The Thai bureaucracy has become “more centralized” and Bangkok-centric triggering a movement in provinces for participation in the country’s decision-making process, a Thai scholar said.

“Provincial politicians and authorities want participation in decision-making [of the country] thus they support electoral democracy,” said Thongchai Winichakul, a Thai scholar based in the US.

“People found an opportunity in the representation of opposition parties especially in young Future Forward [in 2019 general elections] and that is why it had become a threat inside the electoral democracy. Students and lots of youngsters support them,” said Winichakul, also a veteran of the 1976 Thai Students Movement.

Winichakul was discussing the ongoing movement for democracy in Thailand in a virtual discussion with Burmese scholar-activist Muang Zarni for his YouTube series “Forsea Dialogue of Democratic Movements Across Southeast Asia” on Wednesday.

Demonstrations in Thailand have galvanized since August for a more transparent and participatory government in the Buddhist-majority country where monarchy and military are heavily dominant over public life.

The ongoing protests, where mostly youngsters are participating, have been likened to the Maoist-inspired student uprising of 1976 which ended with a brutal massacre of nearly four dozen student activists allegedly by the Thai police.

“Once the [Future Forward] party was dissolved [in 2019], it looked like the door was shut … people are fed up with authoritarian culture and they saw opposition disappearing [and] pointed finger at the state, even to the palace,” said Winichakul, who is a professor emeritus of History at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Future Forward party invited much focus during the elections last year but was disqualified by the country’s constitutional court accusing it of allegedly violating election laws regarding donations to political parties.

Its leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was also charged with sedition for “helping a suspect escape under Section 189, and organizing an assembly of more than 10 people that caused unrest.”

Thailand had even accused some envoys based in Bangkok of “interfering in Thailand’s internal affairs and showing partiality” by sending their representative to observe Juangroongruangkit’s reporting to police.

Power struggle

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy since 1932 and is divided into 76 provinces.

Winichakul said: “The typical timeline of the struggle for democracy in Thailand started with the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932.”

“However, since 1932, the monarchy has fought back and tried to revive itself… but revolutionaries of 1932 [who brought an end to absolute monarchy] were ousted in a 1947 coup and military became more and more powerful,” he explained.

He insisted military and monarchy operate separately in the country.

“A lot of people blame not so well-educated Thai people and a lot of people also blame the military,” he added.

He noted that the battle for dominance in the country is being fought among the main three forces: monarchy, military, and the people.

During the Cold War era, in the late 1950s, the US supported the monarchy “as a weapon to fight against communism in Thailand,” he said, adding: “Monarchy became more powerful in comparison to the military because Cold War politics became the dominant factor in Thai domestic politics.”

The 1973 popular uprising against the military, he said, “proved a turning point for democracy and monarchy in the country as the latter was working slowly to revive its power. Monarchy took this uprising as an opportunity to revive itself.”

But on Oct. 6, 1976, he added, the student uprising was suppressed and many were killed. “Students were accused of overthrowing the monarchy.”

According to Winichakul, since 1992, Thailand has seen electoral democracy established with the support of the monarchy as the “military retreated.”

Since then, the monarchy has had a heavy dominance and interference in key government policies and appointments, including that of military chief, Winichakul added.

“In these past 30 years at least, Thailand has seen ‘royalist democracy’,” he said, adding: “Thai bureaucracy has been centralized and more Bangkok-centric but provincial politicians and authorities want participation in decision-making [of the country] thus they support electoral democracy.”

The current demonstrations started in late 2019 and continued early this year but took a break due to COVID-19, he said. “Now, the student movement is back.”

2019 elections

The 2014 Thailand coup leader Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha put an end to half-a-decade long military rule, lifting a ban on media and ending services of military courts in July last year after he won the 2019 elections.

In his last order as the chief of the controversial National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), Prayut repealed almost 66 of some 200 orders issued under the council since 2014.

The powerful Thai military, led by Prayut, threw out a civilian government on May 22, 2014, and since then ruled through the NCPO, which was disbanded after Prayut’s Cabinet was formally sworn-in.

After being delayed many times, Thailand held its general elections in March 2019 for the 500-seat parliament. However, NCPO through an order in 2017 made the 250-member senate eligible to vote, which proved crucial in Prayut’s election as the prime minister in June.

Prayut led the Palang Pracharant Party in the elections and leads a coalition government.

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