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Journal of Contemporary Asia
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Introduction: Understanding Thailand’s Politics
Veerayooth Kanchoochat & Kevin Hewison
To cite this article: Veerayooth Kanchoochat & Kevin Hewison (2016) Introduction:
Understanding Thailand’s Politics, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 46:3, 371-387, DOI:
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/00472336.2016.1173305
Published online: 03 May 2016.
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Introduction: Understanding Thailand’s Politics
and Kevin Hewison
National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS), Tokyo, Japan;
Department of Asian Studies,
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA and Institute of China Studies, University of Malaya,
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Thailand’s politics from the mid-2000s has seen considerable con-
ﬂict and contestation, with seven prime ministers, two military
coups, and scores of deaths from political violence. This article,
as well as introducing the eight articles in the Special Issue,
examines various aspects of this tumultuous period and the
authoritarian turn in Thai politics. It does this by examining some
of the theoretical and conceptual analysis of Thailand's politics and
critiquing the basic assumptions underlying the modernisation and
hybrid regimes perspectives that have tended to dominate debates
on democratisation. While the concepts of bureaucratic polity and
network monarchy shed light on important political actors in
Thailand, they have not grappled with the persistence of author-
itarianism. In theoretical terms, the article suggests that it is neces-
sary to understand historically speciﬁc capitalist development as
well as the social underpinnings that establish authoritarian trajec-
tories and reinforce the tenacity of authoritarianism.
regimes; network monarchy;
In a recent foreword to a collection that assessed Thailand’s 2006 military coup,
historian Craig Reynolds (2014, ix) commented that “[e]ven in the best of times Thai
politics has not been easy to understand, and now, late in the reign of a revered and
activist monarch, it is even more diﬃcult to comprehend.”Such observations on the
complexity of Thailand’s politics have been made by analysts over several decades.
Why should Thailand’s politics be any more diﬃcult to understand than politics
elsewhere? There has certainly been much conﬂict and contestation over the past 15
years, but is Thailand’s politics so diﬀerent that the plethora of theories about demo-
cratisation, authoritarianism, political change and political conﬂict are of little expla-
natory value? This article, as well as introducing recent political events and the articles
in this Special Issue, addresses issues related to some of these theoretical approaches
and ways of understanding political contestation in Thailand.
Despite possessing a range of supposedly “democratic”institutions such as constitu-
tions, political parties and elections, Thailand’s politics has been marked by multiple
military interventions, political mudslinging, spates of violence, a “tradition”of street
protests, and repeated civilian uprisings, usually followed by eﬀorts to lay the
CONTACT Veerayooth Kanchoochat email@example.com National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies
(GRIPS), 7-22-1 Roppongi Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-8677, Japan.
JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY ASIA, 2016
VOL. 46, NO. 3, 371–387
© 2016 Journal of Contemporary Asia
foundations of electoral democracy. The political landscape, strewn with discarded
constitutions, often seems the preserve of elites doing political deals in back rooms.
In this context, the political institutions that have greatest longevity are also the sources
of conﬂict. In these bouts of intense political contestation, the key elements of
Thailand’s political struggle have been the military, monarchy, bureaucracy, a powerful
capitalist class, a politically active middle class and repressed subaltern classes. As
relatively stable elements in the political landscape, these groups have constantly tussled
over conceptions of law, representation and political space, often in a context of wide-
ranging debates about democracy, constitutions, elections and redistribution. Each of
these institutions has been subject to considerable research, theorising and analysis over
Reynolds’view of Thailand’s politics as diﬃcult to understand may well have been
prompted by the tremendous political tumult of recent years, with seven prime min-
isters between 2005 and 2016, six draft, interim and permanent constitutions, scores of
deaths from political violence and the jailing of hundreds for political acts associated
with the ongoing conﬂict. Adding to this volatile mix, there have been several highly
politicised judicial decisions, some notable palace political interventions and seemingly
endless street demonstrations, at least until the 2014 military coup. Yet turmoil does not
preclude understanding the social forces underpinning these conﬂicts.
2006 to 2014: A Tale of Two Coups
While this political turmoil began before the military coup of September 2006, it was
this putsch and another in May 2014 that marked the terrain of a decade of conﬂict. In
2008, the Journal of Contemporary Asia produced a Special Issue on Thailand examin-
ing the 2006 coup. The introduction to that issue reﬂected on an intervention that some
welcomed as a “good coup.”The articles in that issue revolved around topics of
democracy, elections, social movements, populism, military and monarchy. The intent
was to understand the “Thaksin [Shinawatra] ascendancy…[and] its ideological, class
and institutional base, the oppositional movements that took shape against it, and the
forces that eventually overthrew it”(Connors and Hewison 2008, 9).
Towards the end of their introduction to that Special Issue, Connors and Hewison
(2008, 9) intimated that Thailand’s ruling class was concerned that the changes made
by the 1997 constitution had resulted in an electoral system that appeared to
threaten the extant social and political order. For some in what is now usually
identiﬁed as the royalist elite, that the electoral system was producing overwhelming
majorities for Thaksin’s political party was cause for questioning electoral democ-
racy. The fear that Thaksin could establish both political and economic domination
did much to generate support for the 2006 coup. Anti-Thaksin street demonstrations
saw the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) express a developing disillusionment
with electoral and democratic politics, and the choice of wearing yellow shirts
showing support for the monarchy also represented a questioning of majoritarian-
ism. From a vantage point following the 2014 military coup, that disillusionment
soon became strong opposition to elections as posing an existential threat to an elite-
dominated social order. This opposition has been an important element motivating
372 VEERAYOOTH KANCHOOCHAT AND K. HEWISON
Part of the reason for that opposition to elections was that the 2006 coup did not
achieve the results coup planners and their yellow-shirted supporters had hoped for.
