Thailand in 2020: Stirrings of Democracy

Prayuth's luster continues to dim

By Pavin Chachavalpongpun

Thailand’s marathon political crisis has been ongoing since 2006, the year Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was toppled in a military coup. Since that time, the country has seen six governments, six prime ministers, a conflict with its Cambodian neighbor and a brutal, deadly crackdown on red-shirt demonstrators right in the heart of Bangkok that took the lives of more than 85 including more than 80 civilians. Two foreigners and two paramedics also died. More drama would follow.

In 2014, the Thai military staged another coup. This time, it overthrew Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck. The coup, as I have argued elsewhere, was a plot designed to handle the imminent royal succession. King Bhumibol Adulyadej had been on the throne since 1946. There for several decades, Bhumibol was able to dominate Thai politics with the backing of the network monarchy of which the military had become a major part. With his advancing years, Bhumibol’s ill health began to worry members of the network monarchy. The end of the Bhumibol era loomed largely.

The Thai traditional elites were anxious about Bhumibol’s departure. They feared that the new king, Vajiralongkorn, Bhumibol’s son, would not be able to provide the same kind of security and interests for them. This anxiety drove them to stage a coup in 2014 to ensure a smooth royal transition. In the aftermath of Bhumibol’s death, Vajiralongkorn was crowned, putting to bed rumors that he might give up the throne to pave the way for a more popular choice, Princess Sirindhorn, his younger sister, or that other interests would seek to block his accession because of his volatile nature.

It has been more than three years since Vajiralongkorn began his kingship. Thailand has changed little. Thais have witnessed the consolidation of royal power. Vajiralongkorn moved to reorganize the power structure within the palace even before his father passed away. Part of this restructuring was the emasculation of the Privy Council.

Vajiralongkorn: Consolidator of Power

The Privy Council had once been a powerful institution serving as an engine driving the network monarchy. General Prem Tinsulanonda, a former prime minister and former army chief and a favorite of Bhumibol, was then the president of the Privy Council. However, it was an open secret that Prem and Vajiralongkorn did not get along. So with Vajiralongkorn taking control of the Privy Council, it not only served to augment his own power, but also allowed the removal of his political enemies in the process.

Vajiralongkorn requested that the constitution be amended in provisions related to royal powers. This eventually allowed him to reside in Germany full time without being needed to return to Bangkok or appoint anyone as his regent. He handpicked the new army chief, General Apirat Kongsompong, who ticked all the boxes as a strident royalist. Upon assuming his position, Apirat threatened the public with the statement, “A coup is necessary should Thai politics turn chaotic.”

After the elections of 2019, Vajiralongkorn endorsed General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the coup leader and the prime minister under military rule, to return to the premiership. His stamp of approval reiterated that Vajiralongkorn was comfortable working with an authoritarian regime. So far, he has shown no sign of support for the process of democratization for his country.

2020: What’s In Store?

The year 2020 will see Thai politics becoming increasingly intense. The Prayuth government has long labored under storm clouds for its inability to solve the country’s economic problems, nor been has it been able to improve the basic necessities of life for Thais. Not surprisingly, Prayuth’s popularity has nosedived. This suggests he might be shown the door this year with a replacement stepping in as prime minister. Rumors are growing in Bangkok that General Apirat could replace Prayuth for the top job. Surely, this move will need to be royally endorsed.

Meanwhile, on the opposite side, the rising Future Forward Party may play a greater role in shaping Thai politics. The party won impressively in the recent elections. Yet conditions within the constitution have served to obstruct the party in leading the government. Hence, the Future Forward Party has been compelled to remain in the Thai political ring as opposition.

The Future Forward Party has performed well in that role. Actually, it has done a little too well and traditional elites are looking at them as a challenge that has to be eliminated. Just as 2006 saw the forced exit of Thaksin, then 2020 will probably mark the end of the Future Forward Party. The question is whether the party will rise from the ashes. What will be the new role of its ever-charming leader, Thanathorn Jungrungruangkit?

Within the establishment, the elites know of the republican leanings of Thanathorn, previously vice president of his mother’s Summit Group, Thailand’s biggest auto assembler, and was connected to Matichon, one of the country’s biggest newspapers. His uncle, Suriya Juangroongruangkit, was Minister of Transport in the mid-2000s and is a leader of Palang Pracharat, a prominent pro-junta party.

Although Thanathorn has avoided projecting this image, his enemies have already planted a story of his insidious subversion, for this would give them legitimacy and the legal power to remove Thanathorn from the political space.

But things might not be so easy in 2020 as Thanathorn has the support of the youth. This was plain at a rally in Bangkok last month. There was an undercurrent of protest among the young activists, who have little memory of the greatness nor reverence of past Thai kings. Their pro-monarchy stance is no longer a given. That can be seen in the Twitter world with open criticism of the monarchy – Thais are more critical than ever in their opinions about the monarchy.

At this juncture, it remains to be seen if Thanathorn can exploit this trend for the benefit of the country’s democracy. Vajiralongkorn is an ambitious king, he has also become increasingly politically savvy. But he is not alone in the world of ambitious leaders. New leaders, like Thanathorn, are equally ambitious. 2020 could be the year when the two worlds collide. If the democratic side wins, Thailand will be a better place. But if the monarchists win instead, the space of democracy will shrink, if not totally disappear.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is Associate Professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies and an intermittent contributor to Asia Sentinel.