[This is the text of the presentation by Thongchai Winichakul at the Thailand in Transition workshop held on 8 December 2009.]

The title of the talk today reminds me of the book, Siam in Transition, published in 1939 by Kenneth Landon. The book reported about the 1932 revolution that ended the absolute monarchy and about the country after that major transition.

Part One

Let’s recall the the 1932 revolution.

Let it be clear that I’m talking about 77 years ago and I WILL TELL THE STORY IN REGRESSIVE CHRONOLOGY, i.e. backward in time. It is not about the present and will be removed further and further away from the present. Any parallels are your own imaginations. I do not rewrite the script of the past in anticipation of your imagination about the present.

The People’s Party in 1932 took action amidst the widespread dissatisfaction with the monarchy among the political public.

In their view, the absolute monarchy hindered the country’s progress.

King Rama VII in fact was aware of the dissatisfaction. He tried to initiate some reforms.

But the senior royals in his government and foreign advisors shot down his ideas which, in retrospect, were not even far enough for the critics. Those senior advisors did not think Thai people were ready for democracy because they were too uneducated.

The dissatisfaction among the political public started under King Rama VI, Vajiravudh (r. 1910-1925).

King Rama VI had difficult times throughout 15 years of his reign. He was not a great ruler. He was a fantastic poet and playwright.

The difficulties came not only from the growing public criticism of his government, but the serious problem that undermined his rule, and in retrospect the future of the monarchy as well, also came from the royals and those who once served his father.

The royals and his father’s associates did not trust the King. To them, there were signs before his reign that he was not a competent ruler. They were also concerned about his character and personal behaviors.

Vajiravudh was a royal critic of the royals in response to the latter’s disloyalty to him.

The distrust of the royals and his father’s people began since when Vajiravudh was the Crown Prince. Rumors about his behaviors spread including a well known one that his body guards beat up soldiers but was not punished thanks to the intervention by Crown Prince. (Historians take this incident as a real incident. I don’t care how true it was but the persistence of the rumor reflected the atmosphere at the time. Possibly, there were lots of rumors about the CP’s behaviors.)

Gossips spread that another prince was probably a better choice for the throne. Such gossips put that prince in trouble, so he made it clear that he was loyal to the CP and to his father decision.

CP Vajiravudh was the only legally legitimate heir to the throne. His father made the decision and appointed him when he was young long before his adult characters began to form.

In my opinion, it is so unfair for historians to explain the dissatisfaction and problems under King Vajiravudh by focusing on his personality and behaviors. Historians overlook another factor that contributed to the disappointment with his reign but had nothing to do with him.

Had King Chulalongkorn not been an unmatched monarch, his son could have had a better chance to succeed. The more superhuman the Father was (or was made to look like), the steeper the mountain his son had to climb. Or we may say the deeper hole he got into. The more indispensable King Chulalongkorn was, the uncertain future awaits the next monarch. The royals and his father’s people themselves put Varjiravudh up for failure. The royals shot themselves in the foot.

Today the monarchy has a better chance not to make such a mistake again, the royals have a better chance not to shoot themselves in the foot again, if the monarch is truly above and beyond politics.

The situations that led to the 1932 revolution can be told again in the progressive chronology, starting from the making of the superhuman monarch, and forward in time…. You can do it by yourself – with your imaginations.

In the story, the royals cannot deny responsibility. They themselves were doing damages to the monarchy in the long run at every turn. Even in at the 11th hour, they still refused the change, dismissing the dissents and the dissatisfaction. They too should be held accountable for the trouble to the monarchy.

Many historians of later years put blame on the People’s Party for personal disgruntlement. They said that the failure of Thai democracy is the proof that Thai people were not ready. My question is ready for what? There was never one revolution in the world that took place when people were fully developed for democracy or any ideal cause. But in most cases, they were ready for a revolution.

Part Two

Despite the story I told, there is another way to understand the 1932 revolution.

