Efforts under way to bridge political divides in Thailand

Following the death of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej in October 2016, a major chapter in the history of the kingdom closed and another opened. With His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun now on the throne, the way ahead promises to be one of further development, with an active monarch as head of state. Meanwhile, the government of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) led by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha continues to rule following its removal of the civilian government in May 2014. In April 2017 King Maha Vajiralongkorn signed the new constitution, which paves the way for the restoration of democracy but also guarantees considerable powers for the military. The national elections were originally scheduled for 2016, but the date has been postponed several times. The elections are now expected to take place in May 2019.

Ancient Kingdom 

Archaeologists have uncovered evidence pointing to human habitation within what is now Thailand that dates back to prehistoric times. Given the densely forested environment, a succession of groups and tribes settled in the territory by moving along the north-eastern Mun and Chi, then Chao Phraya, river valleys. These were not primitive societies either; there is evidence that traders from these early civilisations had contact with ancient Rome.

The Thai people began to appear in the historical record around the 12th century AD, when Khmer inscriptions at Angkor Wat record the first mention of the “Siamese”. These people, now known as the Thai, are widely thought to have migrated into the region from Guangxi in modern-day China. They spread south, and by the end of the 12th century had established the Sukhothai Kingdom, with Sukhothai as the capital. At that time there was a second Thai mandala, or centre of power, called Lan Nan, which centred on Chiang Mai. Both of these were eventually subsumed into a third mandala known as the Ayutthaya Kingdom. This kingdom was initially located on a small island at the junction of the Chao Phraya, Lopburi and Pa Sak Rivers, which gave it a commanding geostrategic location. As a result, Ayutthaya rose to become a powerful South-east Asian empire, spreading over much of modern-day Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to encounter this civilisation, with east-west trade routes flourishing as a result. In the 16th century prosperity ensued, with some estimating that by 1700 the city had become the largest in the world. Yet Ayutthaya was also subject to repeated attack, largely by the rising Burmese kingdom. This conflict continued back and forth until 1767, when the city was sacked by the Burmese, putting an end to the Ayutthaya dynasty. Despite this defeat, the Thais recovered quickly under Taksin the Great, who rapidly ejected the Burmese. He built a new capital at Thonburi, located further downriver from old Ayutthaya. His successor, Somdet Chao Praya Maha Kasatsuek, went on to expand and grow the city, establishing the foundations of what is now the capital, Bangkok. As Rama I, he also brought in the Chakri dynasty, which still rules Thailand today.

Modern History

In the 19th century the British conquest of Burma as well as French colonialism in Vietnam and Cambodia both threatened Thailand’s independence. Rama I and his successors managed to skilfully navigate these difficult waters. As a result of these efforts, Thailand is the only country in the South-east Asian region that has never come under Western domination or colonisation. Major reforms and modernisations occurred during this time too, along with a number of treaties with Western powers, particularly under the rule of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). In the 20th century, the Kingdom of Siam, as it was known then, went through further changes. A revolution led by young officers broke out in 1932, resulting in the institution of constitutional monarchy. However, political instability continued, with the Second World War seeing the kingdom in the hands of ultra-nationalist pan-Thai forces. The country joined the Japanese side and secured territory in Cambodia, or what was then French Indochina. These territories were returned upon the defeat of Japan, though they remain a source of contention with Phnom Phen.

In the 1950s the Cold War saw Thailand emerge as a regional anti-communist bulwark, drawing the country ever closer to the US, as the wars in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia took their toll. Political instability continued, with periods of democratic rule alternating with military governments. Massive US investment in the country during the Vietnam War period also accelerated economic modernisation and urbanisation, with social tensions and stresses often underscoring the political turmoil. Post-Cold War, Thailand has become established as a major Asian economic power. However, the alternation between democratic politics and military interventions has continued, with the most recent military takeover occurring in May 2014.

