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“Thai-Style Democracy”: A Conservative Struggle for Thailand’s Politics

Kevin Hewison, professor from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, presented his paper 'Thai-Style Democracy' at the Faculty of Political Science of Chulalongkorn University on June 26, 2009.  The paper is published here in full. 


I have seldom presented papers in Thailand. The principal reason for this is that I have always considered myself a student of Thai politics, learning from the work of Thai scholars and researchers. Indeed, in the something like 30 years that I have been learning about Thailand, it has been the faculty in the Department of Political Science, together with those in the Faculty of Economics here at Chula, who have been my respected teachers.

Today I feel like a student presenting some of his ideas to his professors and hope that you find it a useful paper that might stimulate discussion and some critical commentary.

The topic is “Thai-Style Democracy”. I did have a sub-title which referred to something about “A Royalist Struggle for Thailand’s Politics.” You can understand that with a topic like this, I am going to have to speak in English as, for reasons that are all too well known, I need to be careful in what I say. For the same reason, I will read my paper.

Let me begin with three disclaimers.

First, in this presentation, my emphasis is almost solely on TSD (prachathippatai baep thai). In making this my focus, I do not wish to imply that this is the only discourse on the nature of governance in Thailand or even the most significant one at all times. That would be misleading. The point of my focus on TSD is to highlight a set of ideas that has, over 5 decades, continually been resurrected and reiterated in on-going struggles over political power. Each time it has been repeated or revised, it has been a contested discourse. That TSD has been – and continues to be – challenged and debated should be kept in mind as I focus on TSD.

Second, while I am writing about history I am not writing a history. I will leap over many important periods of political struggles without a mention. My point is simply to highlight the ideas about TSD.

The third disclaimer is that I recognize that the ideas outlined here as TSD have considerable resonance in other places and in other times. TSD is not a set of ideas that is unique to Thailand, despite the designation used here. However, by focusing on the particular form and history of TSD I hope to highlight how this set of ideas has been developed in Thailand and how it has been politically contested.

In this presentation, I hope to examine the conservative foundations of TSD both in terms of its development and also in the context of recent attempts to embed various political and ideological forms associated with TSD. The most recent reinvigoration of TSD has been associated with the political struggles following the so-called good coup of 2006.



Let me begin by locating the origins of TSD in the political contestation that followed the 1932 Revolution. This might not be the conventional place to begin, for the idea that there could be a Thai-style of government (kan pokkhrong baep thai) is usually associated with Kukrit Pramoj, who became a prolific and influential propagandist of this notion from the early 1960s. While Kukrit’s ideas may be seen as the foundation of the TSD discourse, the conservative ideas that he brought together, and which may be seen as defining TSD, have their origins in a long and bitter struggle over power from the moment of the 1932 overthrow of the absolute monarchy.

The basic contention of People’s Party dominated governments in the immediate post-1932 period was that while the constitution limited the power of the king it was placing him under the law. Prime Minister Phahon explained that a constitutional monarchy meant that the Chakri dynasty would be stable because the king under the constitution could not be considered responsible for political decisions (Bangkok Times Weekly Mail, 12 December 1936; see Noranit, 2006: 13).

Royalists and their supporters, however, opposed this new political arrangement through rebellions, plots and attempted assassinations, as well as through more regularized political means.

Initially, People’s Party opponents focused their attention on demands for increased powers for the king. For example, King Prajadhipok wanted to appoint second category members of the national assembly. He also demanded that the government show obvious respect for the king, prevent members of the assembly from criticizing the monarchy and demanded punishment for anyone who did criticize him (Ramphai Barni, 1978: 15, 27-8).

When the king abdicated, in what has become a foundational statement in the discourse on democratization, he claimed that he supported democratic and constitutional government, stating that he abdicated his “powers … to the people as a whole,” adding “… I am not willing to turn them over to any individual or any group to use in an autocratic manner without heeding the voice of the people” (Prajadhipok, 1984: 317).

In fact, though, the king was a contingent democrat. For example, when the royalist groups were politically weak, in 1933, he opposed the formation of political parties, arguing that the people were politically immature (Murashima, 1991: 23-4). When royalists seemed likely to gain from enhanced democratization, he supported political parties.