One major “failure”was the heightened politicisation of the monarchy. Initially hailed
as a “good coup,”the palace’s role in support of the military intervention was clear and
public. Whereas the palace had hoped that its role would be seen as supporting a
“popular”military intervention, the result was that many came to be see the palace as
irretrievably partisan and politicised. Equally important in deﬁning “failure,”when the
military seized power, its supporters expected the junta to remove Thaksin and his
party from politics through constitutional and electoral system changes that would
prevent a Thaksin return and facilitate elite control of electoral politics. Several changes
were made, showcased in the 2007 constitution, drawn up under military tutelage. This
charter sought to increase the power and reach of the judiciary and other check-and-
balance or “independent”institutions, moving authority away from elected politicians
and curbing their power and authority. At the same time, the military increased its
power, with, for example, the new Defence Ministry Law stripping the prime minister
of the power to determine military reshuﬄes. For those opposed to Thaksin, while the
1997 constitution was considered an important innovation, his electoral popularity and
parliamentary dominance was seen as promoting nepotism and corruption. The lesson
drawn from 2006 was that to defeat him more further and more extensive constitutional
rejigging was necessary to prevent a monopolisation of parliament and politics by
Thaksin, “Thaksin clones”or any other elected politician.
Under the junta and the subsequent military-backed government in 2006–07, eﬀorts
were made to destroy Thaksin and his party. A series of corruption and malfeasance cases
were investigated and charges against Thaksin, his wife and relatives ensued. The
judiciary promptly dissolved Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT) Party and banned 111 of
its leaders and former parliamentarians from participating in electoral politics for ﬁve
years. These constitutional and legal restrictions certainly weakened Thaksin and TRT.
However, as a measure of the perceived failure of the 2006 coup, these actions did not
prevent an electoral victory for the pro-Thaksin People’s Power Party in December 2007.
A renewed eﬀort to banish Thaksin and his parties took place in late 2008. Following
a long period of street-based agitation by the PAD, still a loose confederation of anti-
Thaksin and pro-royalist groups, the increasingly activist judiciary intervened to dis-
miss the elected government before dissolving the People’s Power Party and several of
its coalition partners, while banning another swathe of politicians from participating in
electoral politics for ﬁve years. In this “judicial coup,”parliament was not prorouged,
and with some murky political manoeuvers involving the military, the Democrat Party’s
Abhisit Vejjajiva was proposed and elected prime minister by a parliament reduced by
the bans on pro-Thaksin politicians. Supported by the military, Abhisit’s government
remained in power from 2008 to 2011, all the time facing extensive opposition from
pro-Thaksin groups, soon identiﬁed as “red shirts”and associated with the United
Democratic Front Against Dictatorship.
The processes that brought Abhisit to power were considered undemocratic by many
Thaksin supporters, and a series of eﬀorts by red shirts began to resist military and elite
interference in politics and in support of a fresh election. Massive protest rallies by red
shirts in 2009 and 2010 resulted in the army being used to defeat them, resulting in
considerable loss of life and injuries. Even so, when the Abhisit government did call an
JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY ASIA 373
election in 2011, it was Thaksin’s politically inexperienced youngest sister, Yingluck
Shinawatra, who led her Pheu Thai Party to yet another pro-Thaksin electoral landslide.
Yingluck, her brother and their advisers appeared to settle on a political strategy that
sought to appease the palace and allowed the military to look after its own aﬀairs. They
seemed to consider that these concessions would mean that the government would be
left to implement its election promises without interference from the military-
monarchy alliance (see Chambers and Napisa 2016). Pheu Thai’s political aims seemed
more likely to be achieved through compromise, by moderating radical demands and
reducing opposition and, for a time, it seemed to work. When royalist opponents
sniped about “populism”and occasionally demonstrated against alleged corruption,
disloyalty to the monarchy and for being at Thaksin’s beck and call, the government
was not seriously challenged and Yingluck seemed determined that her administration
remain in place and seek re-election (see Hewison 2012). Importantly, the government
sought to avoid the street demonstrations and conservative elite opposition that desta-
bilised previous pro-Thaksin administrations.
The continuing electoral successes of pro-Thaksin political parties provoked further,
legal and parliamentary contestation that led to more violence. Political debate whirled
around notions of electoral versus elite perspectives on democracy, popular versus
limited representation and the political roles of institutions such as the judiciary,
military and monarchy. PAD’s remnants joined with several other anti-Thaksin and
royalist groups and coagulated into the anti-democratic “People’s Committee for
Absolute Democracy with the King as Head of State”in late 2013. Its name conveyed
the notion that the political contest was between moral royalists opposed to corrupt,
elected politicians. The English name was later changed to the People’s Democratic
Reform Committee (PDRC) to distance the movement from the palace and to give the
impression that it was pursuing popular democratic reform. Initially, the PDRC gained
political traction when the Yingluck government introduced an ill-considered amnesty
bill that would have included Thaksin. Even though that bill was withdrawn, the
PDRC’s street protests gathered momentum, adopting a rhetoric that opposed electoral
politics and paving the way for the May 22, 2014 coup.
