Generational Change Destabilizes Thai Politics

Thailand’s protracted crisis is partly a result of generational changes in the political domain. While much emphasis has been placed on the so-called evil of the regime of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra as the fundamental cause of the conflict, little attention is paid to how changes have occurred within the dominant political network that has long shaped the contour of Thai politics. These changes are now shifting the political landscape, and unfortunately in a destructive way.

I would argue that the deep-seated crisis facing the country today derives in part from the diminishing power and authority of these once “traditional stabilizers.” I am not saying that these stabilizers always worked in tandem with democracy. Indeed, some of their actions were essentially anti-democratic. Nonetheless, the interference on the part of the traditional stabilizers functioned rather well in the past, sometimes in containing the scope of crisis and minimizing political violence. Some may have called their intervention sweeping dirt under the carpet. But at least it brought back some sense of stability and peace, no matter how short-lived it would be.

Traditional stabilizers were everywhere within the elitist political network. From the monarchy, members of the Privy Council, the military and statesmen to well-known public intellectuals, they in their own way intervened in political conflicts in order to reestablish order and search for possible reconciliations. Although they may have striven to preserve their own power interests, they also sought to reinstall stability. This was how Thai politics has operated, or been manipulated, in the last few decades.

While the Thai monarch has intervened in politics several times to stop the bloodshed, other members of the powerful network monarchy had played a similar role to maintain the political status quo. For example, General Prem Tinsulanonda, former prime minister and currently President of the Privy Council, has actively been pulling strings both behind and in front of the scenes, both during peacetime and in time of crisis.

From “putting the right man in the right job” to managing threats to the power interests of himself and his network, Prem has been the leading voice of the traditional stabilizers.

High-ranking military men have done their part in what they deemed to be the prevention of a political turmoil by staging a coup every now and then. They certainly construed their intervention as a legitimate move to stabilize the situation. General Sonthi Boonyarathglin must have thought that overthrowing the Thaksin government in 2006 was the only rational choice to save Thailand from falling into the abyss. Thus, it has become a norm for all coup-makers to refer to the need to conserve order and stability by exterminating a series of self-serving civilian regimes.

Old guards of the traditional power also assigned themselves a responsibility to preach the society of the necessity to protect “good people” from “bad people.” In the process, they labeled themselves “good people,” thus earning a legitimate right to call for the elimination of the supposed corrupt regimes. Of course, they explained away their behavior as an indispensable duty of checks and balancess. Without them, as they convinced themselves, instability would prevail.

Anand Punyarachun, Prawes Wasi, Siddhi Savetsila, Vasit Dejkunchon, Sumet Tantivejkul, and the likes, continued to serve as “mentors” in whom the society was supposed to have trust and faith, and respect for. Identifying themselves as the society’s guiding lights, these statesmen and public intellectuals performed effectively as eyes and ears of the dominant political network. Democratization was never a priority. Stability was.

But until recently, elements within this powerful network have come under threat, such as in the form of the rise of civilian rule, more visibly that of the Thaksin phenomenon. But more importantly, the transformation of the Thai economy as a result of the recent rapid economic growth, the emergence of Thailand’s regionalism and the expansion of middle-income villagers in remote provinces—all have become new challenges to the old power structure.

These changes have occurred at the time when the traditional stabilizers have got old and frail. Meanwhile, members of the new generation in the old political network need space to consolidate their own charisma. Time is not on their side, given they suffer from the lack of public respect and trust. Since the Thai power network has been defined and strengthened based on individualistic personalities—and these personalities are non-transferable—it is an uphill task for the new generation members to build up their own authority and power which are fundamental in playing the role of stabilizer.

Some of the old guard are in declining health, obviously no longer able to maneuver the political situation. Such incompetency opens the door to confusion and perhaps power struggles among members of the new generation to grapple with the unexpected political situation on their own. Some think that doing more is good for the old power, while others see that keeping quiet is actually the best move; this signifies the fragmentation within the traditional power network. The generational changes that are happening leave little room for political imagination. It is dangerous, not only for the survival of the old power, but also for the stability of the country as a whole.

This explains why Thailand has someone like General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the present army chief, who likes to comment on all things political, without any consideration of timing and place. Many in the new generation have gone further by exploiting the infamous lese-majeste law to punish their opponents—as act that is counterproductive to the old power in the long run.

Generational changes take place everywhere. In Myanmar, the retirement of the hardcore conservatives paved the way for greater democratization. In Thailand, unless the new generation in the old network comes to terms with societal and economic changes and the wave of democratization that has swept across the region, Thailand’s future will be bleak, particularly as the traditional stabilizers will turn out to be the source of political instability.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.