As Murashima (1991: 3) has observed, it was only in the lead-up to the 1946 elections that competitive party politics finally emerged. One of the first parties – the Progressive Party (phak kaeo na) – was formed by royalist politicians grouped around Kukrit Pramoj.

This emergence of political parties coincided with the promulgation of the 1946 Constitution. This basic law is generally recognized as a more democratic document than anything that had gone before it but it also represented something of a victory for the royalists. While the king’s constitutional role in legislation was essentially unchanged, lower-ranked princes and their families were legally permitted to re-enter the political fray (Blanchard, et al., 1958: 156). Immediately, they joined politicians like Khuang Aphaiwong in vigorously attacking the government led by Pridi Phanomyong (see Thawee in Ray, 1972: 116). The results of this political struggle are well-known, with Pridi fleeing the country, accused of republicanism and involvement in the death of King Ananda Mahidol.

Following the 1947 military coup, the Provisional Constitution and then the 1949 Constitution expanded considerably the powers of the throne. Kobkua (2003: 49) observed that this constitution represented the royalist interpretation of what the constitutional monarchy should be. A critical element of this was a provision for the monarch to have a role in appointing members of parliament. While an editorialist at the Bangkok Post (18 January 1949) described the notion of appointing the senate as “… conservative and even reactionary,” it was central to royalist political models.

The reasoning informing this push for appointed parliamentarians seems to hinge on a conservative perspective that the will of the people could not be trusted. In 1949, the prolific royalist commentator who wrote as “Hermit” warned against too much representation: “Do not give too much trust to the will of the people who are not … capable of expressing their common will…” instead suggesting that “… we [should] have faith in the traditional grace and goodness of our Kingship…” (Hermit, 1949).

At the same time, it is worth noting that this most pro-royal of constitutions to this time did not sail easily through parliament (see Bangkok Post, 17 and 18 January 1949). There was considerable opposition amongst the elected members of the assembly, the majority of whom rejected the constitution. It was only with the support of appointed members – nominated by the throne – that the new constitution was passed (Kobkua, 2003: 50).

The 1949 Constitution was eventually thrown out just days prior to the current king’s return from Switzerland in 1951. The coup was led by Field Marshal Phibun Songkhram’s military-based political faction, who are usually considered to have wanted to pre-empt an alliance between pro-royal parliamentarians and the young king (see Neher, 1974: 30-1).

It is noteworthy that the sections of the new constitution dealing with the monarch, while drawing on some elements in the 1932 Permanent Constitution, retained considerable congruence with the 1949 Constitution. This was a compromise. The regent, Prince Dhani, had refused to recognize the coup and the resulting government. A compromise was negotiated where in exchange for the loss of some of the powers by the monarchy, the palace regained control over its own affairs (Kobkua, 2003: 47, 54).

Under Phibun, the royalists were again checked and a kind of stand-off developed with the the government seen by royalists as essentially anti-monarchy (Morell, 1974: 90). As Phibun allowed party politics to develop, royalist versus anti-royalist camps of politicians were mobilized. The royalist Democrat Party (that included Seni and Kukrit Pramoj and Khuang Aphaiwong) vigorously attacked the government while the government in turn accused the Democrats of receiving palace funds (Bangkok Post, 6 September 1957).

In election speeches, made in 1956 but sounding very 2009, Police General Phao Sriyanond attacked “aristocrats,” asserting that Thailand was held back by the “aristocratic system” and claiming that he wanted to rid the country of the last vestiges of the “privileged aristocracy” (Bangkok Post, 4 December 1956). When Phibun claimed that Kukrit’s Siam Rath newspaper was “supporting the King...” Kukrit fumed. Demanding that the premier declare that he held no prejudice against the king, Kukrit preached that the king was loved by all and those who did not show “devotion and loyalty” were of “abnormal mentality (Siam Rath Weekly Review, 7 June 1956).

