Following the death of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej in October 2016, a major chapter in the history and politics of this ancient 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) continues to rule, led by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. The national elections and the return to democracy was originally scheduled for 2016 and then 2017, has now been postponed to February 2018 due to the death of the king. In April 2017 King Maha Vajiralongkorn officially signed off on the new constitution, however, details will not become public until they become law.
The new constitution’s supporting organic laws are likely to be put in place in the lead up to new balloting. How that constitution will work out in practice remains to be seen, but any fresh government will have to face many challenges. These include some long-standing issues, connected to urban and rural, and civilian and military divisions, and regional disparities in wealth and opportunity.
Other challenges, however, are new. In addition to negotiating increased integration with regards to trade relations, including the further deepening of the ASEAN Economic Community, Thailand faces heightened global political uncertainty and fragmentation, meanwhile China is strengthening its position in the region, and the US considers changes to its foreign trade policies under its new presidency. Meanwhile, rising global protectionism may have implications for Thailand’s highly integrated place in the world’s manufacturing supply chains.
The new king – and potentially, a new government come the 2018 elections – will thus have plenty on the political agenda, as it works to establish a stable political system whilst overcoming existing divides.
Archaeologists have uncovered evidence pointing to human habitation, within what is now Thailand, that dates back to prehistoric times. Given the densely forested environment of the time, 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 by no means primitive societies either; there is evidence that traders from these early civilisations may have had contact with ancient Rome.
The Thai people, however, begin to appear in the historical record around the 12th century AD, when Khmer inscriptions at Angkor Watt 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 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 great 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 also established a new capital at Thonburi, 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.
In the 19th century the British conquest of Burma and French colonialism in Vietnam and Cambodia both threatened Thailand’s independence. Even so, Rama I and his successors managed to skilfully navigate these difficult waters, establishing the country as the only one in the region never to have 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 then was, 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 World War II 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. Upon the Japanese defeat these territories were then returned, although 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.
Recent years have also been characterised by conflict between different political groupings, notably the “yellow shirts” and “red shirts”, named after the colours often worn by their supporters. The “yellow shirts” are largely monarchy supports, based on older, more established urban communities with a strong support base in Bangkok and the rural south. The “red shirts”, meanwhile, have a 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 2001-06, before he was also overthrown by the military. He is one of the most controversial figures in recent Thai political history. After he had begun living outside of the country, he was sentenced to prison in absentia in 2008 for abuse of power, however, his influence over the opposition remains. Meanwhile, in February 2017 Yingluck was put on trial, accused of corruption following the unsuccessful rice subsidy scheme that was implemented by her government.
Thailand now faces the consequences of these past ruptures, with the current government establishing a committee for fostering national reconciliation to try and overcome divisions. Many hope the year ahead will see progress in this regard, so that Thailand can be ready to resume democratic politics.
Since taking power on May 22, 2014, the NCPO has ruled Thailand under a regime of martial law. The country had been governed by an interim constitution. However, August 2016 saw voters approve a new constitution, which helped pave the way for a return to democracy. The head of state is the monarch, now 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. The military government has promised to hold elections within the next 19 months, and when a new government is formed civilian rule will return. The constitution signed into law by the king differs slightly 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.
The NCPO is headed by Prayut Chan-o-cha, who is also the prime minister. He was formerly commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Army from 2010-14. His military career included service in the 2nd Infantry Division, headquartered in the east of the country, which has been a source of a large number of Thailand’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, Prayut Chano-cha also commands the Ministry of Justice, the National Police Agency, the National Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council and the Office of the Attorney General, amongst other security and law and order portfolios.
The other members of the NCPO include six deputy prime ministers. The first, General Prawit Wongsuwan, is the minister of defence and deputy chairman of the NCPO. The second, General Tanasak Patimaprakorn oversees the ministry of foreign affairs, and the third, Admiral Narong Pipatanasai looks after the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Public Health and the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security. The other deputy prime ministers are: the third service chief, Air Chief Marshal Prajin Juntong, – who has the agriculture and cooperatives, commerce, labour, finance and transport ministry portfolios – Somkid Jatusripitak and Wissanu Krea-ngam.
There are three more members of the NCPO: secretary-general Teerachai Nakwanich, a deputy commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Army; deputy secretary-general Chatudom Titthasiri, also an army deputy commander-in-chief; and NCPO spokesman Winthai Suvaree, an army colonel.
In addition, the NCPO also has a Board of Consultants. This is chaired by Prawit Wongsuwan, the current minister of defence, who also held that title in the Abhisit Vejjajiva government of 2008-2011. The board also contains a number of vice chairs and consultants, charged with giving advice to the NCPO.
System Of Government
The Cabinet, meanwhile, currently has 36 members, including the prime minister and deputy prime ministers. Key posts include Somkid, the deputy prime minister heading up the Cabinet’s economic policy team, Don Pramudwinai, who is the Cabinet’s foreign minister, Apisak Tantivorawong, the minister of finance, and General Anupong Paojinda, the minister of the interior. Each of these portfolios is also under the remit of a significant member of the NCPO. The NLA, meanwhile, consists of 250 appointees, the majority of whom are serving military or police officers. The remainder are largely 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). This has 200 members and has been charged with preparing action plans for the cabinet concerning matters such as 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 established a new umbrella reconciliation committee, which brings together four other committees concerned with reform and reconciliation. Prayut Chan-o-cha will head each of these committees, which also contain members of the NRSA, the Cabinet and NLA leaders. These structures will look at strategies for reform and for bringing the country together, following recent years of social strife, in preparation for a future return to elections.
In August 2016 a referendum approved a new draft constitution to replace the interim constitution. Certain provisions of this were, however, adjusted upon recommendation from the new king, with adjustments. In April 2017 the king signed off the changes to the constitution. However, the new constitution was objected to by the main political parties, Abhisit Vejjajiva’s Democrat Party and the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai Party.
Thailand currently has four distinct 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 pracwtices.
The highest court of appeal for the courts of justice is the Supreme Court, beneath which Bangkok and nine regions also have courts of appeal. Beneath these are the courts of first instance. For the administrative courts, the final court is the Supreme Administrative Court, under which serve courts of the first instance. The role of the Constitutional Court is a key part of the current debate for the new constitution; the interim constitution allows the court, but it is subject to the NCPO leadership.
Indeed, since the military takeover, under Section 44 of the interim constitution, the NCPO and its leader have full judicial authority throughout the country. The military courts have also 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. Additionally, private individuals can launch their own cases and do not have to pay court costs if they lose. There are also strict defamation laws regarding the royal family in particular.
Thailand divides into 76 provinces, plus the Bangkok special administrative area. Each province is headed by a governor, who is appointed by the Ministry of the Interior. Each province is 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 local and provincial matters.
The year ahead looks to be one of transition, as the new king takes over and the new constitution takes final shape. Efforts for national reconciliation look set to continue, although to what degree they will include all segments of Thai society remains unclear. The role of the king may also be expanded, while the military seem likely to continue to exercise a powerful presence within any new constitutional framework. The NCPO promises stability, a quality that many Thais may continue to wish for as the nation moves into the period of change ahead.