Thailand’s conservatives see new threats to their conception of political order, in the form of a politicised youth movement and the ruling government led by the Phalang Pracharat Party.
Thailand has in recent years seen a succession of political crises, centred on the contention between those defending the establishment and those disillusioned with it. In effect, these crises are seen as such by conservatives who are seeking to cope with perceived threats to their conceptions of political order. Comprising of traditional elites, the urban middle class and residents of the southern region, the conservatives aspire to politics that upholds the nation, religion, and monarchy, and privileges the morality of individuals (or ‘good people’) over the system’s checks and balances. Threatened by a politician popular among the rural population while the monarchy was in transition, conservatives staged mass protests which led to two coups in a row. The coups allayed some of their concerns. But the coups also brought about new threats: the junta-led government and the emergence of a politicised youth movement that demands reform of the monarchy.
The conservatives considered former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra a threat because they regarded him as a rival to the monarch. They also saw him as a corrupt and immoral politician. They founded the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) in 2005 and invoked Article 7 of the 1997 Constitution in their demand for a royally-appointed prime minister. These actions paved a way for the 19 September 2006 coup. However, they later found that the threat to the conservative order remained because a Thaksin-influenced political party won the election and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra became a prime minister, and even had the audacity to attempt to bring him back home by passing the Amnesty Bill. In response, the conservatives established the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) in 2013 and invoked ‘a sacred war between good and evil’ narrative in ousting former prime minister Yingluck. This led to the 22 May 2014 coup.
Initially, the conservatives were satisfied with the 2014 coup, as it saw the back of the Yingluck government. But after finding that the junta did not return power to them as quickly as they had expected, they began to become dissatisfied. They were also at first satisfied with the installation of the Phalang Pracharat Party-led government as a vehicle for their ‘representatives’ to govern the country. But later they found it to be a disappointment: it failed to alleviate economic hardship, did not follow through on promised reforms and was tarred by scandals such as asset fraud (hence, making it immoral). Understandably, conservatives became disenchanted with the party and even began to see it as a threat.
The PPP is not the only challenge for conservatives. They also had to cope with the youth movement, whose activities began to accelerate in 2020. Initially, they looked askance at the movement, as they did not consider it to be part of Thaksin’s clique. After the movement called for the reform of the monarchy — reforms which implemented would affect the institution’s highly revered status — conservatives started to see the movement as a threat. Some believed that the youths were brainwashed by left-wing university professors who wanted to overthrow the monarchy. As a veteran PDRC member said in the interview with the author: ‘They tried to penetrate the youth movement. If you take a look at subjects such as morals, civics, and history, you will see changes (which will lead to reduced reverence for the old order). From what I have seen, I think the kids did not think for themselves’.
Initially, the conservatives were satisfied with the 2014 coup, as it saw the back of the Yingluck government. But after finding that the junta did not return power to them as quickly as they had expected, they began to become dissatisfied.
Despite their role in the 2014 coup which led to the PPP-led government, conservatives do not regret what they did in that year. One of them goes as far to say that ‘we apologise, but we don’t regret’. In other words, he thinks that he did the right thing at the time. He said that Thaksin might have come back if not for the PDRC’s opposition; there might even have been bloodshed if the military had not intervened.
It appears that conservatives will go the extra mile to protect the institution of the monarchy — even when it is seen to be morally deficient. One of them concedes the fact that King Vajiralongkorn has many wives, but argues that ‘it is not that bad, is it?’ Another said that some people might not admire the king, but they still love the other members of the royal household. He added that the country would be plunged into civil war if there is no monarchy. There also seems to be an implicit double standard here: even though the monarchy poses a threat to the morals of the conservatives’ political order (and fueled the rise of the youth movement), they are not calling for the institution to be reformed.
Given their dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs, conservatives have turned to elections in defending their conception of political order. The victories of the Democrat Party over the PPP in by-elections in two southern provinces on 17 January 2022 gave them hope. It suggested that the South is still their stronghold and a region where those disillusioned with the junta turned to a political party that ostensibly advocates moral politics (the Democrat Party). They hope that political parties that uphold morality — an area in which the PPP has failed — will win future elections and form a government in line with their political order.
In the end, this might be a tall order. Once in power, the former junta has strived to stay there as long as it can, employing strategies which are often immoral. On another front, Thai youths have kept asking questions about the monarchy, many of which are morally charged. In the long run, it might prove difficult for conservatives to achieve the form of political order that they desire.
Anusorn Unno is Associate Professor, Faculty of Sociology and Anthropology, Thammasat University, Bangkok.