Calls to Curb the Crown’s Writ Put Thailand on Edge
Calls to Curb the Crown’s Writ Put Thailand on Edge
Report 192 / Asia

跨越泰国政治的深刻鸿沟

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执行摘要

保皇派集团与前总理他信·西那瓦的盟党之间的争斗愈演愈烈,致使泰国政治两极化日益深刻。这种两极分化近来引发了日益激烈的政治对抗:草菅人命,近2000人受到伤害,国家精神受到巨大创伤。阿披实·为乍集瓦所领导的政府单方面提出了政治和解路线图,但若没有包括他信在内的反对派参与,路线图也只不过是死路一条。如果没有支持他信的红衫军参加,那么对暴力冲突的可信调查、持久的法律改革和妥善处理社会不平等等问题就不会取得进展。如果红衫军的领导者被拘捕、驱逐或是逃亡在外,那么这一切都不可能发生。泰国政治的首选是重新举行和平公正和被所有人接受的选举,通过选举可以探明这个国家是否已经步入正轨或仍在迷途不返。泰国应取消正在其大部分地区实行的紧急状态令,以避免进一步损害其民主制度, 阻碍迫在眉睫的和解,以及为未来致命冲突埋下伏笔。

2001年和2005年他信以压倒性支持率连续赢得选举,泰国政治因此发生了翻天覆地的改变。他信出身警界并曾是电信业大亨。由于贫困阶层从他所实施的平民主义政策中获益,比如低成本医疗服务,所以他信很快就深得人心,支持率迅速上升。但与此同时,他愈演愈烈的独断专行和腐败统治也激怒了城市中产阶级。保守党人担心他信日益上涨的声望会危及他们的地位。这些以国王枢密院以及军事和司法机构为核心的力量受到“黄衫军”的支持。他们共同致力于将他信从政坛中清除并削弱其影响。2006年初,他信政府先是受到人民民主联盟(PAD)大规模示威的挑战,紧接着其政权被军事政变所推翻。在他信流亡国外后,他的政党在2007年5月经法院裁决解散。同年不久,代理党接管政权,但后也被法院禁止。在经受着军事压力和未重新进行任何民选的情况下,一个由总理阿披实领导的新的民主党执政联盟走马上任。

尽管是以如此违宪的方式失去政权,他信从来都不是强弩之末。他的支持者团结在反独裁民主联盟(UDD)周围,并很快发展成为团体运动。“红衫军”的领导者身份不一,既有议会成员,也有被禁的政治家,甚至当红电台主持人,而其支持者则是城市和乡镇的贫民阶层。他们共同构成了一股举足轻重的力量,对垒于有军事支持和各种组织力量庇护的阿披实政府。二月末,法庭下令没收他信财产,反独裁民盟(UDD)又一次示威游行,要求进行大选。他们占据了曼谷的商业中心拉差巴颂(Rachaprasong)路口,并猛攻议会,最终致使泰国在4月7日宣布首都曼谷及其周边进入紧急状态,责令禁止示威,关闭媒体,无须起诉即可逮捕嫌疑人。严厉的法律保证官员免于起诉,其适用范围很快就在5月19日扩大到了24个省,相当于整个国家的三分之一。四月和五月间的两起冲突以及其他一些暴力事件导致90人被害,而之后示威游行则遭到大规模的军事炮火镇压。

镇压游行后,胜利的政府以为街头的秩序已经恢复,然而它低估了镇压所加深的政治鸿沟。要达到和解泰国所需要的不仅是一个“路线图”,而是一种各方都平等参与达成的政治共识。政府因此必须淡化激烈的言辞,包括不再使用“恐怖分子”来称呼他信和红衫军领导者。对反对派来说,他们应该公开声明放弃武力,拒绝武装人员,并呼吁他们的支持者也照此执行。而那些致力于和平抗议的人士也应该重获权利,从而扮演更积极的政治角色。过去和未来的犯罪行为都应该受到公平的起诉。

