The Thai Polity, State, and International Relations
Historically, the Thai polity has never been similar to Western democratic countries. Most Marxist scholars categorize Thailand under Marx’s notion of the Asiatic mode of production since the political struggle in Thailand has never ended in a permanent victory of the progressive, liberal elite. The vanguard elite that maintains the status quo in the Thai political and economic system is conservative and traditional in nature. This elite still controls the largest capital and vested interest groups. While a new component of the elite has emerged in liberal form out of Chinese capitalists, they have grown through capital accumulation. The Thai polity is thus primarily formed by a conservative elite.
The Thai state was and is centered around the bureaucratic system that Fred Rick presented in his famous book, The Modernization of Bureaucratic Polity (1966). The older form of this bureaucratic state was aimed at serving absolutism, but it has since evolved to serve a new form of bureaucratic polity that is moving towards a representative democracy. Although those eager to achieve political participation have initiated mass politics, the previous democratically-elected governments were still formed by the parties of the vanguard conservative elite, such as the Thai Rak Thai party, the People’s Power Party, and the current Pheu Thai party.
The Democratic Party, previously representing the progressive liberal wing of the elite, has in the last two decades transformed into the far-right wing of the vanguard elite while the Pheu Thai party and its predecessors head the new, capital-vested elite in terms of more progressive, liberal capitalist management. From a Marxist point of view, the Pheu Thai Party is an alliance between the liberal, progressive elite, the proletariat, and the lower middle class who mostly reside in the northern and northeastern regions. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, represents an alliance of the upper middle class and elites who reside mostly in Bangkok and the southern region. In the 2011 election, Pheu Thai received 269 seats, or 48.41% of the vote, while the Democrats won 159 out of the overall 500 seats, or 35.15%. Compared with the previous election of 2007, Pheu Thai gained 76 more seats, with the Democratic Party losing 15.
Such illustrates how the alliance of the conservative elite and middle class have begun to lose their political hegemony to the alliance of the liberal, progressive elite, the proletariat, and the lower middle class. This has generated a political crisis in which the vanguard, conservative elite has committed to doing whatever it takes to topple the liberal progressive alliance. The political repercussions of such actions culminated in the 2006 political crisis, when the conservative elite regained political hegemony by means of a coup d’etat. This political crisis has also led to a crisis of legitimacy ver similar to the one described by Jurgen Habermas in his book Legitimacy Crisis (1975). There are various forms of resentment and resistance attached to this crisis which have led the Thai state to employ its repressive apparatuses such as the army, the police, the judicial system, and prisons to such a full extent that these apparatuses have begun to lose their effectiveness and legitimacy.
The Thai state thus exists for the benefit of the vanguard conservative elite in the way illustrated in recent developments of the Marxist theory of the capitalist state.
The Thai state exists for the benefit of the conservative elite as the Crown Property Bureau’s, or CPB’s, assets may burgeon up to 2 trillion baht based on estimations from the foreign press. The CPB is a quasi-government agency with accessibility to the government budget that can design government policies in order to facilitate capital accumulation. Examples from among the conservative elite which have sought to control state policy in regards to capital accumulation include the businesses of the Sarasin family (which has been called the “Kennedy family” of Thailand) and the Tongkah Harbor company led by the director of the CPB. This is a vast and powerful network in Thailand known as the “Network Monarchy” studied by Duncan McCargo in his Network Monarchy and Legitimacy Crises in Thailand (2005).
The network monarch is the largest patronage and the system as a whole centers around the palace and its privy councils.
Consequently, the main strategy of Thai international relations is oriented by the conservative elite and their capital and businesses. Although some policies may encourage the export of goods and services, this is only to collect further taxes for the conservative elite. Historically, the main strategy of Thailand in international relations has been submitting to global hegemonic powers. Prior to Thailand’s submission to the United States, the Thai vanguard elite bowed before British pressure and submitted to England by signing the Bowring Treaty (an unequal trade treaty). Thailand later came to submit before and slavishly follow US foreign policy in the era of Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram who sent supplies to aid the US in the Korean War hoping for financial aid in return. The following prime minister, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat followed suit, and the conservative elite maintained such a foreign policy. This only began to change when the US lost and withdrew from the Vietnam War. Only then did Thailand re-orient its foreign policy towards China for the sake of survival.
During the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 incited by US-based hedge funds led by George Soros, the Thai elite was forced to turn ever more to China.
As can be seen, the most effective way to dominate Thailand is dominating the conservative elite. This is especially true now that a component of the conservative elite is faced with substantial change and the upcoming transition to a new reign. Mass politics in Thailand, however, are still in embryonic form. The path of a regime change to representative democracy would be highly unpredictable and tedious, and far from recommended.
Yet another case that needs to be made is that of the centrality of Thailand’s situation and its appeal to foreign domination. Thailand is a country abundant in agriculture which produces enormous amounts of food capable of feeding a notable portion of the world. The British once bought rice from Thailand to feed their nearby colonies. The location of Thailand itself is suitable for building energy hubs or even thermo-nuclear power plants, as there are no serious natural disasters, such as earthquakes or violent storms. In addition, Thailand’s location in the center of Asia would minimize the loss of energy in transit from nuclear plants to other Asian countries. Moreover, Thailand is located at the equator which means international bodies’ or other countries’ permission is not needed to use its airspace, maritime space, or land territory. It is thus also suitable for the construction of logistic centers, both commercial and military. In terms of military, strategic transport, anyone who dominates Thailand would gain access to the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, thus totally destroying the US foreign policy of “containing” Russia and China.