The Thai Monarchy: Relevance and Oppression (GP Topic: Politics, Society)

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Thailand, a country known for its incredible street food, stunning beaches, and the occasional sighting of an elephant strolling down the road, also boasts one of the oldest monarchies in the world. Yes, you heard it right, an actual monarchy! In a time when kingdoms seem more fitting for fairy tales than reality TV, the Thai monarchy stands tall, commanding respect, and navigating the choppy waters of tradition and modernity. But let’s dive in and uncover the reasons for its existence, areas of influence, and the challenges it faces, without getting too tangled in the royal tapestry.

To understand the Thai monarchy, we must delve into its historical foundations. Throughout the centuries, the monarchy has symbolised stability, unity, and continuity in Thai society. It has served as a unifying force, transcending political changes and providing a sense of identity and pride to the Thai people. Rooted in tradition and revered as the protector of Buddhism, the monarchy embodies the nation’s cultural heritage, with rituals, ceremonies, and a revered royal family at its core. The influence and power of the Thai monarchy extend across multiple domains. One significant area is the spiritual realm. As the Defender of the Buddhist faith, the monarchy plays a crucial role in promoting and preserving religious traditions. Given how 94% of the Thai population is Buddhist, they remain very influential and significant. The King is often seen leading important religious ceremonies and patronising monastic institutions, reaffirming the monarchy’s connection to the spiritual well-being of the nation.

Another area where the monarchy holds influence is politics. While Thailand has transitioned to a constitutional monarchy, the monarch still holds significant sway. The Thai King serves as the head of state and represents the embodiment of national unity. Over the years, the monarchy has been involved in delicate political matters, acting as a stabilising force during periods of political uncertainty. The monarchy’s influence is further enhanced by the reverence and respect accorded to the King, giving his words and actions great weight among the Thai people. For example, in 2017, Thailand underwent a process of drafting a new constitution as part of the military junta’s roadmap for political reform. After the constitution was drafted, King Maha Vajiralongkorn gave his endorsement to the document, signifying his approval. The king’s endorsement was seen as a crucial step in legitimising the new constitution and providing a sense of continuity and stability to the political process. In this aspect, Thailand’s monarchy stands out from others such as the Windsors, as they possess the ability to influence the trajectory of politics – they aren’t purely ceremonial. 

Despite all that the Thai Monarchy stands for, challenges are still coming their way in recent years, just as other remaining monarchies in the world face scrutiny and debate over their relevance in today’s world. The political landscape in Thailand has witnessed periods of instability, leading to tensions between different factions. This has occasionally led to direct challenges to the monarchy’s power, with some demanding a reevaluation of its role in a modern democratic society. Despite its enduring significance, the Thai monarchy faces challenges that have tested its authority and position in recent times. Notably, a series of coups and political upheavals have shaken the stability of the country’s democratic institutions. 

In 2006, a military coup deposed then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, leading to political polarisation and social unrest. Another significant challenge arose in 2014, when the Thai military once again seized power, overthrowing the government led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister. The military justified its actions by citing the need to restore order and protect the monarchy, but it further intensified political divisions. The 2014 coup sparked debates about the monarchy’s role and its relationship with political power. Some critics argued that the monarchy’s association with military interventions weakened its position as a neutral and impartial institution. However, open discussions about the monarchy remain sensitive due to the country’s lese-majeste laws, which impose severe penalties for perceived insults to the monarchy.

Lese-majeste laws in Thailand criminalise insults or defamation against the monarchy, aiming to protect its dignity and honour. These laws have faced criticism for their subjective interpretation, which can lead to restrictions on freedom of speech and expression. Offenders can face severe penalties, including imprisonment, fines, and legal repercussions. The laws have been used to suppress political dissent and discourage criticism of the monarchy. For example, Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, also known as Pai Dao Din, is a student activist who was arrested in 2016 for sharing a BBC article on his Facebook page that was considered defamatory to the monarchy. He was charged with lese-majeste and faced up to 15 years in prison. In 2017, Jatupat was sentenced to two and a half years in prison, reduced from five years due to his guilty plea. His case sparked international attention and raised concerns about the freedom of expression in Thailand. Calls for reform or abolition of the lese-majeste laws have emerged, but discussions on this topic remain sensitive due to the perceived violation of the monarchy’s authority regardless.