从长远来看,泰国需要深刻思考如何对其政府系统进行更广泛的政治改革,包括思考君主和军方所扮演的角色,财富共享,司法公正,权力下放。作为和解进程的一部分,政府应全面调查近期的暴力事件从而尽快进行新的选举。选举应在和解进程的开始就着手进行,而不是作为和解进程的结果。选举产生的新政府应有新的合法使命,在各方接受的情况下进行已达成共识的改革。为实现这一目标,目前的政府需要停止独断专权并转而选择开放、包容和民主的方式来解决泰国所面临的问题。

曼谷/布鲁塞尔, 2010年7月5日

Executive Summary

The protracted struggle between the royalist establishment and those allied with ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has left Thailand deeply polarised. It sparked the most violent political confrontations in recent times, killing people, injuring nearly 2,000 and inflicting deep wounds on the national psyche. The government of Abhisit Vejjajiva’s unilateral offer of a “road map” to national reconciliation will lead nowhere without the participation of its opposition, including his deposed predecessor. A credible investigation of the violence, enduring legal reforms, and properly addressing societal inequities cannot succeed without the Thaksin-aligned Red Shirt movement. This cannot happen if its leaders are detained, marginalised, or on the run. Fresh elections that are peace­ful, fair and accepted by all sides will be the first test to see if the country is back on track or has lost its way. Thailand should lift the emergency decree imposed over large swathes of the country or risk further damaging its democracy, hindering much needed reconciliation, and sowing the seeds of future deadly conflict.

Thai politics changed significantly when Thaksin, a former policeman and telecom tycoon, won successive election landslides in 2001 and 2005. His popularity rapidly rose among the poor who benefited from his populist programs, such as low-cost health care. At the same time, his increasingly autocratic and corrupt rule angered the urban middle classes. Conservative elites also feared that his growing popularity would challenge their dominance. These establishment forces revolving around the King’s Privy Council, the military and the judiciary were supported on the streets by “Yellow Shirt” protestors. Together they worked to remove Thaksin from politics and erode his influence. In early 2006, Thaksin’s government was first challenged by mass demonstrations by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and subsequently ousted by a military coup. While in self-imposed exile abroad, his party was disbanded by a court ruling in May 2007. A proxy party took power later that year, only to be also banned by the courts. Under military pressure and without a fresh poll, a new Democrat Party coalition led by Prime Minister Abhisit took office.

Despite losing power in such an unconstitutional manner, Thaksin was never a spent force. His supporters rallied around the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) that soon became a movement larger than any one person. Led by a divided leadership of members of parliament, banned politicians and even popular radio hosts, the “Red Shirts” drew support from the urban and rural poor. They formed a pivotal force that rallied against the military-installed government and the establishment-backed Abhisit administration. After a court ordered the seizure of Thaksin’s assets in late February, the UDD again took to the streets demanding an election. Their occupation of Rachaprasong intersection in Bangkok’s business heart and storming of the parliament ultimately saw a state of emergency declared in the capital and its vicinities on 7 April, allowing authorities to ban demonstrations, shut down media, and detain suspects without charge. The draconian law, which grants officials immunity from prosecution, was later extended to cover 24 provinces by 19 May – one third of the country. Two major clashes in April and May and a few other violent incidents killed 90 before the streets were cleared in a hail of military gunfire.

In the wake of the crackdown, a triumphant government sees that it has restored order to the streets, but it under-estimates the deeper divisions this response has created. More than a “road map” to national reconciliation is needed; a new political consensus should be built with the equal involvement of all sides. Heated rhetoric needs to be toned down, including abandoning the use of the term “terrorist” to brand Thaksin and Red Shirt leaders. For their part, opposition figures should publicly renounce violence, reject armed elements, and urge their supporters to follow this lead. Those committed to peaceful protest should be given their rights back so they can again become politically active. Past and future criminal behaviour should be prosecuted in an even-handed manner.

