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  • Thailand in 2018:Military Dictatorship under Royal Command
  • Eugénie Mérieau (bio)

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On 22 May 2014, Thai army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha staged a military coup — two days earlier he had declared martial law for the entire territory of the kingdom. The junta, renamed the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), abolished the 2007 constitution and replaced it with an interim constitution banning political parties and elections. In April 2015 it lifted martial law only to replace it with NCPO Order 3/2015 prohibiting gatherings of more than five people.

Upon seizing power the NCPO had promised to return the country to democracy according to a roadmap stipulating for the drafting of a new constitution and the organization of elections. Following a referendum in August 2016, the newly crowned King Vajiralongkorn, who had ascended to the throne in December 2016, promulgated a new "permanent" constitution in April 2017. Elections were then planned for November 2018, which were later delayed to February then March 2019. In 2018, in preparation for the upcoming election, the military government lifted some of its restrictions on political activities. It allowed the registration of political parties in March and lifted the ban on political gatherings in December, after more than four years under martial law and NCPO Order 3/2015. In both cases, Prayuth used his absolute powers under Article 44 of the 2014 interim constitution to lift his previous orders.

The general election planned for 2019 will certainly not "return" democracy to Thailand. The planning and organization of elections following a military takeover [End Page 327] is part of a regular pattern in Thailand, and has been called the "vicious cycle of Thai politics" (wongchon ubat).1 Each cycle starts and ends in a military coup. First a coup is staged, with martial law declared and the constitution abolished. A short interim constitution banning both political parties and elections is promulgated instead. The interim constitution is in turn followed by a permanent constitution providing for elections, only to lead to a further crisis and a military or judicial-military coup, installing a military government. In 2006, the democratically elected leader Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted by a military coup, the 1997 constitution abolished and replaced with the 2006 interim constitution, followed by the permanent 2007 constitution adopted by referendum. Elections were held in December 2007, only for the subsequent government of Samak Sundaravej to be dismissed by the Constitutional Court in 2008. After years of mass mobilization of the red-shirts calling for new elections to be held, Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of Thaksin, was eventually elected in 2011, but she faced disqualification by the Supreme Administrative Court in 2014. Her government was finally overthrown in the military coup staged by the NCPO.

This regular pattern exhibits continuity beyond the apparent political and constitutional instability. The military and the monarchy remain powerful actors, even at times when there are regular elections and an alternation of civilian governments, suggesting that Thailand is a tutelary democracy. A tutelary democracy, according to Adam Przeworski, is "a regime which has competitive, formally democratic institutions, but in which the power apparatus, typically reduced to the armed forces, retains the capacity to intervene to correct undesirable states of affairs".2

In Thailand, the tutelary powers, identified as the monarchy and the army, can veto decisions of elected politicians whenever needed, while allowing some degree of electoral politics to play out. The nature and dynamics of the relationship between the two tutelary powers are two of the most contentious questions in the academic field of Thai studies. Several analysts have tried to conceptualize this relationship as an alliance, either in functional-structural terms (deep state,3 parallel state4) or in agent-focused types of analysis (network monarchy5).

Adopting a historical-institutional approach, this chapter analyses the Thai regime in terms of tutelary democracy, where tutelary powers as well as the mechanisms used by tutelary powers to veto decisions of elected politicians are entrenched through the constitution, laws and administrative structures created by laws. In that regard, the year 2018 was instrumental in setting the structures of continued military...


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