a similar understanding of their own support base. In an act designed as a display of public confidence, Yingluck Shinawatra went on a carefully planned tour of the north of the country at the end of February where support for the government is perhaps stronger than anywhere else. The images of Yingluck walking freely amongst supporters and being handed flowers contrasts to the reality she works under while in the capital. While in Bangkok, Yingluck is forced to use the offices of the Defence Ministry rather than her own due to the vulnerability of her own offices to protest attacks.
While both of these groups attempt to build their own support bases in rival regions, neither seem to have a plan to build any kind of bipartisanship alluded to in the birthday speech of the King. Under these circumstances it seems unlikely that the King’s muffled calls for national unity will eventuate in the near future. Under these circumstances, historians of the future may remember the 2013-14 political unrest as the twilight of the ‘network monarchy’.
Thomas Olsen-Boyd is a masters student at ANU who has researched and travelled extensively through Thailand.