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Thai protesters don’t like what the king and government are doing. Can they make them change?

Yes, citizens can hold even unelected leaders accountable

- May 17, 2021

Pro-democracy rallies in Thailand gained steam for months — until the government began arresting the protest leaders. Thousands of protesters, led by young activists, now want reforms to Thailand’s monarchy.

But how much does a monarchy have to listen to popular voices for reform? While most monarchies are hereditary, many monarchs know they don’t have license to ignore what’s going on in their countries. In Liechtenstein, Prince Hans-Adam II explicitly asked the people to support his proposals for constitutional reforms in 2003. In the United Kingdom, just before the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, Queen Elizabeth II said that she hoped people would “think very carefully about the future.”

The demise of monarchies — from Iran to Greece to Libya, to name a few — means today’s monarchs probably take public sentiment seriously. My research on Thailand’s monarchy suggests that constitutional monarchs don’t always intervene in politics, but they are more likely to step in when public dissatisfaction about the incumbent government is high.

Can unelected leaders be held accountable?

Political science research shows that yes, the public does hold unelected leaders accountable. A study on the current practice of traditional political institutions in more than 1,400 ethnic groups around the world revealed that a majority of traditional leaders follow consensual decision-making procedures and must justify their actions to the community, at times apologizing to the public — or even stepping down.

Myanmar’s military distrusts the country’s ruling party. That’s why it staged a coup and detained leaders and activists.

Take the example of rural China, where officials are not elected. Where community norms and expectations are strong, village officials perform better in providing goods and services to the public, despite weak mechanisms of democratic accountability. In short, accountability isn’t only for elected political figures but also applies to many unelected individuals exercising political power.

But what about constitutional monarchs? This category refers to the head of state in a monarchy where the monarch’s rights, duties and responsibilities are spelled out in written law — such as in a constitution — or by custom. I examined the conditions under which constitutional monarchs make political interventions in a democracy — specifically, when they take a publicly observable political action, such as making a speech or visiting politically important places and figures.

I found that when the public gives them little support, constitutional monarchs are generally reserved. Monarchs are reluctant to make political interventions that might backfire and provoke public denunciation. For example, Emperor Hirohito of Japan found his opportunities for political intervention strictly constrained in the 1970s, as his popularity diminished among younger generations.

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What prompted Thai King Bhumibol to intervene?

Constitutional monarchs tend to intervene when the public is less satisfied with the government than the monarch is. That means a constitutional monarchy can complement controls over the government, which are less effective under parliamentary democracies than presidential democracies.

Here’s an example. Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej kept silent in the early 2000s, when there wasn’t strong sentiment against the prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. Some of Thaksin’s emergency powers attracted nationwide popularity despite their extraordinary approach.

The political climate drastically changed in January 2006, after allegations that Thaksin sold his family’s interest in the Shin Corp. to a Singapore investment company and concealed more than $1.8 billion from the sale. Responding to the rise of anti-government sentiment, Thaksin announced the dissolution of parliament, but protests continued.

Eventually, Bhumibol reached out to the judges of the Supreme Court and Administrative Court to settle the protests and resolve the extraordinary electoral situation — with several districts featuring only one candidate running from Thaksin’s party, following electoral boycotts by the three main opposition parties.

Bhumibol took an active role in politics on other occasions. After a violent clash between mass demonstrators and the military government in 1992, he urged them to find a peaceful resolution and promoted democratization. Likewise, immediately after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, he made a speech on national development strategies.

While these political interventions by Bhumibol had a profound impact on the whole kingdom, they generally received little pushback from the Thai people. These interventions also did not draw scrutiny to Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws — anti-defamation laws that prohibit any criticism of the royal family.

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Why are things different for King Vajiralongkorn?

Bhumibol, who died in 2016, was succeeded by his son, Maha Vajiralongkorn. The contrast between the two kings in their responses to protests is stark.

While the lèse-majesté laws were in effect under Bhumibol, the government charged relatively few people with violations. To be sure, there were a handful of cases in court between the 1990s and early 2000s, under the country’s democratic governments.

Thailand has had a military government since 2014. The government has used lèse-majesté laws to imprison many activists in recent months, prompting protesters to demand the abolition of these laws and the reduction of the king’s power and royal budget.

Vajiralongkorn also rules differently from his father. The late king was well known for enthusiastically engaging in charity activities and rural visits throughout Thailand. His public appearances, showing that he worked in and for the kingdom, communicated to the Thai population that he was willing to be exposed to potential public criticism.

In contrast, Vajiralongkorn has spent most of his time abroad in Germany. While the Thai constitution stipulated that the king appoint a regent to handle royal affairs when traveling abroad, Vajiralongkorn amended the constitution so that he could continue to control the country remotely. Furthermore, he seemed to tacitly approve of the military government’s repression of the public. The military government strengthened the law on Internet censorship in 2016, despite a petition with over 336,000 signatures — and the king did not take the public’s side.

Nearly five years after he ascended to the throne, the fact that the king is evading the ongoing anti-monarchy movement, while keeping power in his hands, probably only deepens the resentment of the Thai people. While his father managed to arbitrate the 1992 clash between mass protesters and the military government, it might be difficult for Vajiralongkorn to effectively tie his own hands, accepting public criticism and reforms that would constrain his prerogatives.

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Kana Inata is an assistant professor at Waseda University in Tokyo.