In the long run, Thailand needs to think deeply about much broader political reforms of its system of government, including the role of the monarch and military. Wealth needs to be shared, justice delivered equitably, and power decentralised. The recent violence needs to be investigated fully as part of a reconciliation process that will allow new elections as soon as possible, with the polls being the beginning and not the end of the process. This new government, with the legitimacy of a fresh mandate and if accepted by all sides, would be the one to move forward with any agreed reform agenda. To get there, the current administration needs to turn away from authoritarianism and choose open, inclusive and democratic means to solve the nation’s problems.

Bangkok/Brussels, 5 July 2010

A Buddhist monk walks with pro-democracy protesters as they carry large inflatable ducks during a march to the 11th Infantry Regiment as part of an anti-government rally in Bangkok on 29 November 2020. Jack TAYLOR / AFP
Commentary / Asia

Calls to Curb the Crown’s Writ Put Thailand on Edge

Young pro-democracy protesters have roiled Thai politics with a previously taboo demand to reform the country’s monarchy. As the state resists change, and conservative citizens recoil, the risk of violence is growing. The standoff poses Thailand’s existential question: is the king sovereign or are the people? 

At a small, rain-soaked pro-democracy rally in Thailand’s north-eastern city of Nakhorn Ratchasima in early October, three young women staged a performance entitled “Who Killed the People?” Appearing first as a trio of anonymous figures bound together by tangled cords, through silent dance and mime their roles emerged: monarch, military and people. In the play’s denouement, “the military” killed “the people” – invoking the massacres of pro-democracy protesters in 1973, 1976, 1992 and 2010 – while the third character struck a regal pose and waved to the crowd. The “monarch” then wrapped the corpse in a Thai flag and deposited her among the audience. 

In a country where public discussion of the monarchy was taboo until just a few months ago, this performance was one of innumerable examples of the creativity and fearlessness of Thai youth in pressing for change as part of the protest movement that has rattled the kingdom since July. It was also an encapsulation of the protesters’ narrative: Thailand’s ruling establishment, including the monarchy, is oppressive; in opposing this establishment, the protesters are heirs to a tradition of resistance to autocracy and dictatorship; and their struggle is a matter of life and death.

Events have unfolded incredibly fast. Earlier this year, a burgeoning student-led pro-democracy movement had been energised by the judicial dissolution of the progressive Future Forward Party, a new formation which captured some six million votes in the 2019 general election. The pandemic soon hamstrung the movement but, after lockdown was lifted in June, protests began to regain momentum, further galvanised by the enforced disappearance of an exiled activist in Cambodia. Protesters demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, leader of the 2014 coup d’état who remained in office following the 2019 elections; a new constitution reflecting popular participation to replace the 2017 charter drafted by the junta’s appointees; and a fresh general election.

A new chapter opened on 3 August when Anon Nampa, a human rights lawyer, publicly called for bringing the king under the constitution. A week later, at another rally, student Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul read a detailed ten-point manifesto on reforming the Thai monarchy. Since these earthshaking events, this demand has shifted from the edges of a quixotic quest – what protest leaders called a “dream” at first – to the movement’s core. Unimaginable just a few months ago, the call for reform is an unvarnished expression of the legitimacy conflict that has beset Thailand since the absolute monarchy ended in 1932, namely: who is sovereign, the people or the king?

The movement has fused political and cultural issues.

The Nakhorn Ratchasima rally was one in a series staged in the provinces leading up to a major demonstration planned for Bangkok on 14 October, in part to commemorate the 1973 student-led uprising that brought down a corrupt military dictatorship. Several of the speakers were high school students, who have imbued the movement with much of its verve and indignation, directed especially against the sclerotic educational system. The range of issues addressed on stage reflected how the movement has fused political and cultural issues. Topics included everything from the need for safe and affordable public transport to the harmony of democracy, feminism and gender equality; from authoritarianism and corruption to class discrimination in schools; and from abuse of conscripts in the military to the need for constitutional change and monarchical reform. The common denominator, expressed in both the event’s style and its substance, was the imperative of overturning the rigid hierarchies that characterise Thai politics and society – and rejecting the servility and deference inherent in royalist nationalism. 