Political Climate

Recent years have similarly been characterised by conflict between different political groupings, notably the “yellow shirts” and “red shirts”, which are named after the colours often worn by their supporters. The “yellow shirts” are largely supportive of the monarchy, based on older, more established urban communities, with a strong support base in Bangkok and the rural south. The “red shirts”, meanwhile, have their power base primarily in the rural areas of the nation, particularly the poorer north-east, and also have support amongst urban migrants.

The 2014 military intervention ejected the caretaker government of Prime Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan, of the red shirts, who had replaced Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, who was the main historical leader of the “red” faction. Thaksin had himself been prime minister between 2001 and 2006, before he was also overthrown by the military. He and his sister are two of the most controversial but popular figures in Thailand’s recent political history. After he had begun living outside of the country, Thaksin was sentenced to prison in absentia in 2008 for abuse of power, however, his influence over the opposition remains. In February 2017 Yingluck was put on trial, accused of corruption following the unsuccessful rice subsidy scheme that was implemented by her government. In August 2017 it was reported that she had fled the country after failing to appear for her trial.

Thailand faces the consequences of these past ruptures. To this end, the current government established a committee dedicated to fostering national reconciliation in order to overcome divisions. Many hope the year ahead will see progress in this regard, so that Thailand can be ready to resume democratic politics.

Constitution 

After taking power on May 22, 2014, the NCPO governed with an interim constitution. In August 2016 voters approved a new constitution in a referendum. The head of state is the monarch, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who has numerous rights and prerogatives, including the power to veto bills and issue decrees. On April 6, 2017 King Maha Vajiralongkorn signed the new constitution into law. This move was largely welcomed by the international community. Upon its signing, the military government promised to hold elections within the next 19 months, with civilian rule returning once a new government has been formed. The constitution signed into law by the king differs from the one approved by voters in August 2016. It grants the king more powers, and also allows him to leave the country without appointing a designated regent. Many of the main political parties, including Abhisit Vejjajiva’s Democrat Party and the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai Party, objected to a number of components of the new constitution.

System of Government

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is also head of the NCPO. He was formerly commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Army from 2010 to 2014. His military career included service in the 2nd Infantry Division, headquartered in the east of Thailand, which has been a source of a large number of the country’s military and political leaders in the past. He also served in the 21st Infantry Regiment, the Queen’s Guards, underscoring his commitment to the royal family. In addition to the prime ministership, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha directly commands the Ministry of Justice, the National Police Agency, the National Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council and the Office of the Attorney General, among other security and law and order portfolios.

The Cabinet has 36 members, including the prime minister and deputy prime ministers. Key Cabinet posts include Somkid Jatusripitak, the deputy prime minister heading up the Cabinet’s economic policy team; Don Pramudwinai as the minister of foreign affairs; Apisak Tantivorawong as the minister of finance; and General Anupong Paojinda as the minister of the interior. Each of these portfolios is also under the remit of a significant member of the NCPO.

The National Legislative Assembly (NLA) consists of 250 appointees, the majority of whom are serving as military or police officers. The remaining members are mostly former senators, business leaders and university rectors. The interim constitution also established the National Reform Council, which was subsequently replaced in October 2015 by the National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA). The NRSA comprises 200 members and has been charged with preparing action plans for the Cabinet concerning a wide variety of matters. It has formulated strategies and execution plans for national reconciliation, the elections roadmap, constitution drafting and nationwide reform efforts in diverse areas such as forestry and the media. In February 2017 the NCPO also created a new umbrella reconciliation committee to bring together four other committees concerned with reform and reconciliation. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha will head each of these committees, which are made up of members from the NRSA, the Cabinet and the NLA. The overarching aim of these structures is to reform and unite the country following the recent years of social strife in preparation for the coming elections.