It was no surprise that the February 1957 election saw the government’s party victorious. Most commentators consider that the government meddled in the campaign to ensure that its party trounced the Democrats (Thak, 2007: 72). Bangkok’s middle class was also unhappy, believing that the elections had been rigged elections. A protest movement soon developed. Remarkably, General Sarit Thanarat spoke at a student-led rally attacking “dirty” elections and agreed not to prevent student-led demonstrations against the government. Sarit’s coup shortly after was not a surprise (Thak, 2007: 73).

The coup was a breath of fresh air for the formerly besieged royals. As is explained in Thak’s classic study, the Sarit period of strict authoritarian rule saw the re-establishment of the monarchy as a significant political institution. That the young king appreciated the efforts of Sarit as a loyal father figure was indicated time and again. For example, in one public address, the king called on the assembled people to cheer Sarit, and stated: “This is an expression of thanks for his administration of our country which has brought happiness and content[edness] to everybody...” (Siam Rath Weekly Review, 2 February 1961). Well might the king have cheered the prime minister, for Sarit effectively made the king sovereign, in place of the previous notion that the people were sovereign (Kobkua, 2003: 57; see also Borwornsak, n.d.: 2).

It is in this period of military government that we see the defining characteristics of TSD established.


It is interesting that TSD is defined during a period of massive political repression that establishes a political system that Thak (2007: 10) describes as “harsh, repressive, despotic, and inflexible.”

While Sarit’s political philosophy is not defined in any particular document, the modern genesis of TSD may be seen in his approach to political rule.

Thak (2007: Ch. 3) outlines Sarit’s “search for legitimacy,” and considers it founded in a series of beliefs about the nature of Thai society. As Saichol (n.d.: 2) notes, Sarit’s need for a new legitimacy, resulted in the development of notions concerning “Thainess” – including ideas about TSD – as a response to the dilemma that faced Thai society in a period where the previous ruling elite – associated with the People’s Party – and its ideology was overturned and where a new ideological cement was required for a society that was to be ruled by a military leadership that had no particular links with the previous regime.

The principles of Sarit’s political philosophy begin with a generalized notion that Western-style democracy does not fit Thailand or that it was transplanted into the country prematurely (Thak, 2007: 100). Thai society was considered rather more amenable to strong leadership through a figure of great authority who could unify the country. That leader would uphold notions of samakhitham or unity based in moral principles (Thak, 2007: 100-1). As a conservative political conception, social hierarchy was emphasized, with an expressed desire to maintain the rural base of society as a way of limiting social mobilization and keeping traditional institutions strong (Thak, 2007: 104-5).

The nation was viewed as a patriarchal family and the unity of this family-nation had considerable weight. The father of the family-nation was required to uphold notions of samakhitham (Thak, 2007: 101, 105-6). Indeed, “representation” was defined as a process, not of election, but of the father-leader going out to visit his children, learning of their problems and their needs (Thak, 2007: xiii). Finally, Sarit recognized the importance of science and considered that learned people should have a role in administration (Thak, 2007: 108).

Whilst this is not the place to discuss it, the similarities between Sarit’s views and those expressed by King Bhumibol over the past 5 decades are striking. Sarit appears to have had a deep and lasting impact on the king’s ideas.

Sarit was a master political manipulator and not a grand ideologue, As already mentioned, it was Kukrit Pramoj who became the chief propagandist for Sarit’s authoritarianism through the development of a coherent set of ideas about what was initially called Thai-style government but which included all of the foundational ideas of TSD.

Kukrit claimed that “under the military regime, people should be confident that the country [was] ruled by a ‘good man’ and that this is very different from being governed by politicians who seek only their own interest” (Saichol, 2007: 69). Kukrit’s version of “Thai-style government” was constructed during Sarit’s time as an attack on, and an alternative to, liberal notions of democracy (Saichol, 2007: 31-2).

This anti-liberal heritage is an important feature of current conceptions of TSD and links this idea to other conservative political ideas about governance.

