A decade ago, Thailand was a beacon of democracy and progress in a neighbourhood mired in archaic autocracy. Three of its neighbours -- Burma, Laos, and Cambodia -- are trapped in the past and very far from being free. The fourth, Malaysia, is an apartheid state in which access to education and jobs depends on race. Thailand was regarded as the natural leader of the ASEAN bloc and an example for other democratizing nations to follow. Tragically, all that has changed.
Obtained by Reuters and curated by Andrew MacGregor Marshall.
Thailand is slipping backwards into authoritarianism, militarism, and repression. And a general election on Sunday, July 3, seems unlikely to change that. It's an election in which whoever wins, Thailand's people are likely to lose.
On the surface, the election is a straight fight between the incumbent Democrat Party of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the Pheu Thai party formally led by Yingluck Shinawatra, the younger sister of exiled telecommunications billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra -- who remains a central figure in Thailand's crisis. At stake is far more than which party will form the core of Thailand's next government. The election is the latest skirmish in a long struggle over the balance of power between elected politicians, the military, and the monarchy. At this stage, Thaksin's proxy party looks set to win power -- and generals allied with the 78-year-old Queen Sirikit, the estranged wife of the widely beloved King Bhumibol, are likely to do all they can to sabotage that.
The election contest can only be understood in the context of multiple conflicts being fought at all levels of Thai society in the twilight years of King Bhumibol's reign. The most momentous of these conflicts center on the palace. Because Thailand has the harshest lèse-majesté legislation in the world -- any perceived insult to the king, queen, or crown prince is punishable by three to 15 years in prison -- discussion of the central role of the monarchy in Thailand's turmoil is outlawed and media reports have had to rely on tortured euphemisms and oblique hints. In theory, the country is a constitutional monarchy in which the king has little formal power but uses his moral authority to intervene at times of great crisis to save the country from disaster; in practice, the palace is enmeshed in politics and intervenes constantly, but usually through a network of loyal royalists to hide its role. Trying to explain Thai politics without reference to the role of the palace is thus like trying to tell the story of the Titanic without any mention of the ship. As Pravit Rojanaphruk, one of the country's most outstanding journalists, wrote in a column this month: "The 'invisible hand', 'special power', 'irresistible force', all these words have been mentioned frequently lately by people, politicians and the mass media when discussing Thai politics, the upcoming general election and what may follow."
A few months ago, through my work as a senior Reuters editor, I gained access to the "Cablegate" database of U.S. diplomatic communications believed to have been leaked by U.S. soldier Bradley Manning. The cables revolutionize the understanding of 21st-century Thailand because unlike almost all journalistic and academic coverage of the country, they do not mince words when it comes to the monarchy. As I began work on an extensive article about the cables, I realized that because it represented an epic breach of the lèse-majesté law, it could never be published by Reuters, and I would be unable to visit Thailand again for many years. I took the decision to publish the article anyway, and resigned from Reuters on June 3 to do so. That I had to leave my job and become a criminal in Thailand just to report on the cables says all that needs to be said about the lack of freedom of information that is stifling important debate on Thailand's future.
Two linked power struggles involving the palace are at the heart of Thailand's crisis. The first is the battle over royal succession. The 83-year-old King Bhumibol has been hospitalized since September 2009, inexplicably refusing to return home to one of his palaces even when doctors pronounced him well enough to do so. A cable by then-Ambassador Eric G. John says King Bhumibol is "by many accounts beset long-term by Parkinson's, depression, and chronic lower back pain." The impending end of his reign has sparked intense national anxiety in Thailand. King Bhumibol's son and heir, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, has a reputation for being a cruel and corrupt womanizer. A notorious video showing a birthday party for his pet poodle Foo Foo -- who holds the rank of Air Chief Marshal -- has been widely circulated in Thailand; in it, the prince's third wife, Princess Srirasmi, dressed only in a thong, eats the dog's birthday cake off the floor while liveried servants look on. Thais are terrified of the prospect of Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn becoming king and overwhelmingly support his younger sister, Princess Sirindhorn. But King Bhumibol has shown no sign that he will pass the throne to his daughter -- known to Thais as "Princess Angel" -- and doing so would in any case fly in the face of centuries of royal tradition.