9 min read.Updated: 30 Oct 2020, 06:57 AM ISTRahul Jacob
The upheaval in Thailand could hurt the Asian Tiger that is already grappling with a middle-income trap
In the eyes of the demonstrators, the king is the antithesis of constitutional monarchs. The Thai monarchy’s $40 billion contrasts with the Queen of England’s assets of $500 million
As the Thai queen’s yellow Rolls Royce slowly made its way past a few dozen protesters calling for the resignation of the prime minister in the early evening of 14 October, the unthinkable happened. Even though they were hemmed in by security forces, several raised the three-finger salute, which has been adopted by student protesters from the film The Hunger Games in demonstration after demonstration in Bangkok since August. Many shouted “Our Taxes!" as Queen Suthida’s motorcade went by.
The incident was sparked by months of criticism of the lavish spending of King Maha Vajiralongkorn on social media in Thailand. The sharp increase in the money allocated to the royal family in the current Thai financial year, starting in October, in the midst of a downturn brought on by the pandemic, has inevitably proved controversial.
Just the day before, an investigative report by the Financial Times was widely shared because it estimated that the Thai king was one of the wealthiest monarchs in the world with a net worth in excess of $40 billion.
The repeated cries of “Our Taxes!" were spontaneous, but in Thailand, which has lengthy jail terms enforcing what can be said about the monarchy, and where people routinely prostrate or squat during royal audiences, sarcastic shouts at the royal family are an unheard-of provocation.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a retired general who took power in 2014 in a coup, seized upon the event to declare an emergency from the early hours of 15 October, leading to the arrest of prominent leaders of the protests. Instead of quelling the protests against the military and the monarchy, the demonstrations increased in size and spread outside Bangkok.
In an echo of the Hong Kong protests of last year, tens of thousands of high school and college students joined the protests day after day, wearing black and sharing information via Telegram about the locations designated for flash mob protests just as the young Hong Kong protesters had done. “The government is flummoxed," said a long-time foreign investor based in Bangkok. “They literally do not know what to do."
Within a week, PM Prayut was forced to lift the emergency, which he rationalized as an act of reconciliation. On Monday, his government told parliament that it would rewrite some parts of the constitution, but this is unlikely to win over the students who are demanding that Prayut resign and that the king function as a constitutional monarch.
Some are even calling for the abolition of the monarchy. This past week, students have even repeatedly mocked the king’s public thanking of a royalist who held up a photo of his father in the midst of an anti-government gathering.
While democracy has spread across Asia since the middle of the last century, Thailand has been an exception.
From the 1950s on, military rule has alternated with civilian governments, with the chokehold of the army increasing rather than ebbing in the 21st century. This October’s protests come 44 years after the Tiananmen-styled massacre of students on 6 October at Thammasat University in Bangkok who were protesting against the return to Thailand of a former military dictator, which proved a prelude to yet another coup. These protests are dramatically different in two respects though. They have targeted the monarchy and spread well beyond Bangkok.
For India, the land of smiles has long been a favourite travel destination, with more than 2 million Indian tourists visiting last year. Thailand has seemed the Asian country with which Indians have the closest cultural affinity. (The king’s popular sister, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, is a Sanskrit scholar.)
But the easy-going, warm hospitality of Thailand and its assorted pleasure-spots, which attracted 40 million tourists from across the world in 2019, has coexisted—since the military coup in 2014—with the regular disappearance of activists critical of the army, a throwback to dictatorships of the 1970s. As the respected political scientist Chris Baker recently observed, Thai dissidents are sometimes found “weighed down by concrete in the Mekong river", even when in exile in Cambodia and Laos.
Now, the potent combination of young people and their adeptness at accessing news on social media which is driving the demonstrations carries wider implications for India and Asia at large.
After decades of rising aspirations amid faster GDP growth, slowing economies across Asia will create political challenges. If the collapse of the Thai baht after a property-led investment boom led much of Asia into the Asian financial crisis in 1997, Thailand’s current upheaval is in many ways as significant.
Indeed, it is not just the prospect of bloodshed on Bangkok’s unforgettably colourful and lively streets where the immediate risks to Thailand’s stability lie. Years of 5%-plus growth in the early 2000s has ground down to an average of 3% after years of the military undermining politicians and circumventing election results. Last year, the fabled Asian Tiger saw GDP grow by just 2.4%.
Because Thailand’s educational standards has lagged behind countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia, it has for years now been viewed as “the poster-child of the middle-income trap", observes Tim Condon, an economist formerly with Morgan Stanley and ING. Bihar’s ongoing election is certain to be similarly influenced by the economic fallout of the pandemic in a state where one in every two households is a beneficiary of youthful migrants’ remittances.
Thailand is unique in having a military government in an unhealthily close relationship with a powerful monarchy. “One can’t breathe without the other," is how one well-connected Thai describes it. Thailand’s current impasse has been provoked by the steady aggregation of power by the current king who took direct control of the crown property bureau in 2018, two years after his deeply revered father passed away in October 2016.
