In Thai politics, hostility is not a good look.
Trump-style demagoguery of directly bashing opponents can almost never be found among political leaders in Thailand. However, that does not mean that Thai politicians and leaders embrace political differences nor does it mean they value peace over partisanship. It just means that they channel their hostility through passive-aggressive speech. In Thailand, demagoguery exists in a much subtler form. It is often disguised in a package that champions the greater good of the people and praises unity.
But why is that so?
First, there is the fact that Thai Buddhism, which heavily extols the value of kindness and forgiveness, permeates every aspect of life in Thailand, including politics. Secondly, the institution of monarchy, which has major influence over the government, has been built on the reputation of playing a loving and benevolent parental role to the Thai citizens. Then there is the culture of ‘saving face.’ All of this contributes to Thailand’s culture of subtle demagoguery, which is often employed by its King and its politicians.
How can subtle demagogues be detected?
Despite their subtlety, Thai demagogues can still be detected. Although the tactics utilized by different types of demagogues may differ, according to scholar of rhetoric Jennifer R. Mercieca, there exists a defining featured shared by all dangerous demagogues: unaccountability . Another rhetorical scholar Charles W. Lomas also suggested that dangerous demagoguery is characterized by “complete indifference to truth” and that its “primary motivation is personal gain .”
According to these guidelines, major leaders in Thailand, including Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha and King Maha Vajiralongkorn, are classified as dangerous demagogues.
The Myth of the Silent Majority
On October 21st 2020, in the midst of the peaceful protests calling for monarchy reform and his resignation, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha delivered a speech that was literally titled “Let’s De-escalate [Conflict] and Let the Democratic System Work.” In the speech, he called on “fellow citizens, brothers and sisters” to “make the right decision” by quitting the protests for the “greater good of [the] country.” He accused the “mobs” of using violence against the police and righteously warns that “violence begets more violence.” He also announced that he has to always keep “the huge silent majority…who struggle everyday to make an honest living and to look after their family” in mind with his every action while implying that the good “silent majority” disagrees with the protests.
Here, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha uses the “silent majority” to justify his current unresponsiveness to the demands of the protesters and his attempts to crackdown on the protests. Not only does his claim that there is a “silent majority,” despite the large number of protesters on the streets, lack transparency, but it also shows a lack of accountability for his own actions. According to Mercieca, “the dangerous demagogue who weaponizes communication does so to prevent themselves from being held accountable, from being questioned, debated, from having to give good reasons and persuade .”
In a rare interview with the press, King Maha Vajiralongkorn proclaimed that he “love[s] them all the same” when asked about the protesters calling for monarchy reforms. He later added that “Thailand is the land of compromise.” His statements stand in stark contrast with the police order to continuously use force, tear gas and high-pressure water cannons against the peaceful anti-government protesters. It is also worth noting that similar measures have not been used against royalist counter-protesters. Although the monarchy is not supposed to play active roles in Thai politics, the Thai monarchy, in reality, holds substantial power over governmental decisions. In this case, it is clear that King Maha Vajiralongkorn has refused to take accountability for both his words and actions, qualifying him as a dangerous demagogue.
Philosopher John Dewey has said that citizens can “prevent dangerous demagogues from attaining power by using their rationality to assess public discourse—thereby holding leaders accountable for their words and actions .” However, the latter part of that statement can be challenging as Thailand has the lese majeste law that prohibits Thai citizens from criticizing members of the royal family. The presence of the lese majeste law in Thailand serves as further proof of the one-sided communication that is the hallmark of demagoguery.
1. Jennifer R. Mercieca. 2019. “Dangerous Demagogues and Weaponized Communication.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 49:3, 264-279.