Britain has a monarch. So does Thailand. But, there’s a key difference between the two which if ignored makes our reading of the two countries drastically misinformed. While the UK’s monarch, the Queen, is its titular head, in Thailand, the story is on the contrary. The latter’s king is held in such high dignity and exercises powers that allow him to overturn the parliament – though indirectly – that it makes you wonder if the country has a democratically elected representative at the helm of affairs or not. Protests that have resumed in Thailand, after a brief pause owing to the pandemic, against the nature of the monarchy and the Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, brought our focus back to the monarchy. And while Britain’s Queen is very much content with her limited powers and titular role, Maha Vajiralongkorn is on a pursuit to expand his to an absolute form. His primary tool as of now seems to be the military coup, churned at the drop of a pin whenever he desires.
There are two facts that you need to know before analysing all of Thailand’s situation. One: Since 1932, the country has seen 22 coups of which only 9 were unsuccessful. Two: Thailand now has its 20th constitution. Juxtaposed one over the other, these two facts show us just how unstable the nation has been. Even though the absolute monarchy ended in 1932, it still hasn’t found that equilibrium to function as a democracy. In fact, there were coups in 1932 and 1933 – almost immediately after the decision to restrict the monarchy. The intolerance of the rulers has been bitter, even though it’s passed through the years and even a whole century. Given the current ruler’s unconventional style of living and embrace of modernity, one might have expected him to be more bearable. But there never can be a good monarchy here. Rama X, as he’s known in a whole line of Ramas, ascended to the throne in 2016 with a grand ceremony – the expenses shot past ceilings if there were any. He is keen on taking full control of the throne and all assets connected to the crown (this, he has already initiated). The king has also made sure that he controls the army – as mentioned earlier, it’s his tool for sustenance.
Maha Vajiralongkorn’s personal life has never been beyond scrutiny. It’s a well-known fact that as his country, like many others, is fighting out a pandemic, he leads a luxurious quarantine in a hotel – not quite what you’d call home, but he has company. The unapologetic lifestyle of the king has often been discussed in considerable amounts by dailies and other columns of commentary. Of course, everybody deserves a little privacy and we could have turned a blind eye to how he is behind the walls of his official cubicle, but with the kind of undignified attitude that he showcases, blurring the lines of the personal and the professional, it is impossible to be a passive onlooker. This sentiment has very much been put on display by the protesters who have had enough of the king’s whims and fancies and puppet ministers. Vajiralongkorn has a rigid habit of disrespecting his advisers, no matter how old they are; he has not shied away from disowning his own progeny and also makes it a point to have courtiers sport shaven heads if they happen to fall out of his good books. His rule is for and of the elite – the common people have no say or role to play here. If they raise their criticism against the monarchy or the establishment, it would be labelled an offence. Familiarising ourselves with even the premise makes us understand precisely why the popular protests are breaking out. A 21st-century world, or a part of it, where there is no freedom is sure to get opposition from the people. And when the ruler ruminates over and even sets his feet onto a retrogressive path towards absolute monarchy, things would have been odd if people submitted to this. What use could a namesake ‘representation of people’ serve?
Solidarity protests have been planned and executed across the globe – in Europe, America, and a similarly troubled Hong Kong, people have been taking it out to the streets and sending across a message of togetherness. What Thailand’s picture does today is show us the perils of autocracy – how endangered even a limited monarchy is; how it can wipe out all levels of democratic representation. This is typical of crises situations where the loopholes are twisted and turned to the advantage of the wrong-hands. There are all possibilities for any element of trouble to get worsened amidst all the passivity and in some respect, complacency.
This teaches us that caution can never be futile, that constant activity and sustained political awareness, are never disruptive forces for the democratic functioning of any system. While we express solidarity with the Thai people and hope they see the light of success against tyranny, we can also remind ourselves to keep our eyes and ears attuned to our politics and democracy. That should work as a talisman for liberty.