Coming at the King

It was inevitable that the monarchy’s role would change after the 70-year reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, or Rama IX, the ninth ruler of the Chakri dynasty. But even after his death in October 2016, this change was difficult to envision largely because his reign had come to define the Thai monarchy in the popular imagination. The palace was weak and subordinate to the military when he ascended the throne as a teenager, but in alliance with the military and the business elite, King Bhumibol worked hard to restore the institution’s power and prestige. From the late 1970s to the 2006 coup d’état, the monarchy achieved new heights of moral authority and influence. This period represented the Bhumibol consensus, an era of royalist hegemony with three main characteristics: it was driven by elites and their interests; distribution of power and benefits was hierarchical and clientelist, rather than egalitarian; and it was authoritarian, with a strong moralistic bent. 

From the late 1970s to the 2006 coup d’état, the monarchy achieved new heights of moral authority and influence.

The unravelling of the Bhumibol consensus began before the 2006 coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose electoral prowess stood as an implicit challenge to the monarchy, and picked up pace as the king’s health declined in his final decade. As Thaksin’s parties continued to dominate elections, officers orchestrated another coup, in 2014, leading to five years of military rule, a new constitution (Thailand’s twentieth) designed to limit elected authority, and a stilted 2019 general election that resulted in the junta’s top leaders remaining in power. An unspoken rationale for the coup was for the junta to preside over the royal succession.

Many observers of Thai politics anticipated that the reign of Bhumibol’s only son, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, would coincide with a waning of royal prestige, not least because Thais had already formed opinions about the crown prince’s character; his mother once described him as a “Don Juan” and he has been married four times. Since ascending the throne, Rama X has acted repeatedly to aggrandise himself, for example, requiring changes to the 2017 constitution – after it was approved in a referendum – to facilitate his rule from abroad, forbidding his older sister from running for political office, and taking personal control of the Crown Property Bureau’s vast wealth. He has spent most of his reign in Germany, apparently at leisure.

The 14 October rally in Bangkok marked a turning point, bringing the monarchy directly into the fray. A royal motorcade carrying the queen and the king’s son took an unanticipated detour through an area where demonstrators were gathered. The protesters were non-violent, but they jeered the procession, some shouting “My fucking taxes!” This incident, which scandalised royalists, served as a pretext for the government to declare a “serious state of emergency”; three people were later charged with “threatening the queen’s liberty”, which carries a sentence of sixteen years to life in prison. Two days later, the Border Patrol Police deployed water cannons against peaceful protesters in central Bangkok. The images of students armed with umbrellas hosed down by dyed water laced with chemical irritants won the movement the public’s sympathy. Defying the ban on demonstrations, protesters rallied almost every day, attracting ever larger crowds. The government rescinded the serious state of emergency after only a week.

The 14 October rally in Bangkok marked a turning point, bringing the monarchy directly into the fray.

Since then, protests have repeatedly targeted the royal institution. On 26 October, tens of thousands marched to the German embassy, urging investigation of the king’s activities in Germany, while on 8 November, demonstrators were stopped by the police as they attempted to deliver their letters of grievance at the Grand Palace. The following week, thousands of protesters at the Democracy Monument turned their backs on a royal motorcade, raising the three-finger salute (a gesture of defiance borrowed from the Hunger Games film series, which has become a symbol of the protests) and singing the national anthem. On 18 November, graffiti left at a protest scene in front of the national police headquarters insulted the monarchy in profane terms. 

Protest leaders declared their intention to rally at the Crown Property Bureau office on 24 November but, in light of heavy security deployments, changed their target to the Siam Commercial Bank, in which the king is the largest shareholder. Speakers outside the bank’s headquarters that night criticised the monarch’s expansive and opaque financial holdings. Five days later, they rallied in front of the 11th Infantry Regiment base to highlight the king’s assumption of direct control of key Bangkok military units.

Royalist Reactions

The sudden emergence of a popular, youth-led movement questioning the role of the palace in Thai politics is of epoch-making significance. Royalist nationalism has been the cornerstone of Thailand’s political order for decades, enshrined in successive constitutions as “the democratic system with the king as head of state”. The state portrays the monarchy as one of the kingdom’s three pillars, along with nation and religion. A movement to place the monarchy within a framework of accountability threatens the prevailing political order – especially the generals and oligarchs who most benefit from it.

