Opinion: Thailand’s Royalists must engage in dialogue or cede the argument to the other side

Often we do not know that we are living through historical turning points but it is unmistakable for someone living in Thailand in 2020. 

Amidst all that is not well with the Thai body politic — besieged by a pandemic, livelihoods being taken down with a cratering economy — the current protests underscore that we are living through a critical juncture.

Taboos once unbreakable are being broken on a daily basis. Old certainties no longer hold true.

A few weeks ago one could have debated the strategic wisdom of the protestors and encouraged a change in direction but that point is now moot. After the protest on September 19th, Thailand has clearly and irrevocably crossed the Rubicon. 

One of the heads of this movement is Anon Nampha, a protest leader who has dared to say the unsayable in Thailand. But Anon, as fiery as he is, is also a lawyer, and he still dares not challenge one constant: professed loyalty to the monarchy. Ultimately, he claims, his movement seeks to ensure that the monarchy will remain secure in its position as an object of reverence for the Thai people. 

Most royalists scoff at the notion, seeing it as merely an empty claim. Indeed, they have reason to be uncomfortable with the movement he leads. Nobody likes seeing their cherished norms be torn apart. They can question law-breaking. They can — and I certainly have — question the unnecessarily divisive images and rhetoric used.

But while they can dismiss the messenger and his message, they cannot ignore the turbulent times that have brought him to the forefront of history.

Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, writing in the Nikkei Asian Review, put it well: “As a series of showdowns loom between younger voices and conservative forces, the status quo appears untenable, especially with the traditional backstops that existed under the late monarch no longer available.” 

Some pretend that these changes in attitudes are not happening, or believe that litigation or intimidation can make it go away. But that is wishful thinking. Faced with such an atmosphere of transformation, one can choose to fight change (with quite uncertain outcomes), or accommodate change on their own terms.  

I try not to identify with labels, but if the term royalist means the belief that Thailand should remain a constitutional monarchy, then I would have to call myself a royalist. But I am not an extremist. I do not believe there is an inherent incompatibility between royalism and reformism. 

Those who genuinely wish to preserve the constitutional monarchy in a position of continued reverence, but recognize that the status quo is untenable, already have common ground with the protestors. They both seek reform within the framework of a constitutional monarchy. 

One shared priority is the need to manage change. This may be obvious for protestors and less so for royalists. But take the Conservative Party of the United Kingdom. Having been in power for two-thirds of the one hundred years since the passing of universal suffrage, it is sometimes termed the world’s most successful party. 

That they have been so victorious in their pursuit of power is due to their flexibility and ability to adapt. The Conservatives, the Economist noted in 2019, are skilled at anticipating “what Harold Macmillan once called ‘the winds of change’, and harnessing those winds to its own purposes.”

Novelist Anthony Trollope noted, “No reform, no innovation…no revolution stinks so foully in the nostrils of an English Tory as to be absolutely irreconcilable to him.” 

Change does not have to be frightening. It is, in fact, natural.

The core institutions of the Thai state have existed for centuries, but they have not retained the same form since time immemorial. The standard narrative of Thai history admits this: from the Sukhothai form of paternalistic rulership to the Ayutthaya form of deified kingship to the modern constitutional monarchy. 

If we see reform today as simply the next chapter in a long narrative, necessary to adapt to the realities of the 21st century, then there is really nothing to fear. It is merely a natural change. After all, a core principle of Buddhism is impermanence — a concept Pridi Banomyong would apply to his political thought in his later, more mellow years when he noted “the impermanence of society.”  

The Japanese writer Kamo no Chomei once wrote, “The flow of the river is ceaseless and the water is never the same.” The flow of time is ceaseless and politics is never the same. If we can all accept that change is inevitable, is this not simply a question of how to best manage change?

Another important shared priority is that no one acting in good faith would want to see further turmoil. We know from the tragedies of Thai history that bloodshed has always been possible with Thai street politics. But if it comes to that, those on the streets will pay with their lives and those in power will pay with their legitimacy. Neither side will truly win. To avoid that outcome, action is needed now to reduce the political temperature.

Most conservatives would have voted for Prayut in order to see “peace.” That clearly did not bear out, because Prayut only preserved an artificial peace that merely covered up dissent. Now that this discontent has bubbled up to the fore, accommodation of these voices is clearly the only real path to a more harmonious society. 

Thus a change in attitude is needed. This is not a zero-sum game. Dialogue, compromise, and reforms now rather than later will leave something for all sides. As Dr. Thitinan also put succinctly, “the Prayut-led regime and the incumbent institutions of the old order must realize that concessions and compromises will be the only way they can ensure that some of their privileges and prerogatives will be maintained.”

Above all, both sides must face the world as it is, not as they want it to be. Protestors must admit that respect for the institution are deeply ingrained norms in Thai society, royalism elevated almost to the status of religion. Words and actions that are deemed beyond the line tend to provoke virulent reactions and immediately close minds. It is undeniable that this makes advocacy less effective. 

Royalists, on the other hand, must face the reality that the age of unquestionable acceptance of old orthodoxies is over. 

Traditional forms of communication that simply seek to indoctrinate, not persuade, no longer work in an age of diverse media sources. Some may accuse protestors of being brainwashed, and there is some truth to the notion that Twitter and the Royalist Marketplace group are not always bastions of factuality. But if young people were truly so easily led, surely Prayut’s 12 values campaign in schools would already have been a stunning success? 

Royalists can instead seek to engage with the argument, not simply to silence it. This is not impossible. There is room for discussion. With a blanket refusal to engage, royalists cede the argument to others.

Take the ten demands. The third demand states that the privy council must be abolished. Royalists may not necessarily agree with this, given that eleven other monarchies also have privy councils. The sixth demand seeks to stop royal charitable donations — it seems overly antagonistic to deprive the monarch of the right to support causes they are passionate about with their personal wealth. 

Or take the eighth demand, that there must no longer be one-sided royal public relations messaging. Any organization or institution is permitted to promote themselves in a positive light and it would only be fair that the Thai monarchy can do the same, as all monarchies do. Or the tenth demand on banning the monarch from granting royal assent to any coup d’état. It is manifestly impractical: in the event of an actual coup, even if it were against the monarch’s will, how would such a rule actually be enforced? 

More extreme protestors would be unhappy that I chose to argue with any of their demands which they see as eminently reasonable. Ultra-royalists would be angry that I even discussed them at all. But this is the spirit of debate. Of compromise. Of finding common ground. 

In addition, by coming to the table, royalists can also make a real and sustained case for why constitutional monarchy remains the best form of government for Thailand. There is evidence, for example, that constitutional monarchies are beneficial economically. Or that they are valuable as nonpartisan symbols. And a myriad of other reasons. Yet it is up to royalists to mount these arguments; if they choose not to do so, no one else will make it for them.

A royalist does not have to take Anon, or the other protest leaders, at their word and believe that they truly have the monarchy’s best interests at heart. But a royalist who knows that they revere the monarchy can also see merit in the core argument that dialogue and compromise is necessary for the position of the royal institution to be strengthened. 

Overall, it is undeniable that Thailand has crossed into unknown territory, and no one can undo that. It was once noted that the British Conservatives have never once succeeded in turning back the clock, and neither will Thai royalists. 

But to paraphrase Trollope, no reform should stink so foully in the nostrils of a Thai royalist as to be absolutely irreconcilable to them. There is more common ground between the protestors and royalists than one might think. 

Royalism and reformism, after all, are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they may go together. 

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