Kukrit began to talk seriously about a Thai-style politics in 1962, asserting that TSG “corresponds to Thai traditional institutions and also to state of mind of Thai people...” (Saichol, 2007: 31). Arguing that Thais were are not ready for (Western-style) democracy, Kukrit claimed that determining government through elections was not appropriate for Thais. In fact, Kukrit considered that the coups of 1957 and 1958 resulted from failed attempts to impose Western-style electoral politics on the Thai populace. But, for Kukrit, coups were not such a bad thing if they got rid of awful politicians and ghastly parliamentary politics and resulted in social peace and political stability.

In this sense, the coup becomes a mechanism for changing governments that do not have good or moral leadership and have brought harm to the people (see Saichol, 2007: 32-4, 54).

Kukrit portrayed Thai society in conservative functionalist terms, as an organism, in which the king is the head and the government and bureaucracy are its organs. Society was strictly hierarchical and structured in a way that has every person fulfilling particular functions and where social mobility was limited, if not impossible (Saichol, 2007: 46, 53). In terms of governance, the Thai style was “a political regime where the leader had absolute power” so that “order, peace, security and progression” could be sustained. Western-style democracy, on the other hand, just led to chaotic politics (Saichol, 2007: 38-9).

In Kukrit’s view, the king’s political role is to control and watch over government in the people’s best interests, with the king as the benevolent and moral father of the family-nation protecting his people.

Thus the monarchy is not an obstacle to democracy, but the very center of a Thai-style of government that has come to be known as TSD. The king is effectively the moral check and balance on government, acting in the best interests of his children-people. For Kukrit this means that all good political leaders will display respect to and loyalty for the king and must be his defenders (Saichol, 2007: 40-7, 61).

Of course, Kukrit was not just supporting Sarit’s military authoritarianism. He was also promoting the long-held royalist desire – at the centre of the struggles that I briefly mentioned earlier – to return the monarchy to its pivotal political position. Sarit’s coups permitted this political outcome.

The logical conclusion to the development of ideas about TSG-cum-TSD is to establish the monarchy as an inherent element of any Thai democratic system. Hence we see accounts that claim that TSD has actually existed for centuries under benevolent monarchs whose rule is tempered by Buddhist principles and moral righteousness. Indeed, it is claimed that the monarchy has always been a kind of “constitutional monarchy” in the sense that no king was ever really absolute. Some suggest that the monarchy’s benevolent but law-abiding paternalism, emphasizing harmony, prosperity and the well-being of the people, means that Thailand has always had an “unwritten constitution” (Kobkua, 2003: 20-2).

Kukrit would later add elements to TSD. The most significant was in his discussion of racha-pracha-samasai, which Michael Connors (2008: 148) translates as the interdependency of king and people or the mutuality of king and people. Connors does a good job of explaining this, so let me just highlight a couple of points. First, the terms seems to have its origins in the king’s visits to the countryside early in his reign. Second, it is worth noting that it is only in 1972 that Kukrit takes it up, apparently fearing that unity between king and people was being undermined by self-serving bureaucrats, greedy capitalists and dangerous leftists.

Kukrit’s response, to quote Connors, was to note that:

rural people, facing various injustices and disadvantages, lacked group identity and a “sense of belonging” (Kukrit et al., 1972: 30-1). To overcome this Kukrit proposed that the king undertake more rural visits to create a sense of belonging and, as a consequence, the monarchy would be identified as one with the people. Arguing that the king and the people were “outside the circle” of power, Kukrit envisaged an interdependency that strengthened them (Kukrit et al., 1972: 39).

This notion, and the ideas underpinning it, certainly have had considerable resonance in recent years, so we can add racha-pracha-samasai to the TSD Pantheon.


Now, giving further evidence that I am not a historian, let me now leap forward to the present and talk briefly about how ideas of TSD were interpreted following the 2006 military coup.

Immediately following the coup, some attention was given to ideas about TSD. Writing of the intellectual impact of the 2006 coup, Surin (2007: 340) asserts that TSD had emerged as “a legitimate alternative to Western-style democracy.” His views drew liberally from those of Pattana Kitiarsa (2006) who discussed the coup and TSD in the context of a dichotomy between a Thai “localist” response (or “community of interpretation”) to the coup and a “Western” perspective.