The PDRC developed around a plethora of anti-Thaksin ﬁgures and came to be led
by Democrat Party stalwart and former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban. He
was surrounded by other Democrat Party politicians, royalists and business ﬁgures who
rejected Yingluck and her government as well as the exiled Thaksin. Much of the
support for the PDRC came from the Bangkok middle classes and from the Democrat
Party’s strong electoral base in the south (see Baker 2016).
The PDRC’s mobilisations had several consistent and inter-related themes: anti-
corruption, protection of the monarchy and a rejection of electoral politics. Anti-
corruption was attractive to a middle class that tended to subscribe to the royalist
ideological weaving of arguments that civilian politicians are corrupt, gaining election
through “money politics”and “policy corruption,”and using the electoral system to
maintain their power and increase their wealth (see Veerayooth 2016). Elected politi-
cians were identiﬁed as wholly untrustworthy, voters could be bought, were duped or
ignorant, and therefore electoral politics was the core of the corruption problem (see
Thongchai 2008; Thorn 2016). Since 2006, the theme of protecting the monarchy has
been intensiﬁed. Royalists and the military made the monarchy a central element of
374 VEERAYOOTH KANCHOOCHAT AND K. HEWISON
national security and the lèse-majesté law was used extensively (see Streckfuss 2011).
While the Democrat Party administration had used the draconian law against political
opponents, usually red shirts, even the Yingluck government, under pressure from
royalists and the military, processed numerous cases.
By the time of the PDRC’s mobilisation, the theme of rejecting electoral politics had
become a signiﬁcant feature for all those opposing Thaksin. On the streets, the PDRC
campaigned against elections, declaring that they only resulted in a “parliamentary
dictatorship.”This anti-election language led to opposition to a poll called for early
2014 and that saw a campaign to block voter registration and assaults on voters as the
PDRC violently boycotted the elections (see Prajak 2016). The PDRC repeatedly
claimed that elected politicians were the root cause of the national malaise.
The elections prevented, the PDRC demanded that the Yingluck government be
thrown out, replaced by an appointed government and an appointed reform committee
to ensure the so-called Thaksin regime was uprooted. It was argued that elections are
just one aspect of democracy and that pro-Thaksin governments engaged in “major-
itarianism,”riding rough-shod over the minority that did not vote for them. In essence,
the PDRC opposed elections as anti-democratic and leading to “parliamentary author-
itarianism.”Those who opposed the PDRC argued that elections were an essential
element of representative democracy.
The months of PDRC demonstrations and associated violence destabilised but did
not succeed in dislodging the Yingluck government. As in 2008, the judiciary inter-
vened and removed Yingluck from the prime ministership, but even this did not
oﬃcially spell the end of her government, and eventually it was the military, egged
on by the PDRC and others, that dissolved the government in a coup on May 22, 2014.
In line with the PDRC’s anti-electoralism, the junta claimed its coup was an act to
[the] NCPO [the military junta] and all Thai citizens uphold and have faith in the
democratic system with His Majesty the King as Head of State. [The] NCPO fully realizes
that the military intervention may be perceived by the West as a threat to democracy and a
violation of the people’s liberty. However, this military intervention was inevitable, in
order to uphold national security and to strengthen democracy (Government Public
Relations Department 2014, emphasis added).
The junta declared that sovereignty was with the monarch rather than the people or
In the name of His Majesty the King…royal power [was presented] to us; today who
among us considers this? From the point of view of the government, you are using the
three powers [ie. legislative, executive and judicial power] which belong to Him. The
power does not belong to you. You do not receive this power when you are elected. It is
power that comes from His Majesty the King. His Majesty presented this power to us to
form the government. Today, the power that I have was presented to me by the King
(General Prayuth Chan-ocha, cited in Jory 2014, 3).
The 2014 coup was bloodless, and learning from one of the 2006 “failures,”the junta
attempted to distance its intervention from the palace. Signiﬁcantly, the military leader-
ship had also learnt that it could not intervene and hand over to a puppet civilian
regime, as it had in 2006, and hope that a civilian government would uproot the
JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY ASIA 375
“Thaksin regime.”After the 2014 coup, the military junta maintained its control of
government and engaged in a widespread suppression of opposition that involved the
use of military and police power, martial law, special decrees and the further expansion
of the draconian lèse-majesté law.
The military junta appointed puppet assemblies
meant to establish a constitution that would, more eﬀectively than in 2007, expunge
Thaksin’s political popularity and end his various parties’electoral successes. This
involved measures to undermine the parliament’s capacity to make policy and other
legislative decisions and to limit the ability of political parties to develop policies and
promises to the electorate. The junta also attempted to shape society to its “12 core
values of the Thai people”that all school children are required to recite, reﬂecting a
view of an idealised past when Thais were said to be passive and orderly. With the 2014
coup, the struggle over the shape and control of political, economic and social power
has entered a new phase.
For this Special Issue, Thailand’s political tumult and the 2014 military coup provide
an opportunity to more thoroughly consider the persistence of authoritarianism and
oﬀer reﬂections on Thailand’s conservative regime. Among other things, we ask: How
have the processes of democratisation been stymied? How can we make sense of
Thailand’s authoritarian persistence and engage it with theoretical and comparative
debates over democracy and authoritarianism?
