SINGAPORE — A decade ago this week, tens of thousands of Thais took to the streets of Bangkok to topple Prime Minister Suchinda Kraprayun. Gen. Suchinda had led the successful February 1991 coup d’etat against the elected government of Chatchai Chunhawan. The terms of a constitution drafted on Suchinda’s watch allowed him to assume the premiership without contesting the parliamentary elections of March 1992. But the resultant popular outrage overcame even the direct, bloody intervention of the Thai military. After a televised dressing-down from King Phumiphon, Suchinda resigned.
Tragically, the fate of many Thai civilians who disappeared during the “May events” of 1992 remains unclear. Nor has the conduct of officers responsible for the armed forces’ excesses received adequate scrutiny. In several other respects, however, a 10-year perspective on those events reveals much about the progress of and prospects for Thailand’s parliamentary democracy.
Most important, the 1991-1992 period, in retrospect, turned out be only a minor blip in three decades of parliamentary consolidation in Thailand. May 1992 has produced none of the long-term trauma of the demonstrations and violence of October 1973 or October 1976. And forcible military intervention in national politics appears safely relegated to the past.
For all its vigor, however, Thai parliamentary rule has never proved very good at incorporating or articulating the interests of the country’s poor majority. The protests of May 1992 occurred near the peak of Thailand’s great economic boom. The presence on the capital’s streets of beneficiaries of that boom (“the hand-held phone mob”) was widely noted at the time. Years of rapid economic growth had, it seemed, fueled demands for greater democracy among affluent, well-educated Thais.
But the crowds on Bangkok’s streets 10 years ago were far more mixed than such an understanding suggests. Their numbers included many from outside the country’s new middle classes. And the role of the less affluent in the events of a decade ago points to the greatest challenge before Thai democracy in the next decade: addressing the needs of those closer to the bottom of the socioeconomic heap.
There are a number of hopeful signs in this regard, such as the growing effectiveness of some Thai nongovernment organizations, restoration of certain rights to organized labor, constitutional provisions regarding popular control over natural resources, the decentralization of governance, and the activity of local electoral-oversight committees.
At the same time, many Thais worry that the next round of violence on the streets of Bangkok could see a democratically elected government pitted against representatives of the country’s poor. And the Thai party system has yet to offer less advantaged voters a credible electoral option or effective parliamentary voice. The high-tech strongman style and money politics of current prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai Party’s allegedly “populist” agenda do not yet fit that bill.
It was the intervention of King Phumiphon on the night of May 20, 1992, that brought the crisis to an end. But the king is now a decade older. The advisers on whom he relied in 1992 are likewise aging or even gone. To a degree rarely appreciated, the Thai royal institution as we know it today is largely a product of King Phumiphon’s more than five decades on the throne.
Like parliamentary government, the Thai monarchy has both transformed itself with, and participated in, a rapidly changing Thailand. Reflection on the May events of a decade ago underscores the monarchy’s continued importance in the Thai political order. Again like Parliament, the monarchy will doubtless adapt to meet the demands of that order in the decade ahead.
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