What is a paternal autocracy and why is it important in the Thai context

Paternal Autocracy, seen across various historical and societal contexts, represents a governance style where a single leader or a ruling elite embodies a paternalistic role, possessing concentrated power and authority. A deep respect for order, traditional hierarchies, and authoritative figures underscores this system. It is especially important to consider within the Thai context given the current modern day situation. When we hear terms used like “guided democracy” or “Thai-style democracy” this is a manifestation of paternal autocracy in action.

In fact, many autocratic leaders in Thailand’s ancient and recent history have adopted a paternalistic tone to shore up their legitimacy and to earn respect in a deeply heirarchical society. This is not a new idea, paternal autocracy finds its roots in the earliest Thai kingdoms. In the Sukhothai Kingdom (1238–1438), King Ramkhamhaeng the Great symbolized the paternalistic ruler revered by his subjects as a father. His 1292 stone inscription depicted a society with a benevolent king at its center, making decisions for his people’s welfare. This principle extended to the Ayutthaya Kingdom (1351–1767), where divine kingship principles, reflecting Hindu-Buddhist philosophies, were embraced. The king was at the heart of the societal hierarchy, mimicking the role of a father.

The establishment of the Chakri Dynasty in 1782 deepened the sense of paternal autocracy in Thailand. Kings such as Rama V (King Chulalongkorn) instituted significant modernization reforms while maintaining an absolute monarchy. Here, power was consolidated in a manner that resembled a paternal autocratic style. During this era, kings held ultimate authority, not just politically but spiritually, nurturing a bond with their subjects akin to that of a father and his children.

When the country transitioned from an absolute monarch to a constitutional one, elected and unelected leaders continued the rhetoric used by ancient kings to assume the same legitimacy. During the Cold War, this was especially prominent in Thai politics. The military, under the guise of protecting the country from the spread of communism, would stage coups and justify their power in the name of societal stability and order. Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat’s regime (1958-1963) is a prime example. He projected himself as a father-like figure tasked with restoring order, consolidating his power by suppressing dissent and aligning closely with the monarchy.

The military’s recurring interventions, often justified as efforts to maintain order and safeguard the monarchy, echo the tenets of paternal autocracy. Leaders like Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat stylized themselves as paternal figures responsible for national stability, using the monarchy’s image, the apex father figure, to legitimize their reign.

So why is it important that Thailand’s historical narrative and societal structure have been significantly shaped by this system of thinking? Because the recurring theme of a single, authoritative figure playing a fatherly role over the populace is intrinsic to how older generations of Thais think, from the reigns of ancient kings to the military leaders of more recent times. That is why the threat of a pluralistic, inclusive, self-governing society is so dangerous and opposed by the conservative elite who have only known the guided hand.

To them and to the adherents of the system, the current youth-led revolution is an existential threat and they are willing to use all the tools at their disposal to preserve what they feel is inherently Thai. Given a thousand years of fine-tuning and integration, a smart person would understand their apprehensions and anxiety over a fast-changing world. Those interested in reconciliation would do well to take their considerations into account when pushing for change.


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