Making Sense of Political Tumult: From Bureaucratic Polity to Network
Thailand’s political landscape has not been particularly fertile in developing the con-
ceptual and theoretical tools for understanding the events of recent years or the long-
standing debates regarding democracy and representation (see Ferrara 2015; Hewison
2015). There have been, however, some notable innovations. In earlier times, the most
widely used description of Thai politics was of a bureaucratic polity. Developed by
Riggs (1966), the bureaucratic polity was, in fact, far more than a descriptive category; it
was a theoretically sophisticated concept nested in a notion of a prismatic society,
eschewing the unilinear and evolutionary approach of early modernisation theory.
Riggs argued that Thailand’s development was not towards political modernity but
was a system where diﬀerentiation was limited to the bureaucracy and where alternative
power centres such as business were insecure and dependent. As might be expected, this
approach paid little attention to extra-bureaucratic struggles over democracy or repre-
sentation, treating the polity as a site of political competition between revolving
bureaucratic elites (see Hewison 1989,8–13). While it is true that Thailand’s elites
are powerful, a focus on them means that broader struggles for political space by
workers, peasant farmers, middle classes and others are necessarily diminished.
Half a century later, some of these latter observations can be seen to also apply to the
most widely used descriptive category of Thailand’s post-2006 politics, McCargo’s
network monarchy. This concept is not as carefully and theoretically deﬁned as bureau-
cratic polity, but it has been widely used to label Thailand’s elite politics. McCargo’s
innovation that was widely taken up was that he named and identiﬁed Thailand’s
leading political network, associated with the king and centred on former prime
minister and current Privy Council President, General Prem Tinsulanonda. Prem is
376 VEERAYOOTH KANCHOOCHAT AND K. HEWISON
portrayed as working through proxies such as other privy councillors, trusted military
leaders and major business ﬁgures to ensure the palace’s political preferences were
heeded. McCargo’s approach has the great virtue of throwing an analytical and expla-
natory light on the role of the monarchy and on the shadowy elite centred on the palace
and said to be pulling the political strings.
McCargo (2005, 500) argued that Thailand’s political order is characterised by
network-based politics, with the monarchy controlling the superior and most politically
signiﬁcant network. He linked his approach with a notion of “network governance.”In
so doing, he was initially seeking to explain a resurgence of separatist violence in
Thailand’s southernmost provinces. He argued that the “dominant mode of governance
used in Thailand since 1980 may best be termed monarchical network governance, or
network monarchy”(McCargo 2006, 42). The advantage of McCargo’s focus is that
when his lens was turned to national politics, it acknowledged the monarchy’s central
political position. Like others who viewed political conﬂict as stemming from compet-
ing elites, McCargo (2006, 43) argued that it was Thaksin and his brand of electoral
politics and his determination to secure “control of the entire country through tightly
managed personal networks”that challenged the monarchy’s preferred “loose alliances”
and its network.
For McCargo (2005, 501), “[n]etwork monarchy is a form of semi-monarchical
rule…,”making it “inherently illiberal because it advocates reliance on ‘good men’,
and the marginalization of formal political institutions or procedures.”This illiberalism
means that “[l]ow priority is given to democratic principles…”, with the network
monarchy having close ties with conservative and rightist groups. At the same time,
McCargo suggests that royalist “liberals”have found the network useful in “the crafting
of a liberal polity.”In essence, then, the network monarchy has been “ﬂexible and
ultimately pragmatic”(McCargo 2005, 502). At the same time, McCargo (2005, 516)
considered the network monarchy’s time was up: “By the beginning of Thaksin’s second
term of oﬃce, the informal political system of network monarchy that had operated…
for three decades looked close to exhaustion.”He was wrong. In fact, the groups he
identiﬁes with the network monarchy were energised by the rise of Thaksin and became
united in opposition to pro-Thaksin governments.
In referring to “network governance,”McCargo was joining with a well-established
literature in policy studies and political science where its application developed within a
pluralist tradition (see Klijn and Koppenjan 2012, 587–590). However, McCargo (2005,
501) is not particularly explicit or detailed about his concept and its relationship with
either pluralist or network governance literatures, except for a passing mention of
Robert Dahl. The result is that “network monarchy”remains an evocative term that
lends itself to a descriptive analysis of Thailand’s politics, but with little theoretical or
Even so, in terms of both the events from about 2005 and the widespread adoption of
the terminology, network monarchy became a conventional wisdom amongst Thailand
and Southeast Asia specialists. It was used to describe: the political forces underpinning
anti-Thaksin movements (see Ferrara 2011; Pavin 2014; Thongchai 2014); the failure of
civilians to establish control over the military (Croissant 2015); and judicial activism
(Dressel and Mietzner 2012). Interestingly, the concept has been taken up widely in
Thai studies beyond politics, in analysing Brahmanical symbolism and royal absolutism
JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY ASIA 377
(Jackson 2009) and even Thailand’s tourism (Cohen and Neal 2010). In addition to
scholarly research, network monarchy has had a strong inﬂuence in the media where
the concept has been used as shorthand for the power of those close to the monarchy.
Without doubt, the palace’s role in politics has been more widely acknowledged
following its ill-judged association with the planning and support for the 2006 military
coup. In studies of Thailand’s post-2006 politics, Ünaldi (2014) and Harris (2015) have
attempted to shift the network focus somewhat, from those close to the monarchy to
other groups of political actors. Whereas Harris (2015) gives attention to other auton-
omous political networks, Ünaldi (2014) uses Weberian concepts to focus on cross-class
social actors who “work towards the monarchy,”advancing their own individual or
collective interests. Some of those “working towards the monarchy”presumably include
members of the network monarchy but also others who are not part of the royal circle
such as small-scale entrepreneurs and even slum dwellers living on the crown’s land.