The sudden emergence of a popular, youth-led movement questioning the role of the palace in Thai politics is of epoch-making significance.

The Prayuth government has struggled to handle the protests. Apart from blocking protesters from reaching certain symbolic locations, authorities have so far permitted demonstrations to proceed, focusing their energy on heaping charges on the main leaders but also granting them bail. Its only sop to the movement has been to allow parliament to consider amending the constitution. Few, however, are optimistic that these deliberations will result in substantive change. With the junta-appointed senate in effect wielding a veto, many see the process as a charade aimed at preserving the status quo rather than accommodating demands for change. 

In the face of increasingly strident and unfiltered public denunciations of the monarchy, the government is shifting from a permissive approach to a firmer, more suppressive strategy. On 19 November, Prime Minister Prayuth stressed that “all laws and all articles” would be brought to bear on the protesters – a clear indication that charges under Section 112 of the Criminal Code, the lèse-majesté law that carries a penalty of three to fifteen years, could be revived. Since then, at least 33 people, mostly protest leaders, have been summoned to face charges under this law, including a sixteen-year-old. In June, Prayuth acknowledged that the law had been in abeyance since late 2017 at the “merciful” king’s request, leading many to wonder who is responsible for the sudden reversal in policy. 

Meanwhile, the palace has undertaken an atypical public relations offensive. The king came back from Germany on 10 October for an unusually long sojourn in his domain. Various religious and ceremonial duties have afforded opportunities for the royal family to greet their ardent supporters. These stage-managed events are a departure for the king, whose persona during his normally brief visits to the kingdom had so far been austere and aloof. The campaign suggests a concerted effort to rally royalists and improve the monarch’s image. But the king’s well-publicised words of encouragement to prominent ultra-royalists during some of these events, and statements appearing to take sides in the political conflict, have done nothing to soothe tensions. These public appearances stand little chance of swaying the protesters.

Conservative Thais are unnerved by the demands for monarchical reform.

Conservative Thais, however, are unnerved by the demands for monarchical reform and, most recently, the open discussion of republicanism. Reactions have often been frantic. Given the royalists’ belief that love of the monarchy is an essential trait of Thai-ness, they blame foreign interference for the protests. On 27 October, a small group demonstrated in front of the U.S. embassy, accusing Washington of waging “hybrid war” on Thailand; signs held by protesters singled out the conspiracy theorists’ bête noire, George Soros. Even Prime Minister Prayuth has hinted that malevolent foreign forces are instigating the protests, though he has offered no evidence. 

Royalists rail against those they call “nation haters” and have urged reactionary measures. Some have advocated for social sanctions against protesters, such as denying them employment or asking parents to disown their rebellious children. On 9 November, a group under the banner of the People’s Network to Protect the Royal Institution delivered letters to the prime minister’s office and the army commander calling on the government to “shut down” the country in the monarchy’s defence, which many interpreted as a demand for a coup. The leader of the Thai Pakdee (Loyal Thai) group, former politician Warong Dechgitvigrom, even suggested that absolute monarchy should be temporarily restored as a way out of the crisis.

Sectarian Rift?

The fevered royalist response points to the moral dimension of the conflict in Thai society. Under King Bhumibol, the Theravada Buddhist notion of the king as a future Buddha and perfect being was revived in the service of royalist nationalism. As Patrick Jory writes in Thailand’s Theory of the Monarchy (2016), the egalitarianism inherent in democratic politics “posed a mortal threat” to a political order based on hierarchy and deference. As a result, those who challenge the status quo “have been represented by their royalist opponents as morally reprehensible”. 

