It’s easy to believe democracy is overrated when you walk the streets of post-coup Thailand. Business is brisk, the place is flourishing and there is no sign of crisis. You have to hand it to the Thais, they have perfected political coups. They have been doing it for the best part of a century, usually with little more than a stern finger-wagging from the rest of the world, before going on as normal. It was striking how normal this latest iteration felt, as I found out this past week in Bangkok and elsewhere. You couldn’t call the atmosphere peaceful – nowhere this hot, busy and intense could be called peaceful – but the army was invisible and there was a quiet sense of people getting on with their lives after the distractions of years of street protests. There was very little anger, and some palpable relief that this particular party is over. Bangkok moves so fast perhaps they need the occasional coup to slow it down.
I often walked past Democracy Square with its towering four-piece monument the epicentre of colour-coded street protests for five years. Thaksin’s red shirts gathered here when their enemies were in power and here too the yellow shirts roared when Thaksin’s mob got back in. Neither side accepted the validity of the other’s governance and there was no solution in sight acceptable to both sides. Perhaps inspired by events in Ukraine, matters deteriorated this year with yellow shirt protesters threatening to take power by force. That was a step too far for the army and they moved in May, sacking the government and ending all protests.
Any military can seize power from its own civilians at gunpoint, the question is how do you govern afterwards. Sacking a government means sacking not just the prime minister but the 30 or more government ministers. Luckily the Thais are practiced at this. In the 1890s Englishman H Warington Smyth was hired to run the newly created Department of Mines. Smyth recognised there were many Bangkoks including underground ones of stealing, drinking and gambling but of these, he said, officialdom was all-devouring. That officialdom was in evidence at every ministerial office I saw, bristling with uniforms and guns.
Elsewhere it was the market that ruled. The signs have been removed from Democracy Square and its centre cordoned off. Instead of tanks, there are taxis, trucks and tuk tuks. Food stalls have returned to the square selling their wares in Thai and English and next door the lotto sellers do a thriving trade with hundreds of people desperately scanning newspapers to see if their numbers have come in. All around are giant pictures of the king Bhumibol, a bespectacled mild-mannered man who has been on the throne longer than Elizabeth in Britain.
Politicians are fair game in Thailand but the king is not, and along with love of parents and love of religion are the three taboo things you cannot criticise in Thailand. In the 1930s the dictator Phibul led the first coup and dismantled the absolute monarchy. Yet he kept the trappings of the king. Phibul had the power but could see the value in royal reverence, something today’s leaders also understand.
Thailand was one of the few countries in Asia and Africa to avoid colonisation and it was the venerable monarchy that kept the western powers out. Long before, the Burmese did invade and destroyed the ancient capital of Ayodhya. The Siamese kings built a new capital downstream on the Chao Phraya. Founded in 1782, just six years before the birth of Sydney, they called it Krung Thep ‘the city of angels’ but the Portuguese gave it the more earthly name Bangkok.
The new capital was left alone as the west was beset by the Napoleonic Wars. After 1815 Europeans started making demands to open the Thai economy to which successive kings warily agreed. Most were well-educated with a deep knowledge of the west but also suspicious of the intentions of ‘farangs’ (foreigners). In 1855 Britain sent Hong Kong governor Sir John Bowring to Bangkok. Bowring was not strong enough to make direct threats. Instead he and the king signed an early free trade agreement the Anglo-Thai Treaty of Friendship and Commerce which became known as the Bowring Treaty. Bowring was so struck by his hosts, he eventually switched sides and in retirement represented the Thai king in British and European courts.
The Treaty led to similar agreements with France and Germany. But they also fortified the capital against possible invasion. King Mongkut (who met “I”, British nanny Anna Leonowens) corresponded with the Pope, Queen Victoria and Napoleon III, but ruled absolutely until his death by malaria after seeing a total solar eclipse in a disease-ridden rainforest. His son Chulalongkorn had to deal with the French as they raided Indo-China. Their navy blew up two forts at the mouth of the Chao Phraya and landed at their Bangkok consulate. To get them out, he gifted them the Angkhor Wat region. The French still respected the Siamese monarchy and 14 royal families from across Europe were represented when the next king was crowned in 1910. Prince Wilhelm of Sweden put his finger on why Siam had survived: “I have never seen a crowned head sustain his dignity better than Maha Vajiravudh.”
Maha, crowned as Rama VI, was educated in Eton, Oxford and Sandhurst and was an ardent Anglophile but sensibly steered clear of the First World War. By 1932 son Rama VII was struggling to keep Thailand out of the depression. Educated ministers were getting tired of absolute royal rule. The Wall St crash reduced government and military salaries and the middle class were showing disgruntlement in newspapers, magazines, books, films and cartoons. British barrister Gerald Sparrow was in Thailand when the coup rumours festered but the king insisted on moving out of town for the summer. While he was away, the army imprisoned the entire royal family. Field Marshal Phibulsonggram, known as Phibul, emerged as the strongman but a puzzled Sparrow asked the chief justice why Phibul agreed to keep on the king. The chief justice thought a minute and said “everyone behaved a little better when the King was there.”
Rama VII was addicted to divine power. He wanted everything and got nothing. He went to London and abdicated in 1934 (two years before Britain’s own abdication). Phibul was in charge but anointed 10-year-old Prince Ananda as king. Ananda was in Switzerland studying and another World War would keep him there to 1945. Ahead of that war, Pribul changed the name of the country from Siam to Thailand “land of the free”. When Prime Minister Winston Churchill looked at a new map of Asia in 1941, he asked why was Siam buried under the name of Thailand. He was told it was a market device for Thai nationalism. The Siamese kings ruled over Thais, Burmese, Malays, Karen and all others within their borders but Phibul was making a statement for a single ethnic identity known as the Thai.
That nationalism faced an existential threat from Japan but Phibul quickly ordered an armistice. It included a secret protocol to aid Japan in return for territories lost to the Europeans including Cambodia. Phibul escaped retribution from the west at the end of that war. King Ananda returned to Thailand in 1945 to a joyous reception from his people. But within a year he was murdered in mysterious circumstances. He was found dead in the palace with a single gunshot wound to the forehead. The official version was accidental death but three palace employees were executed. A veil drew down over the incident which has yet to be lifted. The winner was younger brother Bhumibol Adulyadej who came to the throne. He remains there today.
Bhumibol is venerated (and failing to do so is a crime) but the real power rests with the oligarchy of generals and police commanders. Phibul dominated until 1957 and he was firmly on the side of the Americans in cold war politics. Phibul built the Democracy Monument in a moment of 1939 fascistic optimism but as his version of democracy deteriorated into authoritarianism, the monument became an embarrassing reminder of what might have been. In 1973 students inspired by western events gathered around the monument to protest military rule. Troops opened fired from helicopters and scores were killed. Bhumibol intervened and there was a brief interregnum of democracy. But the soldiers returned and the students were back in the square in 1992 to protest an unelected prime minister. Again troops opened fire and democracy flickered out.
But what value is democracy in Thailand today? The Chinese have proved authoritarian rule is no barrier to economic success. Thailand has recovered from the 1997 “Thaitanic” economic collapse and is a nation in a hurry towards prosperity. Party politics is not a necessary part of that equation. Modern capitalism prefers political stability over choice. The generals have proved that yet again. But looking again at the ever-present pictures of Bhumibol, you are reminded he is approaching his 90s. His death may cause a crisis that even the army’s M-16s cannot solve.