Is Thailand better off as a monarchy

Thailand's monarchy as a drag on democracy

On January 23, 2012, the journalist and activist Somyot Pruksakasemsuk was sentenced to a total of eleven years in prison. The judges considered it proven that he had violated the so-called "Lèse Majesté" law by publishing two articles in the "Voice of Thaksin" magazine in 2009.

The law in Thailand criminalizes any critical expression of opinion against the king, his family or the monarchy. It has been a thorn in the side of human rights organizations for years. Since its introduction in 1908, the law has been used repeatedly to silence political opponents. "It seems like the courts are increasingly becoming the supreme protector of the monarchy. This is at the expense of freedom of expression," said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, in view of the recent case.

The hidden power factor

Thailand activist Somyot Pruksakasemsuk in court

The Lèse Majesté Law is only the visible expression of a much deeper problem: it is about the abundance of power of the monarchy, which is beyond control.

Officially, Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932. This means that the power of the king is restricted by the constitution. In Thailand, however, this restriction is extremely opaque, explains Jost Pachaly from the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Bangkok: "The monarchy plays an important role in the background. But the role is so difficult to assess because it is not reported and nobody knows anything about it . "

These indefinite powers contributed and still do much to the constant struggle for supremacy in the country. Political scientist and Asia expert Marco Bünte describes Thailand's history as a "vicious circle of military coup, constitution, crisis and renewed military coup." The monarchy played a major role in this.

The seizure of power by the monarchists

When the king ascended the throne in 1946, the monarchy was on the brink, as the author Paul M. Handley writes in his King Bhumibol biography "The King Never Smiles". In the following years, however, the king and the members of the monarchy succeeded in strengthening their position: "Bhumibol's regaining of power and prestige of the monarchy was no accident, but the fruit of a painstaking, determined and sometimes unscrupulous effort by persistent princes", so Handley.

The king's power is based primarily on reputation and moral integrity. With enormous financial and propaganda efforts, the image of a godlike Buddhist king - a "Dharmarajas" - was built, in which many Thais believe to this day. The trick, according to Handley, is "exercising power without having political power". Usually this happens through the Privy Privy Council, in which former members of the government and ex-military are represented, who still have connections to the switching points of power. The decisions of the council are secret and are therefore beyond any democratic control. As a result, the country has become a Buddhist-theocratic society according to the motto "nation, religion and king", writes Handley.

In addition to the immense power of the king based on charisma and prestige, there is his wealth. The property is not assigned directly to himself, because that could damage his Buddha-like image. Instead, the money is officially administered by the Crown Property Bureau (CPB). The CPB is a completely independent institution, belonging neither to the palace administration nor to the state, nor is it a private company. It is not only responsible for the real estates of the royal family, but is also involved in the largest companies in the country. It doesn't pay taxes. It's hard to put a figure on your fortune, but Forbes Magazine estimates that the Thai monarchy spends more than € 370 million annually.

Democracy is not making headway

The riots of 2010 raged in Bangkok for weeks

The political and economic power of the royal family is particularly problematic because no one is allowed to report on it due to the Lèse Majesté law. "This means that an important figure in Thailand's political and economic landscape is operating in the dark," says Jost Pachaly from the Heinrich Böll Foundation and also gives an example: the so-called red and yellow shirts in Thailand have been fighting for power and influence for many years. The red shirts support a political movement called the United National Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship. Their power is based primarily on the support of the rural poor. The yellow shirts organize themselves in the "People's Alliance for Democracy". They are loyal to the king and are mainly recruited from the urban middle class, the military and the administration.

2010 saw the most violent clashes to date, killing 90 people and injuring more than 1,000 over three months. Following these disputes, a national reconciliation process was initiated, but it is not progressing, as Pachaly observes: "Everyone is talking about the reconciliation process, but there is no progress because both main groups position themselves and wait." Observers assume that there will be a power vacuum after the king's death. It cannot be ruled out that the country's political forces will fight so bitterly for power that it could lead to a civil war scenario.

The monarchy is therefore not only an obstacle to democracy during the king's lifetime, but also a real danger to the stability of the country if the king dies.