Last weekend, a strong majority of voters in Thailand approved a new constitution that will undoubtedly cement the military’s control of the country. The new constitution includes changes to the voting system that will make it exceedingly difficult for any one party to win a majority, making coalition governments and deadlock the likely norm. However, the new constitution also makes the Senate entirely appointed (appointments ultimately decided by the military) and enhances the power of the Senate to supervise the lower house and to be the final decider in the case of deadlock in the lower house. Campaigning was banned in the run-up to the vote, though military leaders continued to speak in favor of the draft constitution.
The Thai military currently rules the country unopposed after a coup in 2014 that removed the government of Yingluck Shinawatra. That coup occurred in response to months of protests by opponents of Shinawatra, accusing her government of being secretly led by her brother Thaksin Shinawatra (currently in self-imposed exile). The Shinawatra clan and the political parties they have led have won every election in the country since 2001, usually by substantial margins. The main base of Shinawatra support comes from rural, poorer regions attracted by the Shinawatra governments’ increased investment in rural areas and their opposition to the traditional “Bangkok elite”. Supporters of the Shinawatra’s are referred to as “red shirts”. Their opponents are, predictably, the traditional “Bangkok elite”: the military, monarchists, and wealthy urbanites. This grouping is known as the “yellow shirts” (yellow being the color of the king). The yellow shirts accuse the Shinawatra’s, and particularly Thaksin, of corruption, disloyalty to the monarchy, and of attempting to monopolize power within their family. The last point is the most potent. Many in Thailand fear a Shinawatra dynasty dominating politics akin to the Nehru-Ghandi clan in India, and the Shinawatra’s have indeed used the power of their office to support their businesses blurring the lines between politics and business. The opposition between these two groups has dominated Thai politics since the early 2000s and continues to do so today.
In this light, the new Thai constitution represents an attempt by the military to hold on to power and to prevent the Shinawatra’s (and any other would-be political dynasties) from ruling the country. Hanging above this dispute, is the King. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is deeply revered in Thailand, but given his age and poor health is unlikely to rule much longer. As reported by the BBC
His eventual passing, and the accession of a far less popular son, will shake up the network of military officers, senior bureaucrats, tycoons and courtiers who currently wield influence at the top, with unpredictable consequences for Thailand’s political stability.
Jonathan Head, BBC
The military will seek to rule the country at least through the succession, to ensure as smooth (and beneficial to them) of a transition as possible. The monarchy and the military are deeply intertwined and are threatened by the Shinawatra clan’s blending of political power and business success. Democracy is put on hold in the interest of maintaining power.
In such an environment, yesterday’s series of bombings in Thailand are perhaps just a portent of worse to come. It is unclear who carried out the bombings but the message they sent is apparent. The bombings overwhelmingly targeted tourist sites undoubtedly seeking to disrupt the economy given the large role tourism plays in the Thai economy. But a number of the attacks, and indeed the timing of the attacks (occurring on the Queen’s birthday), suggest a specifically anti-monarchist motive. The city hardest hit, Hua Hin, is both a major tourist site and the main royal residence outside the capital. Overall, the attacks were specifically aimed at the monarchy and the ability of the military to deliver economic growth and to maintain law and order.
Thailand’s increasing instability in recent years is rooted in the ongoing debate in the country over the role of democracy, the military, and the monarchy in society. This debate will not be resolved soon, and, if yesterday’s bombings were an indicator, may not be answered peacefully.