A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century
By Andrew MacGregor Marshall
Asian Arguments/Zed Books
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
The revolution won’t be televised, it’ll be hashtagged. To non-natives the political situation in contemporary Thailand can seem confusing and complex. The nation is notorious for its endemic corruption and its industrialized sex trade. For those curious about contemporary Thai politics and how it relates to Thai history, Andrew MacGregor Marshall, a former reporter for Reuters, has written A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century. Published by Asian Arguments, an imprint of Zed Books, A Kingdom in Crisis removes the veil of Western stereotypes and Thai government propaganda. This is high stakes muckraking.
Thailand has a reputation for good food, a thriving sex trade, and a fanatical devotion to King Rama IX. Like other nation-states, Thailand created its own mythology, involving a monarch who ruled over his subjects like a parent ruling over his or her offspring. Marshall examines how this myth was created, how it adapted when Western powers intervened, and how the elite (aka business interests, royal courtiers) want to keep the monarchy under their control. Marshall’s premise is once King Rama IX dies, there will be a succession crisis. This will have dire political, economic, and foreign policy consequences for Thailand. The blame partially falls on King Rama IX, since he has a track record for stifling democracy at every turn.
Thailand’s monarchy draws its power from both Hindu and Buddhist religious traditions. In Buddhist thought, those who have led meritorious lives in the past can be reincarnated at a higher social station. In Hinduism, royalty is bestowed by sacred blood. Both these place the lower classes at a disadvantage. It is only recently that Thailand’s subjects have sought to throw off the chains of oppression and demand their rights. The government has cracked down on dissent and political protest with despotic lese majeste law. In theory, lese majeste is used to punish those who speak ill of the King. In practice, anyone voicing dissatisfaction with the government faces stiff prison sentences. The lese majeste law allows for corruption, incompetence, and tyranny to thrive. It helps the Thai government sell the nation as a benevolent monarchy with a happy populace. With the rise of social media, less people are buying this fraudulent package.
As a fan of both Anthony Bourdain’s food reportage on Thailand and John Burdett’s Bangkok 8 series, I came at this book completely ignorant of Thailand’s political situation. While reasons abound for despair, Marshall does offer a few glimmers of hope. He tells about the burgeoning political savvy of the peasantry. Used to the bribery involved in democratic elections and the intimidation of partisan forces, they took the brilliant step of accepting money from all political parties and then voting for who they wanted.
A Kingdom in Crisis used a variety of sources, from scholarly texts to news articles. Marshall also used many leaked State Department documents archived at Wikileaks. United States officials working at the Embassy cast a jaundiced eye on Thailand’s faux democracy. While much of what the Wikileaks documents say is not news, their public exposure lifts the veil off the political machinations and endemic corruption in the country. This is a must-read for those interested, traveling, or researching Southeast Asian politics.
Out of 10/9.5