Before 1932, Thailand was an
absolute monarchy. Whatever the king wished, he got.
Whatever he commanded, happened. In 1932, a peaceful
revolution forced the then king to grant the people their
first constitution and legislature. Thailand then
became a constitutional monarchy, like Australia, Sweden,
Norway, and the United Kingdom.
Coups and constitutions fit together in Thailand like
peanut butter and jelly do in America. Whenever a new
government sets up shop, everyone says bye bye to the
previous constitution. Since 1932, the country has
gone through seventeen charters/constitutions. The
constitutional monarchy system was preserved in all versions
-- that is, the king remained in place. The rest of
the trimmings differed, and over the decades, Thailand
passed through a variety of phases: parliamentary
systems, dictatorships, one house parliaments, two house
parliaments, elected MP's, appointed MP's. There's
plenty of room for experimentation left, too. Thailand
hasn't yet tried a tricameral parliament or a parliamentary
dictatorship. There's still time.
The year 1997 brought in the People's Constitution.
Thailand got two democratically elected parliamentary
houses. Not bad. North Korea doesn't even get
one. 20% of the House of Representatives - 100 members
- are chosen from party lists. The other 80% are
elected from their various constituencies. The Senate,
the upper house, was granted 200 members, since reduced to
150. 76 senators are elected from each of the 75
provinces of Thailand plus the special administrative region
of Bangkok. The remaining 74 are selected by the
Senate Selection Committee.
Western Demockracy Vs.
often posed by outsiders: is the Kingdom of Thailand
Before we attempt to answer that question, we must first
analyze what the word 'democratic' means nowadays.
North Korea is officially known as the Democratic People's
Republic of Korea. Laos is the Lao People's Democratic
Republic. Everyone is well aware that whenever a
country has the word 'democratic' in their official title,
it's meant ironically.
Even in so-called democratic
countries within the European Union, the United States,
Australia, and elsewhere, you've got to wonder if the
concept of democracy is meant as purely ironic.
Officially, democratic means "with equal participation in
government by all." In 'democratic' countries,
citizens elect politicians to represent them. But as
politicians really only represent the interests of the
financial backers that got them into office, usually
amounting to narrow business interests that both line the
pockets of the businesses concerned as well as the
politicians themselves. In a democracy, all citizens
are supposed to be equal before the law and with equal
access to power. Anyone who watched the O.J. Simpson
trial in 1995 and his subsequent acquittal knows that those
with access to dream team legal protection are more equal
before the law than those without.
a citizen has the freedom to vote in elections deemed "free
and fair", yet all candidates are backed by the same coterie
of power brokers, what's left is a mockery of democracy --
or a demockracy. Thailand doesn't qualify as a
demockracy. It's a deboughtcracy, a seemingly
democratic system but one in which voters can be slavishly
bought off to vote a specific way. In Thailand, land
of the baht, it'd be more appropriately called a debahtcracy.
The 1997 Constitution made voting compulsory to increase
voter turn out and dilute the effects of vote buying on
election results. This election reform was a clear
admission of Thailand's status as a debahtcracy, which it
remains so to this day. At the end of 2008, the Thai
courts dissolved the pro-Thaksin ruling party, Thai Rak
Thai, for vote buying. Thaksin and his cronies, of
course, deny it, but there's enough proof to document that
voters were being bought off, to the tune of 200 to 2,000
baht, depending upon the type of election and where the
voter resided. Thai Rak Thai isn't the only party
involved in buy offs. The Thai Attorney-General's
Office found that Thailand's Democractic Party was also busy
with bribing and vote buying. An additional 1,000B in
a voter's pocket means a lot in a country where the
uneducated earn as little as 4,000-6,000B per month.
In the Western demockracies, deboughtcracies are mocked
as corrupt and unethical. The reality is that the
deboughtcracy is the more honest democratic farce. At
least in Thailand, everyone already knows and accepts
politicians are crooked and on the take, The corruption is
out there in the open for all to see if they want to.
Whereas in the West, politicians feign an image of
impeccable honesty as they abuse their contacts and power to
the private sector after their "service" in the public
sector terminates. In deboughtcracies, everyone knows
the political game is a joke from the get go. In
demockracies, it can take years after the previous stooges
have vacated power for the public to realize they've been
had, if they ever do.
Demockracies and deboughtcracies are discussed in more
Thailand's Pretensions Toward Democracy
With the country becoming increasingly known internationally
as the Coupdom of Thailand, Thailand can't make any
pretenses to be a functioning democracy or even a demockracy.
In demockratic nations, citizens elect corrupted leaders
to "represent" them. In nearly all cases, these
leaders are permitted to remain in their offices until their
terms expire, after which they must stand for election
another time. Elected governments are not thrown out
or forced out before they get to serve out their terms.
In 2003, it was a huge deal for then California governor,
Gray Davis, to be recalled. As incompetent as he was,
he'd been demockratically elected in 2002 and should have
been able to serve out his 3-year term.
In Thailand's recent history, when a government ain't
liked, a coup takes place at any time to remove it. No
one wastes time waiting for terms to expire. The
September 2006 coup which threw out Thaksin Shinawatra's
government occurred less than a month before nation-wide
House elections were scheduled. An interim
constitution was drafted before the 2007 Constitution became
'permanent.' (Any Thai constitution is liable to
expire after the next coup). Shinawatra's Thai Rak
Thai party wasn't happy with the new constitution, but all
criticism was banned.
is no doubt whatsoever that Thaksin and his party changed
the rules while Thaksin was in office so that the Shinawatra
family and their cronies became ever richer. But guess
what? Western demockracies do the same thing to enrich
the backers of the political elites. There is also no
doubt that the Democracts who took over in 2006 stacked the
deck in their favor by banning Thakin's party from the
upcoming election for vote-buying charges they were equally
guilty of. The Democrats didn't win the
junta-administered 2007 election either. The People's
Power Party did. The Democrats only got power, with
Abhisit Vejjajiva as the prime minister, when Thailand's
Constitutional Court banned the People's Power Party.