Moving beyond network monarchy, the applicability of network governance for
understanding Thailand’s politics is not especially obvious. The approach is associated
with institutionalism and the horizontal governance of economic relations. The litera-
ture on network governance is mainly about liberal democracies, with pluralist roots in
notions of interest mediation and is largely based in notions of positive relationships
across the network (Borzel 2011,49–51; Ansell 2006, 77, 85). These roots and applica-
tions have little resonance for Thailand’s politics. As Dredge (2006, 567) observes for
network governance more broadly, networks are notoriously diﬃcult to deﬁne and
delineate. For Thailand, while Harris (2015) has done this for the inﬂuential network of
health professionals, McCargo does not delineate the network monarchy’s boundaries
or provide details of its membership. By concentrating on the network monarchy, not
unlike the approach taken by Riggs (1966) in focussing on the bureaucratic polity, the
analytical focus is directed to the elite. This focus allows little room for those outside
elite networks to contest, resist or struggle. Hence, political contestation is largely
understood as taking place merely between elite networks. Both structure and agency
questions are insuﬃciently analysed in this approach and the political, social and
economic location of the network monarchy is not detailed.
As noted above, McCargo considers the network monarchy to be politically pragmatic,
allowing “liberals”to be incorporated. In this context it is reasonable to ask whether a focus
on network monarchy advances our understanding of the remarkable persistence of author-
itarianism in Thailand. With military interventions in 2006 and 2014, and the embedding of
military authoritarianism, it seems opportune to consider approaches that attempt to explain
the tenacity of authoritarianism. The retrograde events of the past decade also suggest the
need for deeper reﬂection on the nature of Thailand’s conservative regime and how demo-
cratic development has been thwarted. Network monarchy, with its emphasis on a particular
elite structure, is insuﬃcient for delineating the manifold sites of political contestation that are
critical for understanding the nature of the country’s politics and its trajectory.
The topics addressed in this Special Issue revolve around these broader issues and
questions through a series of case studies and analyses that reveal more about the social
and economic foundations as well as the institutional and ideological struggles that
underpin the strength of authoritarianism, as well as the conﬂict and contestation over
political power. In introducing these articles, we ﬁrst turn to some of the contributions
of the broader theoretical literature.
378 VEERAYOOTH KANCHOOCHAT AND K. HEWISON
Modernisation, Hybrid Regimes and Beyond
The early literature on democratisation, drawing extensively on modernisation perspec-
tives, concentrated on identifying factors that would unleash political liberalisation and
lead to democracy. The critical factors identiﬁed were socio-economic conditions, most
often associated with the development of capitalism, increasing levels of education,
rapid industrialisation and rising incomes (see Lipset 1959; Rostow 1960). Later
approaches, enthusiastic about Huntington’s(1991)“third wave of democratisation,”
and developing as “transition theory,”traced democratisation to factors that enhanced
elite bargain and compromise. In its more vulgar forms, this approach tended to
assume that transitions to democracy were more or less inevitable once the right
conditions were in place (see Rustow 1970;O’Donnell and Schmitter 1986;
Huntington 1991). Considerable eﬀort was spent on delineating these conditions for
successful democratisation. Measuring democracy involved essentially establishing a
checklist of the appropriate institutions and practices while regimes could be allocated a
place on the road to democracy as the preferred regime type. These approaches,
however, tended to suﬀer from their normative presumption that democracy was the
ultimate destination of all developing countries.
From the modernisation perspective, authoritarianism became little more than a
residual category, measured by the absence of the attributes and institutions of the
checklist of transition prerequisites. In this sense, an authoritarian polity becomes an
essentially unnatural regime, one that is impeded from making the necessary transition
Even in the sophisticated account by Tilly (2007), which, despite deeming democra-
tisation in the West a long and contingent process –and certainly not linear –the
capacity for authoritarianism to be maintained and renovated without a transition to
democracy tends to be overlooked. Tilly (2007, 59) deﬁnes democratisation as a move-
ment towards “broad, equal, protected, mutually binding consultation…” and acknowl-
edges the possibility of de-democratisation, explained as a movement towards
“narrower, more unequal, less protected, and less mutually binding consultation.”
Notably, Tilly’s de-democratisation remains deﬁned by democratisation, with author-
itarianism left undeﬁned. While a starting point for the path to democracy, authoritar-
ianism remains a residual category. Clearly, Thailand’s rapid industrialisation has not
led to a political transition to democratic politics and authoritarianism remains
Reﬂecting a recognition of unﬁnished or incomplete democratic transitions, one
fruitful conceptualisation that emerged from about the early 2000s has been the
recognition and discussion of “hybrid regimes.”This discussion emerged from an
acknowledgement that the transitions literature, through its use of normative models,
did not reckon with the potential for “competitive”and “non-competitive”authoritar-
ianism as a regime type. In recognising this potential, Levitsky and Way (2010) and
other hybrid regime theorists consider the persistence of authoritarian government,
identifying and classifying regimes as democratic, competitive authoritarian and fully
authoritarian. Importantly, they note that authoritarian regimes may be stable and
entrenched, recognising that they are not necessarily in transition to democratic
politics. Another strand of analysis focuses more directly on the durability of
JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY ASIA 379
authoritarian regimes. This literature argues that the persistence of such regimes has
involved an accommodation with some of the political institutions most usually asso-
ciated with liberal democracies, in particular, elections and political parties. Singapore
and Malaysia are among the main cases used in this literature to demonstrate how elites
purposefully utilise these institutions to consolidate their hold on power and to main-
tain authoritarian regimes (see Geddes 2003; Brownlee 2007; Gandhi 2008).
