The King of Thailand is the longest-reigning head of state currently alive and is the 20th longest ruling monarch in history. Much like many other authoritarians his rule has been accurately described as anti-democratic, corrupt, and immune from criticism due to restrictions on free speech. Rama IX is a very popular king inside Thailand and those who criticise him are often punished by the state. Here is an outsider’s case against the Thai monarch, free from the threat of political violence and censorship.
The first point speaks about monarchies more broadly but is still relevant to Thailand. What is the rationale behind the monarchy? There are different types of monarchic government but the most prominent throughout history have been absolute and constitutional. In relation to absolutism, especially in Europe, there has always been a divine aspect to the rationale behind monarchies. For example Charles I in England and Louis XVI in France (both whom incidentally were executed) were believers in the divine right of kings, although they were by no means the only monarchs to do so. With this divine element to kingship the argument was that these monarchs were chosen by God and this therefore justifies the luxury and privilege of these individuals.
With the rise of popular sovereignty more and more monarchies became constitutional, perpetuating the myth that monarchs are representatives of the people and therefore should be respected for this reason. There are problems with both of these justifications. On absolutism most people acknowledge that it is dangerous to concentrate power in one person’s hands, especially if they claim divine legitimacy, as this will cause them to act irrationally and for their own self-interest. Bringing it back to Thailand, the king’s ‘War on Drugs’ policy has been cited by groups like Amnesty International as the reason behind extrajudicial executions being carried out by the Thai government.
In regards to a constitutional monarchy, if the monarch is ‘just the like people’ surely it would make more sense to actually have someone who is one of the people, not someone who has been inculcated with a sense of entitlement to political superiority since birth. Again linking this back to Thailand, surely a democratically elected head of state is more representative than an aristocrat that walks around in a golden dress. An elected leader wouldn’t solve the issue of representation, as no one person can represent an entire country, however a republican form of government can have many checks and balances to limit the power of this individual whilst retaining the office as elected. King Rama, although somewhat restrained by the constitution, can still act on a whim to invalidate laws or being new government programmes; this must be ended.
The wealth of the king is also a key reason as to why the monarchy should be dissolved. In Thailand the Crown Property Bureau (CPB) controls huge amounts of money and large swathes of land that Forbes has estimated at around $35 billion. The criticism of this figure by the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs was that this money is controlled by the CPB on behalf of the monarchy as an institution which is different to the personal wealth of the king. This is true however this ignores the obscenity of this concentration of wealth.
Although there have been great strides forward in terms of social programmes particularly in relation to healthcare, according to the World Bank 7.3 million people still live in poverty with many of these people living in rural areas. Indeed, according to the 2014 Corruption Perception Index, Thailand’s corruption rating has worsened since 2010 and access to justice for the poor and vulnerable remains incredibly limited.
With these sorts of social programmes, I would question whether this $35 billion that is administered by the CPB could not be better spent on improving the lives of ordinary people. The reason this redistribution doesn’t have to occur under a monarchic system is that there is no threat to the king’s power if he doesn’t; if the office of the president of a country had this much wealth and this criticism was levelled against it, the occupant would have to do something because he or she could be voted out of office.
The third and final thing I want to bring up is the issue of civil liberties. In a previous article about lèse-majesté laws that forbid criticism of monarchs, I gave examples of people in Thailand who had been prosecuted for speaking out against the monarchy. I don’t want to repeat everything I said in that article but rather use it as an example of a wider problem in societies that have monarchies. In 2005 Rama IX said in his birthday speech that “I must also be criticised. I am not afraid if thee criticism concerns what I do wrong”.
However after this address prompted lots of criticism from political activists, the number of lèse-majesté prosecutions skyrocketed. Either this was a way of the King taking out dissent or these prosecutions were a manifestation of a political ideology that is perfectly okay with repressing people’s civil liberties. After the military junta overthrew the government of Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 censorship rose exponentially, which have included these lèse-majesté laws as well as the military control of broadcast media. Indeed in 2007 a new constitution was ratified which enshrined these laws in Article 112. Because of these actions and attitudes, which the monarchy is largely responsible for enabling, Thai citizens do not enjoy the same civil rights as people in other countries.
In conclusion monarchies need to be abolished. Although this piece was specifically taking examples from Thailand and the case against King Rama IX, these criticisms could easily be levelled against any monarchy. The monarchy of Thailand fascinates me as it is a prime example of why constitutional monarchism remains an illogical and backward form of government.
The wealth controlled by the CPB could easily be compared with the Crown Estate in the UK, and the argument that such an institution is anti-democratic can be used universally but are particularly prescient against absolutist states like Saudi Arabia and Swaziland. It is imperative that republicanism wins the battle of ideas and triumphs over one of the last vestiges of unenlightened and irrational government. Those of us who live in countries that continue to have monarchies have a responsibility to future generations to exorcise these undemocratic relics from our political systems. If we do not we shall continue to live in nations that venerate arbitrary families and reward their ‘service to the nation’ with exorbitant riches and social privileges.