Calls to Curb the Crown’s Writ Put Thailand on Edge
Calls to Curb the Crown’s Writ Put Thailand on Edge
Briefing 121 / Asia

泰国:下一场暴风雨前的平静?

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

概述

当局镇压反政府示威的事件过去近一年后,泰国正在筹备大选。红衫军虽然遭到政府压制却仍颇受拥戴,同时国内政治分歧的鸿沟犹存。泰国总理阿披实・维乍集瓦所推行的和解路线图几乎毫无进展。虽然红衫军在遭到镇压后曾制造手法拙劣的爆炸事件,但他们并没有像人们恐惧的那样发动地下战争。另一方面,虽然黄衫军早先曾帮助现任的以民主党为首的政府上台,现在却转而宣称在“肮脏”的政治环境下选举毫无意义,并鼓励泰国公民拒绝向任何党派投票。即使选举在自由、公正、和平的环境下进行,要让各方承认其结果仍然阻力重重。任何由王室施压凑成的联合政府只会成为红衫党重新发动大规模抗议的靶心,而泰国将陷入更加激烈的暴力冲突。

2010年3月至5月间发生的红衫军运动造成了92人死亡,成为泰国现代史上示威者与当局之间发生的伤亡最为惨重的冲突。政府动用武力虽然挫伤了红衫军的力量,却未能将其铲除。红衫军仍有数以百万计的支持者,并且在北部和东北部尤其受到拥护。虽然政府逮捕了红衫军领袖,封锁其媒体,切断其通讯渠道,这一切只是让红衫军更坚定地认为自身是政府迫害的对象。部分红衫军强硬派的边缘分子选择以暴力来进行报复,但其领袖重申了以和平手段进行政治斗争的承诺。下一场斗争将在投票箱前进行,而红衫军将全力支持它的参选机构——为泰党。

泰国持久不断的冲突始于2006年,当时王室、军方和司法系统等精英当权派的支持者组建了以“黄衫”为标志的人民民主联盟(民盟)同泰国前总理他信·西那瓦及其同盟展开了斗争。当年9月的军事政变将他信赶下台,但反当权派运动——即反独裁民主联合阵线(反独联),俗称红衫军——也同时兴起。2008年,民盟发起运动力图关闭曼谷机场从而导致僵局,法院通过判决解除了对峙,同时迫使他信的“代理”党——人民力量党——下台。这一系列事件的结果是在军方支持下,由民主党领头建立了联合政府。两年后,极端民主主义的黄衫军倒戈先前的盟友,开始在政府大楼外抗议,指责阿披实在同柬埔寨就柏威夏寺边境领土的争端中未能保卫“泰国领土”。 民盟呼吁一位“英明”的领导来取代现任总理,此类言论引发了民众对军事政变的忧虑。

阿披实已声称将加快实施关键选举规则的修正案,并在5月的第一个星期解散议会。在军事政变传言纷纷的情况下,阿披实正加紧选举的准备工作。民主党希望新规则及选举前的慷慨举措能为其赢得足够的席位来领导新的联合政府。他信在大部分选民中仍然深受拥护,而且在实际意义上由他信领导的为泰党很可能成为占有席位最多的党。政府的组建过程将会充满争议。反独联已经发出威胁说如果为泰党获取相对多数席位但不得以组建政府,将重新走上街头举行示威。任何王室插手施压的明显迹象将重新引发抗议并点燃暴力冲突。反之,由于黄衫军很难与一个他信“代理”政府和平共存,因此如果为泰党获得足够席位来领导新政府,黄衫军或许会重振势头。

尽管选举并不会消除政治分裂,大选后的政治气象仍然会阴云密布,但泰国仍然应该将选举进行到底。广泛公开的选举规则及地方和国际观察员的独立监督将会提高选举结果的可信程度而且将竞选活动中的暴力活动降到最低。如果新政府组建成功,将会重树权威和重建民信,从而领导长期努力达到真正的政治和解。

曼谷/布鲁塞尔,2011年4月11日

Nearly a year after the crackdown on anti-establishment demonstrations, Thailand is preparing for a general election. Despite government efforts to suppress the Red Shirt movement, support remains strong and the deep political divide has not gone away. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s roadmap for reconciliation has led almost nowhere. Although there have been amateurish bomb attacks carried out by angry Red Shirts since the crackdown, fears of an underground battle have not materialised. On the other side, the Yellow Shirts have stepped up their nationalist campaigns against the Democrat Party-led government that their earlier rallies had helped bring to power. They are now claiming elections are useless in “dirty” politics and urging Thais to refuse to vote for any of the political parties. Even if the elections are free, fair and peaceful, it will still be a challenge for all sides to accept the results. If another coalition is pushed together under pressure from the royalist establishment, it will be a rallying cry for renewed mass protests by the Red Shirts that could plunge Thailand into more violent confrontation.

The Red Shirt demonstrations in March-May 2010 sparked the most deadly clashes between protestors and the state in modern Thai history and killed 92 people. The use of force by the government may have weakened the Red Shirts but the movement has not been dismantled and is still supported by millions of people, particularly in the North and North East. Arresting their leaders as well as shutting down their media and channels of communication has only reinforced their sense of injustice. Some in the movement’s hardline fringe have chosen to retaliate with violence but the leadership has reaffirmed its commitment to peaceful political struggle. The next battle will be waged through ballot boxes and the Red Shirts will throw their weight behind their electoral wing, the Pheu Thai Party.

The protracted struggle between supporters of the elite establishment – the monarchy, the military and the judiciary – and those allied with ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra began with the formation of the “yellow-shirted” People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) in 2006. The September 2006 coup removed Thaksin from power but prompted the emergence of a counter movement: the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) or Red Shirts. The PAD’s campaigns to close down Bangkok airports in 2008 created deadlock that was resolved by a court ruling that removed Thaksin’s “proxy” party – People Power Party – from power. This led to the formation of the Democrat-led coalition government, backed by the military. Two years later, the ultra-nationalist Yellow Shirts have apparently split from their former allies and are protesting outside Government House against Abhisit’s alleged failure to defend “Thai territory” in the Preah Vihear border dispute with Cambodia. The PAD’s call for a “virtuous” leader to replace the prime minister has raised concerns that it is inviting the military to stage a coup.

Abhisit has stated he will dissolve parliament in the first week of May after expediting the enactment of legislation to revise key electoral rules. He is moving quickly towards the elections amid rumours of a coup. With the new rules and pre-poll largesse, the Democrat Party hopes to secure more seats and position itself to lead another coalition. Thaksin is still popular with much of the electorate and there is a strong possibility that his de facto Pheu Thai Party could emerge as the largest party. The formation of the government is likely to be contentious. The UDD has threatened to return to the streets if Pheu Thai wins a plurality but does not form the government. Obvious arm bending by the royalist establishment to this end is a recipe for renewed protests and violence. Should the opposite occur, and Pheu Thai has the numbers to lead a new government, the Yellow Shirts might regain momentum; they are unlikely to tolerate a “proxy” Thaksin government.

While elections will not resolve the political divide and the post-election scenarios look gloomy, Thailand nevertheless should proceed with the polls. A well-publicised electoral code of conduct and independent monitoring by local and international observers could help enhance their credibility and minimise violence during the campaign. If installed successfully, the new government with a fresh mandate will have greater credibility to lead any longer term effort to bring about genuine political reconciliation.

Bangkok/Brussels, 11 April 2011

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.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.