In the eyes of the demonstrators, King Vajiralongkorn is the antithesis of constitutional monarchs around the world—from Scandinavia and Japan to the UK. The Thai monarchy’s $40 billion contrasts with the Queen of England’s assets of $500 million. King Vajiralongkorn is an anomaly: He is an Asian strongman, but akin to an absentee landlord. He spends most of the year in Germany in picturesque Bavaria.
As the protests in Thailand have captured headlines, the German foreign minister this month said his government would look into whether the king was conducting affairs of the state from Germany in contravention of its laws.
In the countryside of Bavaria and in the halls of the German government, the Thai king is now a cause celebre. When I asked a friend in Bavaria for comment, he responded, “He will have to pay 9% tax for his second homes here soon. We always pass his big two private jets at the airport—those are just the ones he uses for Europe trips."
The king is alleged to possess 38 aircraft, including four Boeings and three Airbuses. News of his de facto private airline and reports by the German tabloid Bild in March that the king had “isolated" himself with a harem of 20 concubines who had taken over an entire hotel in Bavaria has been widely shared on social media in Thailand, provoking anger and derision among the country’s youth.
On 26 October, between 5,000 to 10,000 demonstrators in Bangkok marched to the German embassy there demanding German Chancellor Angela Merkel take action. “The genie is out of the bottle," says an anti-establishment Thai journalist, sounding slightly shaken by the daring of the protesters. “No one has raised these questions before."
For the Thai military, being joined at the hip with the current king, as if they were what is colloquially called Siamese twins, is now a liability. King Bhumibol, the present king’s much-loved father, may have tacitly appeared to support the military coups of 1976 and 1992, but his birthday broadcasts, characterized by self-deprecating humour and religious philosophy, made him widely revered.
But the passing of the baton of power between short-lived civilian governments and the military spun out of control in the first decade of the 21st century after the Thai billionaire, Thaksin Shinawatra, vaulted onto the political scene. Thaksin’s proxy parties won elections in 2005, 2007 and 2011.
The Thai elites, including the military, found ways to force Thaksin’s loyalists out of power through coups and judicial intervention. Buoyed by continued support from the rural north of Thailand, Pheu Thai, a proxy party for Thaksin, who is in exile, won the most seats in last year’s election as well.
They finished comfortably ahead of the Palang Pracharat, the party of the military, even without Thaksin or his family members being able to campaign. General Prayut formed the government anyway: Through an all-too clever loading of the political dice, the military nominates the upper house’s 250 seats.
But it is the fate of another party that made a spectacular splash in last year’s election that drove home for young Thais that the political system is rigged. Despite gaining huge support among Bangkok’s young, Future Forward Party, led by a handsome 41-year-old Thai tycoon, Thanathorn Juangroongruankit, was disbanded in February after a constitutional court ruled the party and its founder were guilty of technicalities.
As in Hong Kong, this blatant manipulation of the past few elections provided fertile ground for the Thai protests currently underway.
Even more dangerous is that in order to overturn Thaksin’s victories, the Thai elite set up a “contest" between the “moral goodness" of the monarchy on the one hand and the “corruption" of the politicians on the other, as the academic Chris Baker explained last week to the Australian ABC News. This worked while King Bhumibol was alive, but the current king has the opposite of a gentle touch. His fleet of aeroplanes and unseemly behaviour in Germany notwithstanding, nearly everything he does becomes a public relations disaster.
The road ahead
Thailand is caught in a quagmire between a monarch unable to even make a show of yielding power and a military that has for generations believed that the spoils of the office must come its way, leaning on the king for its legitimacy. Both are arrayed against what one Thai observer worries are “hot-headed students" whose main leaders have been detained.
One possible outcome is that the unpopular prime minister, General Prayut, could be unseated in favour of the former army chief, Apirat Kongsompong. Apirat retired last month and showily embraced monkhood for a month in a monastery, “where he likely has very good Wi-Fi" to keep abreast of the developments in the capital, quips the long-time foreign investor based in Bangkok. Apirat is a hardliner, a staunch royalist and is believed to be close to the US ambassador to Thailand, a Trump appointee.
On 1 September, a respected former banker, Predee Daochai, abruptly resigned after just weeks as finance minister, amid speculation that he had refused to sign off on official corruption. It took more than a month to appoint his replacement. The episode was another reminder that the military, despite decades of practice, might not be up to the task of governing 21st century Thailand.
Short of genuinely free elections, it is hard to see even the outlines of a political solution. Other than Thanathorn’s Move Forward party and Thaksin loyalists who could likely win a free election together, it is hard to see which politicians still have the stature to arrest a downward spiral to instability and possible bloodshed.
And yet, as anyone who has visited Thailand will attest, it is still a society capable of compromise and resolving its many contradictions gracefully.
Rahul Jacob is a former Hong Kong bureau chief for the Financial Times
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