Inside Story

Thailand’s battle for the future continues

Can a tide of popular opinion prevail over a defensive conservative elite?

Greg Raymond 18 July 2023 1684 words

Move Forward leader Pita Limjaroenrat at a rally of supporters in Bangkok on 9 July. Adirach Toumlamoon/Pacific Press/Sipa USA

It was a day rich with political symbolism. On 27 June this year 151 MPs presented themselves for induction into Thailand’s new parliament following the May national election. All were from Move Forward, the young party that stormed home to claim more seats than any other in the House of Representatives.

The symbolism lay in the fact that 27 June is the anniversary of the day in 1932 when Thailand promulgated its first-ever constitution. By gesturing towards that milestone, almost as much as in any of its policies, Move Forward demonstrated why it is on a collision course with Thailand’s two most powerful conservative institutions, the military and the monarchy.

The new party is on a mission to reclaim the legacy and promise of the 1932 revolution, which formally ended Thailand’s absolute monarchy but merely marked the beginning of a long struggle between progressives and an alliance of royalists and military officers. That struggle has seen thirteen coups, twenty constitutions, and rule by the military or its proxy parties for seven out of every ten years since 1932.

Move Forward’s quest to end that cycle — in the same way South Korean and Indonesian reformers ended their periods of authoritarian rule — will mean redefining the meaning of “constitutional monarchy” to ensure that the monarchy truly is above politics and below the law, in the same way that constitutional monarchies are in Japan and England. If the party is successful, it will settle a fundamental question unresolved in Thailand to this day: where does sovereignty lie, with the people or the monarchy?

Move Forward’s extraordinary support — a doubling of its vote compared with the 2019 election, when it arrived on the scene as the Future Forward party — indicates its project is increasingly resonating with many ordinary Thais, and especially young people. They wish their country to be “normal,” well governed and prosperous, and their leaders to be modern and accountable, perhaps in the manner of wildly popular Bangkok governor Chadchart Sittipunt, a hardworking politician who has set precedents in transparent and efficient governance.

Since the ascent of Rama X and the rule of military dictator General Prayuth Chan-ocha, Thailand has headed in precisely the opposite direction. Following Prayuth’s 2014 coup and Vajiralongkorn’s 2016 ascent to the throne, signs of absolutist monarchical rule and a wish to erase memory of the 1932 revolution have proliferated. Even the historic plaque commemorating the 1932 revolution disappeared, replaced by another that proclaimed: “Loyalty and love for the Triple Gem [Buddha, Dharma and Sangha], one’s clan and having an honest heart for one’s king is good. These are the tools to make one’s state prosper!”

The new monarch appointed, dismissed and then reappointed a royal consort (the first since the era of Rama V, 1868–1910), seized control of the monarchy’s financing organisation, the powerful Crown Property Bureau, and set about establishing a private army with two personally controlled regiments. Future Forward, which boldly opposed the last of these in 2019, was marked as a potential hotbed of lom chao (those who would overthrow the monarchy) and dissolved by a Thai Constitutional Court in the same year.

Prayuth, for his part, rammed through a new constitution with minimal public debate or consultation. To increase the scope for conservatives to dictate the country’s direction without resorting to coups, it gave 250 junta-appointed senators an equal say in appointing the prime minister, harking back to the “half-baked democracy” of the 1980s when Thai military officers retained seats in parliament. Prayuth refused to swear allegiance even to this illiberal constitution following the 2019 election, reserving his pledge of loyalty for the monarch.

The illiberal constitution and its appointed Senate worked exactly as intended after the election in May this year. Although Move Forward’s leader, young former businessperson Pita Limjaroenrat, assembled a 312-seat coalition — a clear majority of the House of Representatives — his nomination for the prime ministership was denied on 13 July. Senators were able to block Pita simply by abstaining from voting, depriving him of the votes he needed for his coalition of 312 to reach 376, a simple majority of both houses. In the end, a paltry thirteen senators ventured to support him.

The joint sitting was Thai politics in microcosm, showing vividly the divide between those who speak for average Thais and those who place the monarchy above all. On one side was a coalition representing more than twenty-five million voters (out of thirty-eight million) in the party-list count and more than twenty million (also out of thirty-eight million) in the constituency seat count. On the other side stood a group primarily representing the former junta, the military, the monarchy and the business oligarchs who have benefited from the absence of transparency and accountability of a junta-led regime.