I focus on these two writers – Pattana and Surin – because they did most to interpret the coup for an international academic audience.

Pattana’s discussion of the Thai “community of interpretation” is essentially a discussion of the divergences between what he identifies as Western interpretations – that the coup was not necessarily a good outcome for Thailand or for democratic development – and a “Thai” position – that this was a “good coup,” getting rid of an increasingly authoritarian government.

Evidently, in such a dichotomous perspective, Pattana has also to include those Thais who opposed military intervention into the “Western” camp and presumably those Westerners who supported the coup must be included as exhibiting a “Thai” perspective.

In explaining the coup and these communities of interpretation, Pattana defines TSD by pointing to the failings of Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai Party government. Essentially, Thaksin and TRT represented a divergence from the norm of Thai politics. Pattana (2006: 3) asserts a culturally Thai way of doing politics. Drawing on (Western) structural-functionalist literature, Pattana asserts that the localist perspective sees Thai culture as essentially incompatible with WSD. The Thai way is based on a rationality that draws on “Buddhist-based cultural paradigms that emphasize improvisional, compromised, and flexible adjustments to their [Thai’s] social world.” Pattana argues that the proponents of TSD are “practical and realistic,” and emphasize the “nation’s integration, security, and spirituality.”

While Pattana asserts that Thais exhibit an “… ambiguous construction of authority…”, this is not the case when it comes to the king’s dhammic leadership (Pattana, 2006: 5). He explains that Thaksin was politically doomed when people compared the “amoral capitals of wealth and power…” represented by Thaksin with the “aura of Buddhist righteous charisma…” represented in the person and reign of the current monarch.

In assessing the history of Thailand’s democratization, Pattana (2006: 6) is forced to conclude that “Thailand is too elite-oriented and too hierarchical to be successful in its attempts to establish strong democratic structures and culture.”

Also adopting this framework, Surin (2007: 349) declares Thaksin’s rule as a case of “electoral power without moral authority.” Indeed, in the period prior to the coup, a number of writers had made similar negative comparisons. For example, Nakarin (2007: 220) argues that the king is a pillar of Thai democracy because his moral power contrasted so starkly with the corrupt and corrupting practices of politicians like Thaksin.

Surin argues that when General Prem Tinsulanonda, former army chief, former prime minister and current president of the king’s Privy Council, decided to campaign against the Thaksin government, Prem “represented the moral order.” Surin (2007: 350) then cites the authority of 2006 coup conspirator General Saprang in explaining that the putsch was a mechanism to ensure that the dhamma would prevail. From this perspective, the coup was a “good coup” because it was restoring a balance to Thai politics. Some coup leaders claimed they were pressing the reset button for the Thai political operating system.

So it is that Surin (2007: 351) is led to argue that the coup was a setback for democracy in Thailand “… only if Thai democracy is measured against the standards set by Western democracies.” TSD is about “placing the king at the centre of politics [which also] is placing morality at the centre of politics…”.

Ironically, just a few hours prior to the 2006 coup, Privy Councilor Prem was asked how TSD differed from “Western-style democracy.” The general replied,

We are a kingdom. You [the West] are not. So you have to think some minor different ways to run your country. Normal people love the king very much, you know that. If you saw what happened on June 9 [60th anniversary celebrations of King Bhumibol’s reign], you can tell how much we love the monarch. That’s something … different between your [country] and mine (cited in Murphy, 2006).

General Prem considered that it was impossible for Westerners to understand this conception of Thai politics. It also becomes clear that TSD has the role of the monarchy as a central pillar.

Essentially, Pattana and Surin provide an outline of TSD that is a conservative conception of politics. This conservative approach, evident over more than 4 decades and continually reincarnated, has again had increased political traction since the coup.

Of course, the 2006 coup has been interpreted in various ways. Popular accounts view the coup as little more than the most recent attempt by the military to assert its power over civilian politics. But this is a perspective that is too limiting. If we look beyond the coup itself to the period of military rule that led to the promulgation of the 2007 Constitution and the elections of the same year, we may see the coup as a means to reinforce or even reinstate TSD.