Religious undertones impart an unpredictable and explosive dynamic to the current moment. Many older Thais who came of age in the heyday of King Bhumibol’s reign internalised the link between hierarchy and morality, and are disconcerted at demands for change. Still others, especially those who benefit most from the status quo, are furious. To royalists, those who demand monarchical reform are not just disloyal but heretical. In late October, the arch-royalist and retired General Dr. Rianthong Nanna, told a reporter that it was “natural” for loyal Thais to use violence against the monarchy’s critics. Demonisation of opponents and casual justifications for brutality highlight the risk of violence looming over Thailand as a new generation, impervious to the reverence their elders are accustomed to, refuses to back down. As tensions rise, there is a growing possibility of miscalculation, inadvertent confrontation or even acts of provocation that authorities could use to justify a crackdown. 

The risk of violence has grown significantly since pro-monarchy counter-demonstrators have started taking to the streets in recent weeks.

The pro-democracy protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, particularly compared to earlier waves of mass demonstrations. But the logic of non-violent social movements does not preclude violent outcomes, and the risk of violence has grown significantly since pro-monarchy counter-demonstrators have started taking to the streets in recent weeks, often organising rallies in proximity to the pro-democracy gatherings. On 17 November, near parliament, police retreated from their position between the two groups, allowing for violent scuffles. More than 50 people were treated for injuries, mostly related to inhalation of tear gas, but at least six people were shot (none fatally) by unidentified gunmen. 

Street protests alone will not upend the status quo. The protesters achieve leverage only when the establishment coalition begins to fracture. There is anecdotal evidence that many rank-and-file police officers and civil servants are sympathetic to demands for reform, but protests have not achieved the critical mass that would compel people to choose sides. A decision to defect from the establishment may have many causes, such as a recalculation of material interests, or developments that prick the conscience, like state violence against peaceful protesters. A Thai analyst called the activists’ strategy a “gambit … to provoke the police enough so that they will clamp down hard on the protesters” in order to sway public opinion. It is unlikely that the government could forcefully quash criticism of the monarchy without also exciting the opposition of greater numbers of Thai people.

How Does It End?

Absent from royalist analysis is a positive argument for how Thai people benefit from maintaining a royal institution that is staggeringly wealthy, politically engaged and above the law. Instead, as political scientist Suchit Bunbongkarn observed in Monarchy and Constitutional Rule in Democratizing Thailand (2012), royalists tend to argue that political legitimacy is culturally specific, and that reverence for the monarchy is essential to Thai culture. Thus, one hears royalist claims that “All Thais love the king”, Thais cannot tolerate criticism of the monarchy and critics of the king cannot be real Thais. In a defence of the lèse-majesté law (in the same volume cited above), royalist legal scholar Bowornsak Uwanno argued that any limits on freedom of expression arising from Thailand’s defamation laws “reflect the ethical and cultural norms that most Thais adhere to”. Such contentions raise the question of whether the kingdom’s laws are a reflection of apparent norms, or their cause. 

And what happens when norms change? The protest movement should be understood as an effort to bring social and political institutions into better alignment with emerging cultural norms and the need for structural change. Many protest leaders recognise that the horizon for the reforms they seek necessarily extends years into the future. One of their slogans, “Let it end in our generation”, combines a sense of urgency with an acknowledgment that change takes time. Whatever happens next, long-term transformation is already in train. Bowornsak conceded that culture is not static: “As the Buddhist law of impermanence states, everything, the lèse-majesté law included, arises, exists and perishes, as the society’s ethical and cultural norms evolve in accordance with this same Buddhist law. Nothing is permanent”. 

The question is, can the conflict be managed so that, in the near term, Thailand avoids the spasms of violence that have occurred in the past when popular sovereignty has challenged the royalist status quo? The signs are discouraging. Thailand’s history points to a pattern of state violence against proponents of change. The conflict’s high stakes reduce prospects for compromise and divisions are hardening. Finally, there are no institutions or mechanisms not already implicated in the conflict available to help strike bargains. The obvious pathway out of the crisis is to empower elected institutions that can reflect the popular will, reconcile majoritarianism with protection of fundamental rights, and manage a process of achieving a fresh consensus on political legitimacy. But Thailand’s parliament, enfeebled by the 2017 constitution and the powerful appointed senate, is unlikely to serve this function. By resisting change, the government is increasing the likelihood of a dangerous confrontation.

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