Years of political turmoil and ingrained problems such as inequality, corruption and and inefficient administration have led to declining faith in the monarchy. This has widened political divisions in Thailand - an issue so serious that it has become the focus of Thailand's latest security plan.
Thailand announced last week a new plan and policy guideline for national security. The guideline foresees global geo-political changes presenting insignificant threats to the country in the years ahead. But it regards domestic issues, notably declining faith in the monarchy and political divisions, as greater concerns.
To be in effect from 19 November 2019 to 30 September 2022, the plan notes that the monarchy remains the main pillar of the country, but that domestic and international developments pose risks to the institution.
Less toleration among groups of people have made it more difficult for authorities to maintain unity within the nation.
The text of the plan, which appeared in the Royal Gazette on 22 November, notes that some elements in Thailand — perhaps meaning young activists and dissidents — “have linked the royal institution [with political conflict] for their political benefit, providing false information and spreading misunderstanding to undermine the national institution”. It notes, “The new generations have not had a bond to the monarchy since they lack understanding and correct awareness of the importance of the royal institution as the national soul of the country”.
Some parties in Thailand have been obsessed with the decline in faith in the monarchy for years. This fear was especially evident during the transition period between the reigns of King Bhumibol and King Vajiralongkorn, which came amid deepening political division — between the country’s establishment elite and lower middle class, and between conservative and progressive political ideologies.
Political trends after the 2014 military coup and the elections held in 2019 to perpetuate the ruling elite’s hold on power both concentrated authority in the hands of the military-dominated government. But the new security plan admits that Thai people have lost faith in the judicial system and at the same time want to participate more in government decision-making and to exercise their political rights.
“The structure of inequality, corruption, injustice, inefficient administration as well as different and increasingly extremist views among people have caused complicated political conflicts and divisions”, the plan says. Less toleration among groups of people have made it more difficult for authorities to maintain unity within the nation, the plan argues, but it adds that there remains a low risk of further political conflict in comparison to the past.
The government under General Prayut Chan-ocha following the 2014 military coup employed tough measures to restrict and control dissidents. These measures included detention to forcibly “adjust” people’s attitudes toward the monarchy and the traditional elite. They also included draconian laws, including those on lèse majesté, sedition, computer and crimes as well as the internal security act. In fact only one case has been prosecuted under the law on lèse majesté, article 112 of the criminal code on defamation of the monarchy, during the new reign. But laws relating to sedition and computer crime have been increasingly enforced as a means of controlling people’s behaviour. In the five years since 2014, these prosecutions have most notably targeted young people. Prosecutors indicted eight activists on 20 November of sedition charges for their 2015 assembly to call for a general election. In recent years, dozens of activists and politicians have been tied up in prosecution for the expression of political ideas, for actions against the authorities, and for criticism of the monarchy. Many dissidents who sought exile in abroad were charged, and are now wanted at home, in connection with such criticism.
The new security plan maps out policy guidelines to safeguard and strengthen the royal institution by providing it with more protection, and by glorifying and exalting it further. The authorities are to take more effective measures to defend the monarchy and to improve understanding of the institution.
To these ends, the government agencies are to employ various measures and tactics to ensure the security of the monarch and of members of royal family. They are to campaign for public awareness and understanding of the role and value of the monarchy as the centre of the nation’s spirit. The authorities will use all possible means to preserve the monarchy. Thailand will apply King Bhumibol’s Sufficiency Economy philosophy for sustainable development and propagate such royal thinking domestically and internationally.
Violence remains major security problem in the predominantly Muslim Deep South of Thailand, where more than 7,000 lives have been lost since early 2004. The new national security plan addresses differences in religion, ethnicity, culture and identity as well as injustice. It views them as the main sources of grievances in the region. While the government has blamed narcotics trafficking, civil society groups and international organizations for the complex situation that it faces in the Deep South, it contends that that situation has improved in recent years as a result of its policies to win the hearts and minds of residents of the region.
In presenting the new national security plan, Thailand projects no major threats from outside the country, as it has managed to maintain good relations with neighbouring countries. Internal conflicts in those countries and unclear demarcations of borders with them pose only minor security risks. The plan does note some maritime security threats due to overlapping claims on continental shelves, contention over the South China Sea, both drug and human trafficking, and damage to the natural environment.
Meanwhile, the new security plan takes into account changes in geo-politics, as the power of the United States power is challenged by China and Russia. Thailand has the possibility to use its geographic position to connect to both the US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy and China’s Belt and Road Initiative, for mutual benefit in each case. Bangkok counts on ASEAN’s ability and unity in dealing with geo-political challenges.
Supalak Ganjanakhundee is a Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.