This paper cannot recount all of the events leading up to the 2006 coup. Rather, this section will examine some of the interests involved and how it was that Thaksin – a rich capitalist and certainly a member of Thailand’s ruling elite – managed to challenge conservative definitions of governance.

As will be clear from this comment, and it might surprise some, I have some sympathy for Pattana’s idea that TSD is, essentially, and ideology that can underpin ways of thinking, structure political action and define a preferred form of governance. This means that those who hold this perspective dear can be offended by the actions and ideas of others.

More on this a bit later, but the coup first.

You may recall that, from April 2006, General Prem, located in a privileged political space, made highly-publicized speeches criticizing Thaksin. In a struggle for control of the military (see Ukrist, 2008) and supported by other privy councilors, Prem demanded that military officers be loyal to the king (The Nation, 15 July 2006). From this point, with powerful military leaders and members of the Privy Council by Prem’s side, a coup was almost inevitable if Thaksin refused to give way.

What were the motivations for this high-profile political involvement? Answering this question requires an analysis of the economic, ideological and political interests involved. Let me summarize these positions.

In the many criticisms made of Thaksin, one has been that he has attained great wealth through cronyism and that he fostered cronyism and “big money politics.” Already fabulously wealthy when he became prime minister, Thaksin used his office to benefit his supporters and family, and seemed unable to distinguish between personal interests and those of the nation (see Pasuk and Baker, 2005; McCargo and Ukrist, 2005). Royal businesses both co-operated and competed with Shinawatra family companies. However, Thaksin’s combination of wealth and political power appears to have been especially challenging for the managers of many businesses.

Also significant was political competition. Thaksin had moved quickly to shake-up the organisations linked to the what McCargo identifies as the “network monarchy,” especially in the civil and military bureaucracies, promoting those who supported TRT. This brought Thaksin into conflict with these organizations, some of whose senior members saw themselves as the minders of the palace’s political interests.

The most significant political contest was for the hearts and minds of the masses. A central ideological component of the monarchy’s position is the portrayal of the king as a champion of the poor, with the palace’s rural development projects the symbol of the monarch’s connection to the masses (see Borwornsak, 2006). The palace has portrayed the monarchy as the savior of poor peasants, through notions of sufficiency and palace charity.

Thaksin offered a different approach to the same constituency. Far from urging rural “sufficiency,” TRT emphasized “getting ahead,” producing for the market and promoted entrepreneurialism (see Pansak, 2004). TRT’s “populist” policies that established elements of a social welfare system were immensely popular. Of course, Thaksin had to appeal to the poor as they voted for TRT (Pasuk and Baker, 2008). Clearly, the conservatives congregated around the palace were uncomfortable with Thaksin’s mix of social welfare and grassroots capitalism and feared his immense appeal to the monarchy’s constituency as most vividly demonstrated in the 2005 election landslide victory.

Thaksin and TRT also challenged long-held ideological positions associated with royalism and TSD.

Before assessing this challenge, it is important to recall how deeply embedded this ideological aspect of the monarchy has become. Take Uthai Pimjaichon as an example. Uthai is a former member of parliament, former speaker of the House of Representatives and former president of the National Assembly and played an important role in the development of the 1997 Constitution. Uthai (2006: 307) argues that “we have to accept that the democratic path was created from above.”

Noranit Setabutr (2006: 3), then Secretary-General of King Prajadhipok’s Institute and the military junta’s chosen chair for the Constitutional Drafting Assembly overseeing the 2007 Constitution, provided a revision of Thailand’s history, when stating:

When we study in detail the political institution that was created by the constitution … [in 1932], we see the resulting structure of government was parliamentary rule with the King as the head of state. This style has been maintained to this date, despite the 16 changes of constitution by cancellation, correction, or new drafting. The basic structure has not changed.

The notion that democracy was delivered from “above” and that the king is the protector of Thailand’s democracy was challenged by Thaksin and his government. Of course, Thaksin himself saw elements of democratic politics as an obstacle to his own political agenda (see Pasuk and Baker, 2008). While Thaksin would later claim that the TRT’s agenda and aims were no accident, it seems clear that Thaksin was not totally aware of the consequences of his approach. Two years ago, Jakrapob Penkair claimed that Thaksin “sleepwalked” into his challenge against what Jakrapob labeled the “patronage system,” adding “I was with him so I knew that he didn’t launch those policies philosophically. He simply wanted to do his job. He wants to be liked.… He wants to be a useful rich man.”