In short, the message is that if you can't win an election
through vote-buying, bribes, and clever marketing, you can
do so through the courts.
The Western media portrays
non-democratic nations as flawed, that democracy (since
perverted into demockracy) is some ultimate achievement for
a nation to aspire. Perhaps such a system doesn't
export well to more conformist Asian societies until the
country reaches a certain level of affluence.
Singapore is known as an illiberal socialist democracy.
While its people were able to vote for representatives, one
man, Lee Kuan Yew, ran the roost from 1959-90 as Prime
Minister and maintains a presence as Minister Mentor when
his son took over as Prime Minister in 2004. No one
man and his family would hold such apparent power in a
Western nation for this length of time. South Korea
was run, more or less, like a dictatorship until the 1980's
Recent Political Conflicts
fact that Thailand seems to make up the political system as
it goes along has had serious repercussions for the country
recently. The coup which ousted Thaksin Shinawatra in
September 2006 as prime minister is still felt today with
the instability of the Thai government. Lately,
the country has gone through prime ministers more quickly
than an alcoholic does whiskey shots.
||Prime Minister #
||9 February 2001 to 19 September 2006
||1 October 2006 to 29 January 2008
||29 January 2008 to 9 September 2008
||18 September 2008 to 2 December 2008
||2 December 2008 to 17 December 2008
||17 December 2008 to 5 July 2011
2011 to ?
In the span of less than two-and-a-half years, the
country had seen six men fill the prime minister post, one
for just two weeks!
got couped out. #24 was appointed by the military.
Corruption, economic mismanagement, and growth sank to new
lows. Thais had to wonder, "We had a coup to install
this guy?" #24 held on as long as he could, but
eventually the government had to deliver to the people an
election they constantly postponed. #25 was booted out
by the Constitutional Court for violating Thailand's
conflict of interest laws: he occasionally emceed two
cooking shows. #26, the brother-in-law of #23, watched his
party dissolved by the Constitutional Court and was
prohibited from entering politics for 5 years. #26.5,
officially never a real prime minister, only got the job
because he was the senior ranking member left in the
government after the leading party had been extinguished by
the courts. This allowed Democrat Party leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, a chance to grab the prime minister prize
at the end of 2008.
The transitions were hardly tranquil.
As #26 occupied the premiership, many saw him, correctly, as
a puppet stooge for the deposed #23 and were not happy.
On November 25, 2008, members of the People's Alliance For
Democracy (PAD), otherwise known as the Yellow Shirts,
stormed Bangkok's key Suvarnabhumi Airport. No one was
seriously hurt, but air traffic to and from the Kingdom
ground to a halt for over a week. Tens of thousands of
travelers were stranded. Tourism dollars stopped
coming in. A face-saving way of removing #26
from power ended the conflict for the moment.
But it was far from completely over. The United
Front For Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), the Red
Shirts, weren't pleased with the way #27 assumed power,
using the Thai military and the courts to its advantage.
In April 2009, during the Thai holiday of Songkran, Red
Shirt violent demonstrations sprang up all over Bangkok.
The movement escalated in March 2010. The Red Shirts
called for new elections immediately. Negotiations
between the government and the protesters failed.
Protester violence increased, and a state of emergency was
declared by #27 as bombs went off throughout the capital.
At one point, #27 agreed to dissolve the House and call for
a new election by November 14, 2010 as long as the UDD
leadership dispersed the protesters. The UDD refused
the offer. They wanted #27 and his deputy to face
legal proceedings over skirmishes on April 10 which killed
25 UDD protesters and injured 800. #27's offer to hold
November elections was taken off the table.
rose further. Mass transit, schools, and major
shopping malls were closed. The American, British, and
Dutch embassies said they were closing until further notice.
Travel advisories were issued by most countries' state
departments to warn their citizens of traveling to Thailand.
It was all overblown claptrap. Even at its worst, the
situation was more of an inconvenience to foreigners than an
The week of May 17, 2010, with both sides still locked in
a stalemate, the government began a widescale military
crackdown. The Red Shirts were to be flushed from
their encampment. To forestall further violence, the
Red Shirt leadership surrendered days later. The
retreating UDD protesters burned twenty-seven buildings as
they fled, including Southeast Asia's second largest
department store, Central World, where Doug used to get
drunk on the rooftop beer garden. Buildings in Khon
Kaen and Udon Thani in Isaan were razed as well.
"This will not end. It will spread further and the
situation will deteriorate," promised one Red Shirt leader
after the crackdown had, for the moment, sent the Red Shirts
running. There's no reason to doubt that statement.
One of Thailand's most distinguished historians, Carnvit
Kasetsiri, agrees the violence will continue. "It's
not an easy job to find institutions or individuals to solve
the crisis, since it has reached the point where people in
Thai society no longer trust each other," he says.
movement started out with Thaksin wanting to regain control
of Thailand in order to unfreeze US$1.5bn of his cash assets
in Thailand. Everyone agrees that the movement has now
grown much larger than Thaksin himself. Unless the two
camps reach an agreement both can live with, the underlying
causes which brought about the protests will
manifest in more discord for the country. Shinawatra's
sis Yingluck winning the July 2011 elections should unfreeze
Thaksin's assets and get him a fresh invite back to Thailand
and offer some stability in the short term. Coups
usually don't take place after a landslide election victory.
The army swore it would honor the election results.
You can still come over and visit. Just don't pack any
red or yellow shirts.