Thailand is not a good “ﬁt”with either hybrid regimes or authoritarian durability
approaches. As Slater (2010, 241) has it, for the period to about 1992, Thailand’s politics
has been characterised by fragmentation, seen in “a weak state, a factionalized military,
weak parties, and wobbly dictatorships…” While we do not agree with all elements of
this characterisation, the fact remains that, for Thailand, authoritarianism has been able
to persist despite the absence of institutions such as strong political parties. Rather, for
several decades, while witnessing considerable economic development, the country has
undergone several shifts to electoral regimes, each time seeing these overthrown by a
military putsch –identiﬁed by Chai-Anan (1982) as the “vicious cycle of Thai politics.”
This cycle has made it clear that two of the most cherished assumptions of the
modernisation-cum-hybrid regimes literature have not held. First, the middle classes
have not taken on its supposed liberalising role, nurturing democratic politics. In fact,
Thailand’s urban middle classes seem to have become anti-democratic in recent
years. Second, there has not been an elite compromise with subaltern demands that
might consolidate a democratic transition.
In theoretical terms, hybrid regime theory describes authoritarianism without pro-
viding an “explanation of why and how regimes take the forms they do”(Jayasuriya and
Rodan 2007, 775). Nor does it reveal much about the social underpinnings that favour a
persistence of authoritarian regimes, as has been the case in Thailand where author-
itarian politics has been entrenched. More importantly, both hybrid regimes and
authoritarian durability approaches are highly inﬂuenced by the “institutional turn”
in comparative politics being focused on the role of formal institutions such as elec-
tions, constitutions and political parties (see Pepinsky 2014), but missing broader
contestation between diﬀerent social forces as well as the role of informal institutions
that have been part and parcel of Thailand’s political economy. Even where formal
institutions have been important, this literature tends to view them as being indepen-
dent of the broader power struggles. In Thailand, as elsewhere, formal institutions are a
locus of political struggle and are shaped by these contests. Recognition of this is
arguably one reason why the network monarchy concept has been widely adopted.
Another approach that takes durable authoritarianism and broader power structure
and social conﬂicts seriously is proposed by Jayasuriya and Rodan (2007). They argue
that: “Political regimes…need to be identiﬁed in terms of the relationship between
institutions and the management, amelioration or containment of conﬂict,”where
conﬂict “refers to the struggle for access to and the distribution of political resources,
authority, and legitimacy”(Jayasuriya and Rodan 2007,775). This perspective drives
attention away from the fetishisation of political institutions and directs it to the “the
relationship between institutions and the way conﬂict is organized and structured
through…modes of political participation”that are deﬁned “as the engagement or
contestation by individuals and groups over who gets what, when and how…”
380 VEERAYOOTH KANCHOOCHAT AND K. HEWISON
An aspect of their approach that merits attention, and reminds us of Tilly (2007),
is the view that the social forces that underpinned democratic transitions in
Western Europe are largely missing in Southeast Asia due to earlier periods of
repression of labour movements, political parties and other elements of civil society.
This means that late-industrialisers experience capitalist development based on
quite diﬀerent social foundations than those seen in the West. For Jayasuriya and
Rodan (2012, 176), their approach begins with an “examination of the historical
conditions of capitalist development and its implications for alliances and conﬂicts
aﬀecting political regime possibilities.”The outcomes of these alliances and conﬂicts
shape politics, regime possibilities and the nature of institutions. Indeed, institu-
tions are sites of contestation. In this approach, the emphasis is “not on the
eﬀectiveness and/or cohesiveness of political and state institutions but on under-
standing the social and political relationship that underpins them.”This emphasis
means that analysts may consider “arangeofregimetrajectories–notjustthe
prospectsorotherwisefortheﬂourishing of democratic institutions”(Rodan and
Jayasuriya 2012, 176).
In this perspective, an authoritarian regime can have longevity and is not necessarily
a starting point or a temporary wayside on the way to a democratic polity. This means
that the nature of social forces that give rise to authoritarianism and which maintain
authoritarian regimes need to be understood as a way to conceptualising the character-
istics and institutions of authoritarian regimes. In the Thai context, this approach
would, for example, require not so much an analysis of the network monarchy, but
of the contending social forces and class conﬂict that produced a political situation that
permitted a reinvigoration of royalist discourse, the strengthening of rightist and anti-
democratic politics and the circumstances that permitted a group associated with the
monarchy to become politically signiﬁcant.
Following this lead, it can be agreed that institutions are important. But all institu-
tions are subject to the dynamics of the deeper power structure and struggle that
underpins them. In this light, characterising the type of regime is less signiﬁcant than
identifying the nature and sites of contestation. While the articles constituting this
Special Issue cannot provide a comprehensive analysis, they revolve around these
broader issues and questions through a series of case studies and analyses that reveal
more about the social and economic foundations as well as the institutional and
ideological struggles that underpin the conﬂict and democratisation, as well as the
conﬂict and contestation over political power.