In the 1910s-1930s, fundamental structural changes took place in Thai socio-economy as the results of the establishment of modern state and bureaucracy, of the expanding economy and education since the 1880s. The growing political public sphere was the outcome of the success of the absolute monarchy itself.

The structural changes meant the greater opportunity for commoners – a new social force that never had desire for political participation until the early decades of the 20th century.

The concrete story of the 1932 revolution I told earlier reflected the structural changes. The behaviors of CP, rumors about him, growing dissents, and so on, were the tip of the iceberg. If we only see the tip, we miss the rest of it.

I created a diagram of the history of democratization in Thailand. It shows three series of conflicts and transitions that were related to the structural changes.

The structural changes in the early decades of the 20th century were the fundamental conditions that produced the 1932 revolution. The structural changes in Thai socio-economy during the modernization period since the end of the 1950s also led to a huge army of the educated middle class who could not tolerate the authoritarian political system anymore, eventually producing the confrontations in 1973, 1976 and 1992 that altogether constitute another transition (series 2 in my diagram).

Since the 1980s Thailand has been going through another socio-economic structural changes related to the economic boom and to globalization. Despite the bust, occasional recessions and the 1997 economic crisis, Thai society has changed fundamentally.

This time the crucial effects have taken place in the rural society. The relationship between the city and the rural has changed; so were rural people’s ways of life. Late 1980s the majority of Thai population was no longer in the agrarian sector. Agriculture was no longer the top commodities the country produced. The poor people are no longer the peasants of the past years or the submissive subjects of the benevolent lord in the Government House.

The relatively regular elections provide a new access and opportunity for the rural and the urban poor to compete for a fairer share of power and public resources which had been controlled by the city. For rural people and the urban poor, it is the first time they not only understand but indeed enjoy the fruits of democracy.

(The electoral behaviors in the rural areas have changed over 20-30 years of frequent elections. All of them are rational responses to the changing democracy since the early 1980s. The elite bias and ignorance cannot understand these people. This is why thousands of millions the government dumped recently to lure them away from Thaksin failed. Money cannot buy rural people now or in recent elections probably since the late 1990s.)

The electoral democracy, however, has been despised by urban elite as the path of the corrupt self-serving politicians to power. The royalists in particular always believe in the benevolent rule of the selfless moral authority exemplified by the good monarch.

But Thaksin, all his abuses, faults and sins, are the tip of the iceberg. The government is trying to scratch the tip of the iceberg and claim it a monumental success. The whole society is missing the point, which is the rest of the iceberg. The focuses on Thaksin, the Red-Yellow conflict, and all tactical or rhetorical victories are missing the point. The believe that the crisis today is by a few evils, and if getting rid of them a happy-ever after would return, is a fantasy.

But the fundamental changes have already taken place. The train has already left the station.

In 1932 the senior royals to do not understand the fundamental changes. In 1973 the Generals did not understand the fundamental changes kept saying the communists were behind the discontent and the anti-government movement. In the current political crisis , …. please complete the sentence by yourself.

The lese majeste issue — how it is used and abused– is the microcosm of the whole problem I am talking about. There are deeper conditions that make people say or do things about the monarchy and that lead to conflict in the society. But those in power refuse to deal with the real problem and instead going after people and their acts to silence the dissents and held them hostage with fear. They are mere reflections or the tip of the iceberg. The result of the law and the elite’s denial of the need for change is likely to backfire.

In Closing

In 50 years from now, history might record that the Thai elites – the royalists and the urban elite – hindered the change for the better. They had the opportunity to institutionalize a decent democratic process, namely the electoral system, the media and the judiciary. But they shot themselves in the foot again. It is inevitable, I believe.

However, I do not know what the outcome would look like. All I have said does not mean I can foresee the exact shapes and forms of the transition. I can’t. Don’t even mention the “R” word. Honestly, I don’t see it coming no matter how wishful some “R” might be thinking. All I can say with confidence are, to repeat again, 1) the transition is happening; the train has already left the station; and 2) Watch out – the royalists, not the other “R”, are dangerous to the monarchy; they are the ones who undermine the future of the monarchy.