Thailand has had a volatile history when it comes to democracy. In 1932, a revolution overthrew the absolute monarchy. The first constitution in the country’s history limited the power of the King and created a parliamentary democracy that played a role in governance.
Since 1932, the country has had 20 constitutions and charters that have marked the progress and regression of democracy. At its most recent peak in 1992, both houses of the legislature were democratically elected, the prime minister was required to be an elected member of parliament, and the entire document was drafted with popular consideration.
Democratic prospects were looking up for Thailand entering the 21st century.
A new political party, Thais Love Thais (TRT), arose from the chaos of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Instead of playing a destabilizing role, the financial crisis actually helped consolidate democracy by encouraging democratic systems to comply with foreign pressure and assure international investors.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, leader of the TRT, became the first prime minister to complete a full term — a well-boding sign for the stabilization of democracy. The TRT’s base activated the poor, rural majority in the North and Northwest regions of Thailand. In 2006, the TRT swept the ballot, and, through a coalition government, secured a super-majority in both houses of parliament.
However, things took a turn for the worse when TRT’s opposition parties took to extraconstitutional means to remove Thaksin and his party from power.
Both the Democratic Party (DP) and the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) took on increasingly anti-democratic stances, despite what their names may suggest. These pro-establishment parties previously benefited from the status quo, and Thaksin, his party, and his movement threatened to upend their built influence.
To be fair, Thaksin was not a saint himself. He used the strong power in the executive given to him by the pro-democratic 1997 constitution to remove horizontal accountability and engage in corrupt practices, including a net $1.9 billion sale of his family’s shares of a telecom company essential to Thailand’s national security to Singapore’s sovereign fund… completely tax-free.
His opponents used his corrupt and — sometimes — anti-democratic moves to justify extraconstitutional actions. PAD-sponsored street demonstrations calling for an increase in the monarchy’s power laid the groundwork for a coup, and in 2006, Thaksin was removed from power and a military junta took control.
The relentless cycle of coups.
Since the dawn of democracy in Thailand, the country has experienced 12 successful coups and seven attempted ones. It’s not just that Thailand is susceptible to coups, as Vox reports:
“There is a self-perpetuating cycle in which one coup leads to another. There is a king who is just powerful enough that people expect him to intervene over political disagreements but just weak enough that he doesn’t. … There is a military that sees a big role for itself as an outside arbiter — but tends to always take the same side. And, maybe more than anything else, there is a huge political divide between two very big segments of Thai society.” (emphasis added)
That divide is crucial to the ongoing cycle of coups because it relates to how the country is governed. On one side, some Thais advocate for a democratic system reminiscent of the 1997 constitution that gave rise to Thaksin and his party. On the other side, some Thais prefer a government centered on the monarchy.
Without clear direction, the country continues its violent routine.
Breaking the cycle.
Here is where young Thais come into play. Rising generations of young Thais are making waves in Thailand’s political scene. Since 2020, there have been consistent and impressive demonstrations for democracy across the country, often led by passionate student leaders.
Students are taking such a vocal role against the monarchy that they are being targeted by the government. On July 22nd, 2021, a “dozen Thai pro-democracy student activists were charged with royal defamation and sedition … over a rally last year that demanded reforms to Thailand’s unassailable monarchy,” Asia Times reports.
Thai’s youth, aided by access to tools, information, resources, and connections via the internet, are a formidable and angry force in their country’s politics. Young Thais empathize with the struggles faced by anti-coup protestors in Myanmar.
Asia Times reported that “Thai youth have shown their support for anti-coup protesters [in Myanmar] by organizing and joining a series of protests in Bangkok and other provinces. They’ve sent messages of solidarity on social media and welcomed Myanmar to the “Milk Tea Alliance,” a transnational Asian pro-democracy movement, denouncing the military junta.”
This runs contrary to biases from older generations for autocratic rule. And the empathy runs deep, stemming from a shared sense of pain and longing for democracy.
“The times have changed. We will not tolerate military oppression, whether it’s in the streets of Bangkok or Yangon. Thai youth are rejecting the tired anti-Myanmar propaganda they learned in school and are opting instead for transnational unity. We can all learn something from them.”
If Thai youth remain strong advocates for democracy, it is only a matter of time before they lead a transition in governments and work toward true democratic consolidation. Likely, only Thai youth will see the completion of the democratic vision in motion since 1932.