The articles in this Special Issue explicitly place contestation at the centre of their
analyses and seek to understand the ways in which these shape institutions such as the
monarchy, military, judiciary, elections, political participation and civil society organi-
sations. In examining these institutions, the contests that shape them range from “post-
peasants”seeking representation and struggles over distribution to elite-level discursive
struggles over the meaning of democracy and representation.
In the ﬁrst article in this Special Issue, Chris Baker (2016) makes the point that Thailand
was, following the 2014 coup, the only country in the world ruled by a junta-installed
JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY ASIA 381
government. His article examines some of the historical antecedents of the country’smost
recent authoritarian turn. Taking a historical approach and identifying three pillars of the
old establishment –the monarchy, military and bureaucracy –Baker explains how these
have remained strong and developedjustiﬁcations for their own legitimacy which challenge
democratic principles. When combined with the power of Sino-Thai tycoons, this estab-
lishment constellation vigorously defends the principle of oligarchy. It was also taken up by
oﬃcial and professional elites and the mostly Bangkok-based middle class, a point also
taken up by Veerayooth (2016). The alliance of these forces paved the way for a coup that,
while apparently aimed at removing the inﬂuence of Thaksin and his “regime,”is shifting
Thailand’s politics in a deeply authoritarian direction.
Interestingly, in quite diﬀerent ways, inequality has been taken up by opponents of
the traditional elite as well as by the military regime when it has promoted “reform.”All
sides appear to have noticed that Thailand’s long-standing inequality has political
ramiﬁcations (see Hewison 2014). While the military regime has favoured repression
over any substantive attention to the issue, its opponents have emphasised long-
standing exploitation. Taking up the notion of oligarchy and politics, Pasuk
Phongpaichit (2016) examines wealth and inequality. In Thailand, although the high
level of income inequality has eased slightly since 2000, it remains high by international
comparisons. Signiﬁcantly, there remains a “1% problem”as peak incomes in Thailand
are growing faster than the average. Using newly available data, Pasuk shows that the
inequality of wealth is very high. These high levels of wealth are concentrated at the top
end of the business community. Following the 1997 crisis there was signiﬁcant con-
centration within Thai corporate groups. Those at the top end have also increased their
control of rents and ﬁnancial assets. New data show that the average income of the 220
members of the junta’s National Legislative Assembly is 32 times the average per capita
income. Thomas Piketty (2014) found roughly the same multiple between aristocrats
and people in ancien regime Europe. Such a legislature is unlikely to take any action to
close the economic and social divide. Pasuk observes that in a society with high
inequality, elites stand to lose from majoritarian politics and thus oppose democratisa-
tion and suggests that opposition to Thaksin may have reﬂected this.
Paul Chambers and Napisa Waitoolkiat (2016) examine Thailand’s armed forces.
They argue that conventional notions of why Thailand’s military intervenes so regularly
in politics need to be re-examined. Instead of examining its material and institutional
interests –such as protecting military economic resources of control over decision-
making –they argue for attention to the relationship between monarchy and military.
This relationship is said to represent a “parallel state”in terms of political decision-
making while the attention to ideology, rituals and processes within this relationship
results in a military that has been “monarchised.”The purpose of this relationship is to
sustain a palace-preferred conservative political and social order while delivering con-
siderable legitimacy to the military. Whereas the military’s 1991 coup and its associated
crackdown on protesters resulted in political disgrace, the support from and alliance
with the monarchy has resulted in a rehabilitation of the military’s political role. With
the king and the monarchy’s guardian-in-chief at the Privy Council, General Prem,
having aged, Chambers and Napisa argue that the balance in the “monarchised mili-
tary”has clearly shifted to the latter. The military junta that came to power in 2014 is
obviously embedding this status.
382 VEERAYOOTH KANCHOOCHAT AND K. HEWISON
Where Chambers and Napisa refer to a parallel state, Eugénie Mérieau (2016)
develops the concept of a Deep State, challenging the network monarchy approach.
Like the network monarchy, the Deep State has the monarchy as its keystone, but the
Deep State is far more institutionalised than the network monarchy. Like the network
monarchy, it is an intensely anti-democratic alliance. Using material from constitution-
drafting processes in 1997 and 2007, Mérieau argues that the Deep State has been
manoeuvring the Constitutional Court into a position where it may act as a “surrogate
king,”seeking to constitutionalise the king’s role through the Constitutional Court for a
post-Bhumibol era. The capacity of King Bhumibol to intervene to protect a conserva-
tive political and social order has passed and constitution drafters have been seeking
ways to make judges “above”politics and to allocate them special powers to solve any
“political crisis”that threatens this order. Mérieau suggests that this process must be
understood as an attempt to institutionalise the Deep State to protect it from the
challenges of both democratisation and royal succession.
In his article, Prajak Kongkirati (2016) examines the fragility and contested nature of
Thailand’s politics. Noting a lack of consensus around the “rules of the game”among
elites and various social groups, he argues that the politics is volatile and the country is
unstable. One reﬂection of this has been the nature and incidence of violence associated
with electioneering. Examining the failed February 2, 2014 elections and comparing it
with other elections, Prajak observes a signiﬁcant change in the pattern and extent of
electoral violence. In other elections, there were targeted killings among rival candidates
but in 2014, the violence was meant to prevent the election rather than inﬂuence an
outcome. Urban middle class protesters, mobilised as the PDRC, employed violence to
disrupt electoral voter registration, voting and vote counting. The PDRC’s animosity
towards the election was unprecedented. By disrupting the election, it rejected the
peaceful and democratic way for the public to decide who should govern. The PDRC
case demonstrated that activities of a confrontational civil society can cause the deadly
conﬂicts and lead to a breakdown of electoral democracy, raising questions about the
assumed democratic nature of the middle classes.