The chasm was apparent in the statements made by Pita and his foes. Pita offered a vision based on his party’s campaign promises, with plans to break up the monopolies that stifle the Thai economy, undertake educational reform to end archaic practices like rote learning, and institute political reform to devolve more power to the regions and security reform to look afresh at the bloody two-decade-long conflict in Thailand’s south.

The senators, along with the parties aligned with the military, offered but one reason for their opposition to Pita: his party’s pledge to reform the notoriously draconian and illiberal section of the Thai criminal code law known as section 112. Intended to prohibit lèse-majesté — insults to the monarchy — the section has been used to imprison minors and other Thais “liking” the wrong post on Facebook. Anyone can make a section 112 allegation, trials are held in secret and penalties go as high as fifteen years’ jail. The provision has been used to silence political debate on the monarchy’s role in Thai politics, including its validating of Thailand’s coup-makers.

The joint sitting saw the pro-monarchist minority parties launch a ferocious and at times wildly hyperbolic attack on Move Forward’s claim to the country’s leadership. If section 112 was reformed, one Bhumjaithai party MP ranted, he would introduce a new law allowing people to shoot those who insult the monarchy.

Most of the Senate, in contrast, were coolly indifferent. Some forty-three senators didn’t even attend the session. All of Thailand’s military commanders, granted Senate positions in the 2017 constitution, were indisposed; many Thais wish they would exhibit the same indifference to politics when enjoined to conduct coups.

Of the thirteen senators who crossed the floor to support Pita, none were from the three armed services, despite many retired soldiers making up the Senate. Indoctrinated throughout their military education with the belief that monarchy is sacred, inviolable and indispensable to their country’s security, they are implacably opposed to any notion of monarchical reform, no matter how moderate. If the democratic coalition achieves government, reform of military education will surely be a priority.

In response, speakers from the democracy coalition sought to allay concerns about the section 112 reform proposal. Some pointed out that the section had been amended many times; others noted that the policy belonged only to the Move Forward Party and was not included in the agreement between the eight parties making up the coalition. Their arguments fell on deaf ears, as did Pita’s final plea to the senators, “May your decision reflect the hopes of the people, not of your own fears.”

With characteristic pragmatism and resilience, Move Forward then set out a new roadmap. It would appeal to the Senate once more in a repeat session on Wednesday 19 July and thereafter seek an amendment to section 272 of the constitution, which gives senators a role in selecting the prime minister. If this fails, as it is likely to, they will then move aside to allow the party with the second-greatest number of seats, Pheu Thai, to nominate one of its candidates for the prime minister. [In the event, Pita was suspended from parliament by the constitutional court on 19 July pending a judgement on his alleged holding of shares in a media company, in violation of election law.]

Will Pheu Thai’s nominee gain Senate support? It will be irony indeed if senators endorse the party torn down by coups in 2006 and 2014.

What does seem certain is that the conservative parties, including Prayuth’s United Thai Nation Party and his former deputy and military comrade Prawit Wongsuwan’s Phalang Pracharat, won’t attempt to form a minority government with Senate backing. Prayuth has declared an intention to retire from politics, and such a government would be only theoretically possible, even with Senate support. It could not pass laws or survive a no-confidence vote unless it could quickly pull members across from the democratic coalition, a prospect that seems unlikely.

Many twists and turns remain on the road to a new Thai government. If the constitutional court were to rule that Pita’s alleged shareholding disqualifies all Moving Forward members, a government more palatable to the monarchy and military could yet return. In an era of sophisticated authoritarianism, regimes have many ways of cloaking their authoritarian impulses beneath the trappings of democratic process, with the courts a favoured method of disabling political opponents.

In the meantime, Move Forward won’t retreat from its goal of revitalising the vision of the 1932 revolutionaries against the seeming tide of absolutism. On the eve of the Senate vote, one of its leading figures, MP Rangsiman Rome, advocated that Thailand’s national day should revert to 24 June, the date of the 1932 revolution. While some decried this as inflammatory and tactically wrong-headed, Move Forward knows that younger voters are far less reverent of the monarchy and want their country to modernise. With each election bringing in roughly four million young voters, can Thailand’s conservative elites continue to resist this change?

As the biggest economy in mainland Southeast Asia, Thailand exerts significant influence. All its neighbours are authoritarian regimes well practised in denying their people a real say in governing their countries. Will Thailand continue, along with China, to be an authoritarian centre of gravity, legitimising dictators and sharing authoritarian tools and techniques? Or can it represent something more hopeful? •