Apart from the aforementioned lese-majeste laws, other measures curtail freedom of speech in Thailand. Laws similar to Singapore’s defamation and sedition laws are present in Thailand, preventing hateful speech or any talk that incites rebellion. In 2019, when a civilian government was to be elected, there were great hopes for reform for governance in Thailand. However, a rigged re-election of the junta prime minister, Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha, signalled worse developments to come for free speech. Since the coup, authorities have summoned 929 individuals for “attitude adjustment” sessions, and those perceived as problematic have faced threats, harassment, and surveillance. When intimidation tactics proved ineffective, the junta resorted to arbitrary arrests, detentions, and prosecutions of its critics, utilising a combination of criminal laws and newly enacted decrees under martial law and the 2014 interim constitution. Minister Prayut even expressed zero-tolerance for criticism directed towards his government by stating, “No one can oppose me. If they still don’t learn that, they will be detained again and again.… I might tape their mouths shut, too.”

Such an authoritarian government definitely did not bode well with the people, with pro-democracy protests breaking out in July 2020 against Minister Prayut, demanding for the dissolution of parliament, ending intimidation of the people, and the drafting of a new constitution. On August 3rd, two student groups made public demands for monarchy reform, breaking a long-standing taboo of openly criticising the monarchy. In the following months, a rally took place with an estimated attendance of 20,000 to 100,000 protesters, which was seen as a direct challenge to King Vajiralongkorn. Following more mass protests later in October, a state of emergency was declared in Bangkok, citing allegations of a royal motorcade being blocked. During this period, the police employed water cannons in a crackdown.

In November, the Parliament voted to pass two constitutional amendment bills, but their content effectively shut down the protesters’ demands of abolishing the Senate and reformation of the monarchy. Other government responses included filing criminal charges using the Emergency Decree, media censorship, arbitrary detention and police intimidation. As such, in recent years, free speech is definitely non-existent in Thailand – be it surrounding the government, or the monarchy.

For A Level GP Paper 1, students have an opportunity to evaluate the relevance and oppression surrounding monarchies by using the Thai case study. Students can discuss the challenges the monarchy faces, such as political instability, military interventions, and the restrictions imposed by lese-majeste laws, which curtail freedom of speech and expression. Analyse the controversies surrounding the use of lese-majeste laws to suppress dissent and the impact on individuals like Jatupat Boonpattararaksa to show how monarchies may not be in the best interest for modern societies like Thailand, who are calling for more liberties. Furthermore, students can explore recent pro-democracy protests and the extent of the demand for monarchy reform, such that the government had to respond with arrests, intimidation, and censorship to show how it has become less relevant or desired. For balance, do mention the historical foundations of the monarchy, its role in unifying the nation, and its influence in the spiritual and political domains as a reason for their remnant standing in society.

As Thailand embarks on its adventurous journey through the twists and turns of the 21st century, the fate of the Thai monarchy remains a topic of lively debate. Alongside these discussions, the importance of freedom of speech adds an intriguing flavour to the mix. Will the monarchy skilfully ride the royal wave, while embracing open dialogue and witty banter? Or will it find itself in a comical tangle of challenges, in need of a royal stand-up act to navigate the modern currents? The coming years will reveal whether the Thai monarchy can strike a delightful balance between tradition and progress, all while creating an atmosphere where freedom of speech can flourish. After all, in a world of uncertainty, the monarchy’s ability to adapt, engage in playful exchanges, and listen to diverse voices will determine if it remains a treasured pillar of Thai society or becomes a whimsical relic of the past.

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