Reshuffle

In the reshuffle of November 2017, 10 new faces joined the Cabinet, nine were removed and eight were given new assignments. There are now five senior figures in deputy prime minister positions: General Prawit Wongsuwon, who is also minister of defence and deputy head of the NCPO; Air Chief Marshal Prajin Juntong, who took on an additional role as minister of justice in the reshuffle; General Chatchai Sarikulya; Wissanu Krea-ngam; and Somkid Jatusripitak. Former justice minister Suwaphan Tanyuvardhana assumed the role of minister of the Prime Minister’s Office alongside Kobsak Pootrakool. Adul Saengsingkaew, a member of NCPO, was made minister of labour and was switched from his previous role as minister of social development and human security, where he was replaced by former minister of energy General Anantaporn Kanjanarat. Suvit Maesincee was appointed as minister of science and technology from his role as minister attached to the Prime Minister’s Office. Sontirat Sontijirawong was upgraded from deputy minister of commerce to minister of commerce, while Krissada Boonraj, former permanent secretary for the Ministry of Interior, was appointed as minister of agriculture and cooperatives, and Somchai Hanhiran, former permanent secretary for the Ministry of Industry, took over as deputy minister of industry. The Prayut administration also appointed several new faces, notably Weerasak Kowsurat as minister of tourism and sports from his position as chairman of the Thailand Convention & Exhibition Bureau; former CEO of PTT Pailin Chuchottaworn took over as deputy minister of transport; while Siri Jirapongphan, former executive director of the Petroleum Institute of Thailand, was promoted to minister of energy.

Judiciary

Thailand has four strands to its judicial system: the military courts, the courts of justice, the administrative courts and the Constitutional Court. The basis of all these is a blend of Western and Thai practices. For the courts of justice the highest court of appeal is the Supreme Court, beneath which Bangkok and nine regions also have courts of appeal. Beneath these are the courts of first instance.

The final court for the administrative courts is the Supreme Administrative Court, under which serve courts of the first instance. The role of the Constitutional Court is a key part of current debate; although the constitution allows the court, it is subject to the NCPO. Indeed, since the military takeover the NCPO and its leader officially have full judicial authority across the country. Additionally, the military courts have been given the power to try civilians for national security offences. Another significant difference between Thai legal practice and that in many other countries is that defamation is a criminal offence, rather than a civil one. In addition, private individuals can launch their own cases and do not have to pay court costs if they lose. There are strict defamation laws regarding the royal family in particular.

Local Authorities 

Administratively, Thailand is divided into 76 provinces, plus the Bangkok special administrative area. Every province is headed by a governor that is appointed by the Ministry of the Interior. Each of the provinces are then divided into districts led by district chiefs, with these then breaking down into sub-districts and municipalities. Under NCPO rule, political authority has been greatly centralised, with the military taking a much more pronounced role in both local and provincial matters.

Challenges

Whatever the composition of the government that assumes power after the expected elections in 2019, it will face some significant challenges. These include issues related to the urban-rural divide, distrust of the military in some civilian quarters, and regional disparities in wealth and opportunity. Newer challenges are also emerging, including the need to deepen integration with the ASEAN Economic Community, and develop a mutually beneficial strategy for trade and commerce relations with a regionally assertive China and an increasingly isolationist US. The risk of further global trade protectionist measures pushed by US President Donald Trump could threaten Thailand’s highly integrated place in the world’s manufacturing supply chains. The king – and potentially a new government come the 2019 elections – will thus have plenty on their agenda as they work to overcome divides and establish a stable political system.

However, the new constitution could also be problematic. Some critics have said that it may weaken the country’s main political parties as well as the democratic standards of forthcoming elections, as it places restrictions on public gatherings and the recruitment of new members under Section 44.

Outlook

The year ahead is shaping up to be one of transition, with the Thai electorate and international partners eager for the delayed elections to take place. Regardless of the results of the election, it is likely that the military will retain its powerful political presence within the framework outlined by the newly adopted constitution. However, the NCPO has promised stability and economic progress, something many Thais hope for as they await the opportunity to vote.

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This article is from the Country Profile chapter of The Report: Thailand 2018. Explore other chapters from this report.