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Where to start Thai reform and change?

In Thailand's new era under a new reign, reform and change can hardly be formulated and implemented fast enough because much of what ails the country has been suppressed and swept under the rug for years. The most consequential question now is not whether Thailand needs to change, but where to start. Getting the starting point wrong will end up causing more grief and pain after so much suffering that has already transpired.

Where to start Thai reform and change?

Anti-government protesters paints a marker symbolising the "People's Plaque" outside the closed main gate of Thailand's parliament during a pro-democracy rally in Bangkok on Sept 24.

In Thailand's new era under a new reign, reform and change can hardly be formulated and implemented fast enough because much of what ails the country has been suppressed and swept under the rug for years.

The most consequential question now is not whether Thailand needs to change, but where to start. Getting the starting point wrong will end up causing more grief and pain after so much suffering that has already transpired.

For many who relate to and support the more radical wing of Thailand's protesting youth movement, first and foremost changes should emanate from monarchical reform — especially the 24 sections under the first two chapters of the current constitution focussing on the throne.

Their underlying logic is that monarchical power, prestige and prerogatives cascade through the entire system of how Thailand works — from parliament and judiciary, to the military and police, all the way to the whole bureaucracy that includes line ministries.

The Education Ministry, for example, is under fire from student protesters for its rigid hierarchy and outdated traditionalism that privilege patriotism and duty under country and monarchy over faculty quality and an up-to-date curriculum for the 21st century.

That the monarchy was used by one side of the Thai political divide as its trump card over the past 15 years of political contest and confrontation, has also added fuel to the pent-up movement, to challenge proponents and loyalists of the throne.

Each time it lost major elections, the "yellow-clad" side upholding incumbent institutions of power in the military, monarchy, judiciary and bureaucracy openly held up portraits of the late monarch as their rallying symbol — first under the People's Alliance for Democracy in 2005-06 and later behind the People's Democratic Reform Committee in 2013-14.

And because of the immense popularity and moral authority of the late king, the conservative-royalist movement ultimately won each time they took to the streets to destabilise the then-elected government — first via the military coup in September 2006 and then again through another putsch in May 2014.

Along the way, a series of seemingly one-sided judicial decisions accompanied these manoeuvres. These included repeated dissolutions of political parties that challenged the status quo, particularly Thai Rak Thai, Palang Prachachon (or People's Power) and Future Forward.

Over this period, when dissidents questioned these undemocratic power plays, they were harassed, persecuted, sometimes chased into exile, where a handful have died in mysterious circumstances.

Recalibrating monarchical relations with democratic institutions appears central to Thailand's broader changes. But when pressed at this time, rethinking and reconsidering the role of this hitherto highest institution of the land has become divisive for Thai society, even creating a chasm within the protest movement.

At issue is not whether monarchical reform is needed but when, how, how much, and to what ends. Renegotiating this process necessarily takes time, because the institution is endemic and deeply embedded in the Thai system.

For example, how would the reformist calls for institutional transparency and accountability address the issue of royal motorcades that can create empty streets out of traffic gridlock?

Should there be no more royal motorcades or perhaps some, and under what conditions? What to do, for instance, about school curricula that inculcate duty and obedience to monarch and nation?

Should this kind of teaching and preaching be eliminated completely from school textbooks, procedures, and daily routines? As royal family members have handed out university diplomas for decades, thereby reinforcing the monarchical role in the upper echelons of society, how might this practice be amended?

Students and their family members evidently are still going through great lengths to subscribe to this practice. Yesterday and today, for example, vehicle traffic around Chulalongkorn University has been more heavily congested than normal because of commencement ceremonies, attracting thousands of relatives and friends of graduates, some from far-flung provinces.

University degrees with royal bestowment have been the highlight of life for many Thais who could get there for upward social mobility.

For many years of the last reign that spanned seven decades, these university graduates — many of whom went on to senior and impactful roles in society — viewed it as their highest honour to be granted a royal audience for their degree with the late monarch. How should this whole process now be revised, or should it stay the same under the new reign?

Underneath the big demands for transparency and accountability of finance and role in democratic society, and separation of monarchy from politics and the armed forces, towards a kind of democratically bounded throne, the situation down below on the ground is nuanced and complex.

It is unlikely to change quickly and sufficiently to end up with the "genuine constitutional monarchy", as demanded by the student-led reform movement.

All of this does not mean that the institution of the monarchy cannot be discussed or called into question for reform and change. But a wider and more inclusive process of rethink, renegotiation and recalibration is necessary over some time.

A ruling system that came into place over decades is unlikely to change over weeks, even months. Banging against the monarchy frontally day-in and day-out is not going to lead to inclusiveness.

The vast majority of Thais probably do know what is going on with the top-down hierarchical, unequal and unfair system they have grown up in. They just need more time to internalise and to come to terms with it before participation and action can come about.

What is needed in Thailand now is consensus-building around critical areas of reform and change that are imperative in the lead-up to an eventual constitutional convention. Education reform should be paramount because it is all about the future at all levels, from individual to society and economy.

Protests and issues about the need to overhaul Thai education will likely resonate without chasm and division. Military reform is equally existential. The overarching civilian control over the military and security sector reforms are where to start.

Other areas feature the justice system. These include the police force, the state-owned media, and the pro-government and pro-military independent agencies that have made mostly one-way decisions against oppositional forces, such as the Election Commission and the Constitutional Court.

These institutional reforms amount to Thailand's overdue and overall package of fundamental, related and mutually-reinforcing changes, not one single issue here and there. BANGKOK POST

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches at the Faculty of Political Science and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University. 

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Thailand reform monarchy government

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