An outcome of the 1997 constitution was the development of unelected bodies
designed to discipline elected politicians and political parties. However, despite growing
recognition of the role of the judicial bodies (see Mérieau 2016), existing studies have
yet to establish how these constitutional innovations aﬀected the incentives for the
supposedly non-partisan actors populating the so-called independent agencies.
Veerayooth Kanchoochat (2016) argues that such institutional reconﬁgurations have
perversely consolidated the incentive for the professional and oﬃcial elite who consider
themselves to be prospective candidates to “reign”in these agencies. His article develops
the concept of “reign-seeking”to explain how and why these unconventional political
actors –academics, doctors and business community leaders –made collective eﬀorts to
topple the elected government in exchange for gaining selection into the wide range of
unelected bodies. The changing incentives of these actors are intertwined with neo-
liberal governance reform driven by a desire for depoliticisation and the minimisation
of rent-seeking. But in Thailand governance reform has been redeﬁned to mean the
creation of oversight agencies staﬀed by morally conservative minds, thereby reinfor-
cing the status quo and manifesting the dominance of moral ideologies over liberal and
JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY ASIA 383
In his article, Somchai Phatharathananunth (2016) turns attention to the rural north-
east of Thailand, often considered one of the “heartland”areas of support for Thaksin and
his various parties. Rural dwellers have been identiﬁed as either an uneducated mass led
by dangerous politicians or as Thaksin loyalists. Somchai suggests a more complicated
and nuanced view of change and politics in the region. Following the 2006 military coup
villagers in this region played an important anti-coup role and actively and repeatedly
demanded democratic rule, opposed military intervention and challenged elites. Somchai
presents the view that democratic progress in rural areas reﬂects underlying economic,
social and political processes. The coup was a landmark event in terms of the ways in
which the rural masses challenged the hierarchical social order. To comprehend this,
Somchai examines the extensive structural changes in Thailand’s countryside that have
resulted in villagers being released from traditional bonds, enabling them to engage in
new forms of political mobilisation. It is contended that the emergence of a democratic
movement in the rural northeast results from two important and closely related processes:
rural socio-economic transformations and political democratisation.
The ﬁnal article in this Special Issue is by Thorn Pitidol (2016) and focuses on civil
society organisations. Whereas the democratisation literature identiﬁes a vibrant civil
society and associated non-governmental organisations as important for building
democratic societies, Thorn shows that some of these organisations have contributed
to the country’s democratic regression. His article explores the contested political
positions associated with redeﬁned meanings of democracy. By examining a network
of development actors associated with a highly inﬂuential organisation, the Community
Organisation Development Institution, or CODI, the democratic discourses that prevail
within Thailand’s civil society and their political implications of them are explained.
CODI’s“democratic”discourses are associated with a preoccupation with collective
identity, deﬁned through civil society’s communitarian vision and the desire to promote
“collective virtues.”Yet such discourses are shown to limit the democratic potential of
civil society by facilitating connections between civil society and conservative elites,
embedding moral notions and a hierarchical organisational culture emphasising the
role of “good people.”In this context, issues of representation, elections and voting are
seen as corrupted and corrupting. The result is support for political models that are
moralistic and supportive of authoritarian leadership.
1. The non-governmental organisation iLaw has kept track of known junta arrests, detentions
and charges. It reports that by December 2015, at least 829 people were summoned to report
to or “visited”by the authorities at his/her home or workplace, 506 individuals had been
arrested for political crimes, 62 were charged with lèse majesté, 35 were charged with sedition
and 155 civilians had been tried in a military court (http://freedom.ilaw.or.th/en#).
2. There is now a considerable literature on the monarchy and politics. In addition to works
already cited in this article, among some of the important contributions in English are:
Connors (2011), Fong (2009), Gray (1986), Handley (2006), Hewison (1997;2008)and
3. There are some important exceptions. For example, Almond and Powell (1966,217,
255–298) argued that a movement towards a modern state involved a political transition
that could be to modern systems that could be democratic or authoritarian.
384 VEERAYOOTH KANCHOOCHAT AND K. HEWISON
Articles in this Special Issue were prepared for two GRIPS-JCA workshops, organised at the
National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS, Tokyo) in November 2014
and June 2015. Grateful thanks are due to GRIPS President Professor Takashi Shiraishi for
his support and encouragement.
In addition, the Journal of Contemporary Asia and Murdoch University’s Asia Research
Centre supported the travel of Eugénie Mérieau to Perth where she was able to develop her
article. The journal also provided support for the two GRIPS-JCA workshop.
The co-editors also thank Takeshi Onimaru, Yusuke Takagi, Richard Westra, Khoo Boo Teik
and Michael Connors for their support, comments and advice. We are also grateful to the
authors of the articles for their support of and work on this project.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the authors.
The co-editors and authors gratefully acknowledge generous funding provided by the Emerging
State Project (Comparative History Approach) under the Grant-in-Aid research project
No. 25101004 of the Japan Society for Promotion of Sciences as well as the GRIPS Policy
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