Democracy is the most popular political system all around the globe, although each country shows a different degree of democratization. In the book Saying the unsayable: monarchy and democracy in Thailand, Pattana Kitiarsa, an assistant professor of Asian Studies at National University of Singapore, argues that Thai culture is incompatible with the Western democracy, and numerous scholars describe Thai approach to politics as “Thai-style Democracy” (TSD). The main point of the article is to demonstrate that a Buddhist kingdom, embedding the Thai-style democracy, can never fit in the Western-style democracy, either its substantive or procedural definition, and that the Buddhism kingship makes it more difficult for Thai people to embrace this political system.
The Thai term beep Thai (Thai-style) cannot be used as a qualifier of prachathipatai(democracy) because this political system is too far from the notion of democracy used by political scientists. Indeed, democratic scholars such as Schumpeter, Dahl and Sartori could not explain Thai democracy either with a substantive or with a procedural definition of democracy. A substantive democracy aims at achieving the common goal of the society through equality, fairness and inclusion, while a procedural definition deals with how democracy works in a technical procedure.
From a substantive definition, Thai politics is only representing the interests of the elite and royalties. After 1932, the People’s Party limited king’s power and they forced him to abdicate. In its abdication letter, King Prajadhipok admitted the significance of democratic institutions that recognize the voice of the people. As the authors of the book argue, this statement should not be trusted in its entirety, because the democratization of monarchists is proportionate to their political strength. Indeed, in 1949, the strong conservative party approved a constitution that gave the king the power to fully appoint the Senate, and the royalists pursued their aim by arguing that will of the people cannot be trusted.
Moreover, a democratic system should provide explicit provisions for equity and inclusiveness, but the Thai government limits the freedom of expression and plurality of its citizens by obliging a single way of thinking, the Thainess. In 1992, for instance, the king allowed the military to shoot demonstrators who were opposing the authoritarian government, as they were demanding for a democratization of the country. Although unity is an essential element for king’s legitimacy, the continuous desire of a unified Thai culture leads the government to impose hard measures, and their brutality prevents people from developing new beliefs.
Following the procedural definition in the Polyarchy, Dahl argued that democracy is characterized by two dimensions, namely opposition and participation. The former represents the right to dissent and to counter government’s policies, while the latter requires every citizen to be involved in the political process. Since its independence, the Thai-style democracy has been reluctant to concede political and civil rights to their citizens when they could have threatened king’s sovereignty.
First, in Thailand, the only tool for the opposition does not come from voters or political parties but from “coups d’état“. Since the end of the Second World War, there have been seventeen military putsches, and, because of them, every time a new constitution was proclaimed that eliminated or weakened political parties. In addition, these coups are considered a positive aspect for the Thai-style democracy, and they are often used to replace elected prime ministers with unelected generals. Although many of the generals, such as Prem Tinsulanonda and Sarit Thanarat, worked very close to the royalties, the king was never charged with accusations of conspiracy openly. Any coup reinforced and concentrated the power of the king, and now the constitution of 2007 declares Thailand as ‘democracy with the king as head of state’. In addition, the centrality of the king is assured by the lèse-majesté law that considers unconstitutional any act of disloyalty towards the royalties. Consequently, any offender or persona non-grata to the conservatives is arrested, leading Thailand to the collapse of the democratic opposition.
Second, although the right to vote is extended to every citizen, excluding the clergy, Thai participation cannot be considered fully democratic. Elections are often declared “dirty” due to corruption scandal and vote buying of any party. In addition, voters feel extremely weak, and they are aware that they have no power in shifting the government’s interests. Since 2006, after the coup that overthrows Thaksin as prime minister, the anti-royalist movement “red shirts” emerged in this new scenario, and a political turmoil hit Thai-style democracy. However, after the 2007 constitution, many supporters were persecuted and jailed for disloyalty, showing that the king is the only winner of this battle for political participation.
Lastly, Buddhism kingship has created a cult of personality in Thailand that concentrates too much power in hands of the elites. As Thai society is organized in hierarchies, based on age, wealth and occupation, farmers are considered at the bottom of the social heap while elites are on the edge. Unfortunately, this stratification nullifies the cornerstone of democracy that affirms that each is to count for one and for no more than one. Besides, constitutionalism is fully controlled by the king who can easily act above the constitution on the behalf of his interests. Although monarchies are present in several countries of Europe, the system of checks and balances is properly enforced to safeguard citizens’ rights and to limit royalties’ greed for power.
On balance, monarchy and democracy can coexist, but Thai culture is incompatible with the Western idea of democracy, as Pattana Kitiarsa claims. Recently, Thai people are “opening their eyes” and they are starting to reconsider their feelings towards the deceiving royalties. Nevertheless, the Buddhism kingship is still the major obstacle to overcome, and the only way to achieve a substantive and procedural democracy is to put an end to the Thai-style democracy.