Thailand: a return to the ideal?

Sulak Sivaraksa
20 May 2002

I approach this question from the standpoint of a radical conservative. On the one hand, I feel that constitutional monarchy is the best possible system for the country, especially for the maintenance of national cohesion and provision of moral guidance. Thais have a lot to be proud of their kings and royal family members, of the ‘golden age’ enjoyed under the rule of righteous and enlightened kings (dhammaraja). By righteous and enlightened kings, I mean monarchs who relied mostly, but not exclusively, on Buddhism to make the people accept their authority. They were kings because they ruled righteously. Broadly speaking, they had to uphold the dhamma, maintain cultural diversity and ecological sustainability, and promote traditional knowledge and spiritual development. A Pali verse unpacks the meaning of a king’s righteous reign:

"When kings are righteous, the ministers of kings are righteous. When ministers are righteous, brahmans and householders are also righteous. The townsfolk and villagers are righteous. This being so, moon and sun go right in their course. This being so, constellations and stars do likewise; days and nights, months and fortnights, seasons and years go on their courses regularly; winds blow regularly and in due season… When crops ripen in due season, men who live on these crops are long-lived, well-favored, strong and free from sickness."

On the other hand, these ideals were not always upheld. There were abuses of power, gross socioeconomic inequalities, and so on. Indeed the nation has a lot to be ashamed of. My radicalism derived from my conservatism: a nation cannot reform itself unless it first takes pride in itself, in its identity and ideals. It has to try to live up to those ideals. Without doing so, any reformist movement would have no impact on the country’s politics, and it may easily become an object of loathing. Overcome by modernity, however, the influence of these ideals has been waning at both the ruling and grassroots levels. In the past, the monarchy was an embodiment of these ideals. Possibly, it will continue to serve this function in the future. But it too must undergo reform. Otherwise, it will sow the seeds of its own destruction. At the very least, it must be accountable and open to criticism: the monarchy must be reminded by the people of what it means to rule righteously. And it must return to the essential teachings of the Buddha. If not, the monarchy will produce rulers who are kings only in name.

The bloodless 1932 Revolution paved the way for the country’s democratisation under constitutional monarchy. Thais were no longer subjects but citizens, at least nominally. An avenue was open for their participation in issues that mattered in their lives. The military dictatorships during and after the Second World War stunted democratisation in the country and blew up the image of the monarchy in mythical proportions. The postwar dictators, sanctioned by conservative royalists, masqueraded as defenders of the monarchy. In the process they committed more harm than benefit. The monarchy has become an institutional behemoth, beyond reproach and lacking transparency. The resurgence of civil and democratic movements in the 1990s is a good sign for the kingdom’s future. Hopefully, these democratic movements and a reformed monarchy will contribute to greater freedom, justice, and prosperity in the country.

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