Democratic transitions are rarely – if ever – straight-forward, simple or peaceful. This should be common sense since, by its very nature, democratic transitions require that the governing power be taken away from the establishment – be it from a military dictator or an absolute monarch.
Although no two democratic transitions are exactly alike, there is a general pattern and classification that can be derived from historical examples. That the dominant events that bring about democratic transitions can be classified into four different categories, consisting of:
1. Popular Uprising (French Revolution, July Revolution)
2. Dissident among the ruling class – usually involving the militant wing
(British Magna Carta, French 5th Republic)
3. Direct Foreign Intervention (Post World-War II Japan, South Korea, and Germany)
4. Independence Movement (U.S. Independence, Decolonization of India, and Indonesia).
This is not to say that the aforementioned patterns are the only force to bring about the democratic transition in each of the said events. In actuality, it is a combination of at least two of these forces that make democratic transitions possible. Therefore, using this framework, it would be useful to look at Thailand’s history to analyze where the country is today in relation to its democratic transition.
Thailand made the transition from absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy with the Siamese Revolution in 1932.
Looking from afar, this event seems to fit the pattern of “Dissident among the ruling class” since the majority of Khana Ratsadon (“Peoples’ Party”) that led the revolution were a combination of military officers and bureaucrats studying mainly in France and the UK. Nonetheless, 88 years from the revolution, Thailand seems to be asking itself a question that has lingered on for nerely a century: does the country want to become a democracy or not?
Khana Ratsadon’s push for democracy in Thailand eventually fell by the way-side from the party’s in-fighting, especially between Pridi Banomyong – the leader of the party’s Civilian / Bureaucrat faction and Plaek Phibunsongkhram – the leader of the party’s military faction. \
Party’s factionalism weakened its position over time and eventually Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat finished the party off in a coup d’etat against Plaek Phibunsongkhram in 1957, giving rise to the monarchy-military coalition that has lasted until today.
Although Khana Ratsadon’s democratic aspirations failed, it did imprint something into Thailand that remains until today: the spirit of free will and democracy.
This spirit has manifested itself in the past, most visibly in the form of public demonstrations against the military dictatorship, especially in the Popular Uprising of October 14, 1973, the Thammasat Massacre of October 6, 1976, and the events of Black May in 1992. The benefit of historical hindsight reveals that Thailand’s attempt at democratic transition through popular uprising very much fits the pattern of other successful transitions in the world – with one major difference. All of the popular uprisings were brutally suppressed by the military, preventing democracy from flourishing.
Therefore, the assertion that Thailand’s democracy is merely an imported Western idea and backed by the United States – as claimed by certain factions of the conservatives – is not only untrue but quite simply stupid, disrespectful, and historically naive.
If anything, given past precedence, the United States has supported the stability of authoritarian regimes in the region as a buffer against communism. They did it against the Soviets, they could be doing now against Beijing.
America’s erroneous foreign policy in the region has been much discussed, including elsewhere on Thai Enquirer.
The region remembers the US refusing to support Vietnam’s call for independence in hopes of gaining France’s support to fight against communism in Europe. This caused Vietnam to move into the Soviet’s sphere of influence and eventually culminated into the Vietnam War. American’s foreign policy blunder then extended into Thailand, a country they view as a useful frontier to push back against communist expansion.
Pridi Banomyong’s attempt to restore Thailand’s path to democracy after the Second World War was short-lived and eventually ended when Plaek Phibunsongkhram overthrew Thawan Thamrongnawasawat from the premiership, promoting Khuang Aphaiwong to the position of Prime Minister before taking the position himself a year later. All of these events took place under the watchful eye of the United States, who clearly prioritized the fight against communism in Indochina over the development of democracy in Thailand.
Perhaps it was due to the U.S. mistrust of Pridi Banomyong due to his “Yellow Cover Dossier” Economic Plan that had strong similarities to Socialist / Communist Economic Doctrine, or maybe the U.S. just simply did not prioritize the development of Thai democracy. What is clear, however, is that Thailand’s evolution into a military dictatorship did not stop the U.S. from investing in Thailand’s infrastructure, both directly and via the World Bank, strengthening the military government in the process.
As previously mentioned, the popular uprising of October 14, 1973 – two years prior to the U.S’s retreat from Vietnam – was overlooked by the Americans as they clearly prioritized cooperation with the Thai Military in the ongoing fight in Indochina. If anything, the U.S. hindered democratic progress by strengthening military authoritarianism in this country.
Rather than being a simple Western import, Thai democracy is a slow but growing consensus of people wanting to be free – and that consensus is not Western or Eastern. It is universal. And although Thai democracy had a slow and small beginning, it has become an ideology that refuses to die no matter how many times it has been suppressed – this time returning stronger than ever before.
In the past three decades, the hegemony of the monarchy-military coalition has been challenged by pro-competition market-economy policies brought forward by Chatchai Choonhavan’s government in 1988 and later by Thaksin-Yingluck Shinawatra’s governments in the post-2000s. Although Chatchai, Thaksin, or Yingluck are not exactly champions of democracy, it would be erroneous to label them as such, there is a commonality in market-economy and democracy – the spirit of equality under fair competition.
The establishment brutally crushed these governments, either through the force of military coup d’etat or judicial activism by legal technicalities. It would then introduce a government to eradicate all vestiges of those governments and the ideas which they spawned.
But democratic aspirations and desires keep returning to challenge the status quo, no matter how many times it has been suppressed or how strict the emergency decree is imposed to prevent public demonstrations. Free will continues to live on in this country and forever be the lasting legacy of Khana Ratsadon, no matter how flawed they might have been. Even if the establishment is prepared to undertake extreme genocidal measures like China’s cultural revolution and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge genocide, The seeds of liberty have been planted among the Thai populace and the ideas will continue to grow.