Maybe Thaksin didn’t realize the changes his government unleashed. If it is also recalled that the 1997 Constitution supported his strong position, the strength of the executive and the electorate gave TRT unprecedented power, the idea that Thaksin was “sleepwalking” may be overdone. That his government opened hitherto closed political doors cannot be denied. People at the grassroots, especially in the north and northeast, began to see that they had political rights and that they could have a say in who led government. They clearly felt that TRT was responsive to their needs. But conservatives did not want a political leader with a national popularity (Ockey, 2004: 183). The idea that the electorate had to be taken seriously and that voting could make a difference challenged long-held conservative notions about TSD. Jakrapob (2007) might claim that “… Thaksin didn’t do it to challenge anyone,” but it is clear that conservatives were unhappy with a strengthening political system based on elections that confronted the very foundations of TSD.

Fore these conservatives, Thaksin did not unify the country, despite the largest election victory ever; he was seen as divisive. Moreover, he was branded as lacking the moral principles the conservatives claimed leaders required. His appeal to the electorate, especially to the poor, challenged the social hierarchy so prized in TSD. His plans for development promised a more thorough-going capitalist revolution that would industrialize rural areas and promised further social mobility. In terms of governance, Thaksin’s style shook up traditional institutions such as the bureaucracy and the military. Thaksin, through government welfare policies, was increasingly seen by rural and poor voters as a benevolent leader. And, his government’s remarkable electoral power and parliamentary domination must have been identified as diminishing the monarch’s role as the moral “check and balance.”

In the end, this array of challenges was too much for the conservative elite and the 2006 coup was the result.


TSD ideas and images were also used against Thaksin. Much of the PAD rhetoric used to criticize Thaksin appealed to TSD-like arguments – that Thaksin was not loyal or patriotic and that he challenged the king – and made a case that Thaksin and TRT did not fit the pattern of Thai-style leadership. Recall also the call for the use of Article 7 of the 1997 Constitution; a call that was underpinned by a notion of racha-pracha-samasai (Connors, 2008).

When the 2006 coup eventuated, it was initially seen by many as a “good coup.” As Kukrit had argued 5 decades earlier, while electoral politics led to instability, the resulting military coups were not a bad thing when they could rid the country of bad politicians who did not display good or moral leadership. If a military-appointed government was led by a “good man” then people could be confident that the country was in the best hands. Indeed, after the coup, General Surayud Chulanond was appointed prime minister, presumably seen as a “good man” as he was plucked from the king’s Privy Council and made prime minister.

When Surayud’s government and the junta set about developing a new constitution, they were resetting the political agenda, emphasizing TSD as “democracy with the king as head of state.” The new constitution made it clear that its drafters wanted to prevent any Thaksin-like politician emerging in the future. They did this by increasing security powers, strengthening the civil and military bureaucracies and reinserting political rules that had long been key political aims of TSD, such as appointing half of the Senate. Thais were again being told that they didn’t actually need democracy, and especially WSD, but TSD.

TSD is, at best, “semi-democracy.” Even so, in 2006 and 2007 it appeared to be supported by the Bangkok-dominated middle class, just as it had been in 1957 when Sarit took over. A common middle-class refrain has been that the people who supported Thaksin – mainly the working class and the rural poor – were ignorant, bewildered, bought off, or coerced; as the proponents of TSD have long claimed, these people were just not ready for Western-style democracy. Hence they get a TSD that emphasizes loyalty, traditionalism, nationalism and paternalism.


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Connors, M. (2008) “Article of Faith: the failure of royal liberalism in Thailand,” Journal of Contemporary Asia, 38, 1, pp. 143-65.

Hermit [pseud. Phraya Sri Thammarat] (1949) “Our New Constitution, Part II,” Bangkok Post, 12 August.

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