December 21

The Economist does not understand Thailand

Until I came to the conclusion that the objective presentation of the facts was being swamped too often by the ideological bias of the editorial team, I used to subscribe to – and read assiduously -The Economist. 

 Time and time again I saw this on subjects on which I was already well informed. Then there was the increasingly arrogant style.

 I recall one cover instructing President Clinton, quite pointlessly, to resign – it was as if I were subscribing to an undergraduate university newspaper.



The newspaper, as it proudly terms itself, has long succumbed to the same malaise which has swept through so much of the “serious” media, demonstrated cogently in their reports of the Middle East and of the last US election.


The recent attacks by The Economist on the Thai monarchy, especially an editorial of 4 December 2008  (“ The King and them” ) indicate that the ancient nation and its institutions are being judged through a prism more accessible in a certain style of London restaurant – those with not very good food, astronomical prices and a fast clientele.

From Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Auckland, Wellington and London- and I suspect Ottawa and Toronto, and throughout   the old Commonwealth, you see the same ritual being acted out in the media and among their clients.  

This involves , as one commentator once described it as holding  “congenial, if eccentric, meetings in restaurants from time to time to plot the downfall of the monarchy.” (Donald Macintyre, The Independent ,14 November 2002)

If you dare indicate to these people why you are a constitutional monarchist, the rude ones look at you with fatigued condescension and say something which dismisses you as an idiot.

 The better behaved will   merely throw their eyes upwards – not to heaven because that to is also on the list of causes no right thinking person could possibly believe in. 

The Economist's interpretation of the Thai situation  demanded a considered and detailed response, and more than the comments on their website which only a few will see.

No, what was needed was an invited piece in The Economist ,  a well argued response from someone  who understands Thailand .

…a considered reply to The Economist …

I assume The Economist did not invite such a response. But one did appear in the respected Bangkok Post on 15 December, 2008. This,  “An open letter in reply to the Economist, ” is reproduced below.

The writer is Dr Surakiart Sathirathai, a former deputy prime minister.  It is devastating.

The Economist not only treated speculation as fact, he says. He accuses it of showing a lack of understanding and research about the history of Thai politics and the basics of the Thai constitutional monarchy. 

The Economist has not much time for the British monarchy, so it probably places little weight on the fact that it evolved, through trial and error and that the constitution is to a large part based on conventions which have emerged over many years of experience.  

This is of course a treasure, something which few countries have. The Economist probably does not accept this.  

But Thailand does not have this experience. The constitutional monarchy did not emerge over centuries.  In fact in just one day the absolute monarchy became a constitutional monarchy.  

The Economist also misunderstands the role of The King in relation to the crime of   lèse-majesté, which punishes affronts to the dignity of the monarch.  

The Western press assumes this law is kept in place because The King wants it. Dr  Sathirathai argues this is because parliament wants it, just as I suppose the parliaments of many Asian nations want laws which punish drug traders more harshly than, say,  in Australia.  

(Australian author Harry Nicolaides has been held since 31 August 2008 under this law over a passage in his 2005 novel Verisimilitude that criticises the king’s eldest son. Apparently only seven copies were ever sold. Let us hope the Australian media do not see this as a reason to attack the Thai monarchy without actually checking the facts.)  

An open letter in reply to the Economist    

Bangkok Post 15 December 2008

The recent article in the Economist of Dec 4 about the Thai monarchy has caused a lot of raised eyebrows among Thais. This is not simply because it treated speculation as fact but also because it curiously showed lack of understanding and research about the history of Thai politics and the basics of the Thai constitutional monarchy.

 1932 brought about an abrupt change from absolute to constitutional monarchy in Thailand. Then, 14 years later, in 1946 King Bhumibol ascended to the throne. Unlike in the British constitutional context, as known to all students of British constitutional law, the change to the role of the Thai monarchy had been without conventions that had developed over the years, decades and centuries as in the British case. The 1932 abrupt change put the Thai monarch in an unprecedented position: a sovereign bound under the constitution but raised above politics. That was exactly what His Majesty King Bhumibol has committed himself to do throughout the last 62 years, namely, keeping himself strictly under the constitution and above politics.

Inasmuch as a student of British constitutional law must be familiarised with the conventions and customs surrounding the role of the monarch from the past to understand the present, the role of the Thai monarch, in order to be thoroughly understood, requires the same familiarisation with the customs and traditions long held between Thais and their monarchy in those years both prior to 1932 and after. From such thorough observations, the two kingdoms will be found to have their own separate and completely different traditions, backgrounds and developments as far as the role of constitutional monarchy is concerned and that it would not be practical to make comparisons, in this regard, of the two respective institutions.

 When [Walter] Bagehot wrote "the monarch has the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn", he described the political and constitutional role expected of a British monarch. Hence, to the latter, the prime minister is known as "My Prime Minister", as he or she must be called to kiss the monarch's hand to be offered the job. Hence, the government is "My Government" as the monarch calls it before parliament, and its policy laid before parliament is to be read by the monarch and called "the Queen's (King's) Speech". Hence, the prime minister must have a regular weekly audience with the monarch so that the latter can be consulted, encouraged and warned. And hence, any British constitutional law textbook has to discuss the powers and the influence of the sovereign, even to discuss how far the sovereign could exercise his or her power against ministerial advice.

None of the above British constitutional etiquettes is present in the Thai context. The Thai monarch has nothing whatsoever to do with government policy. Being under the constitution and above politics for the Thai monarch means that, in practice, he would grant consent to all matters laid before him as long as they are duly processed under the constitution of the day. That was why a call for His Majesty to end the political crisis in early 2006 by appointing a new prime minister of his own choice to replace the then-elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was never heeded. He made it publicly known that to do so would be undemocratic and that his constitutional role did not warrant him so to do. As always has been the case without exception, the nomination of a prime minister must be presented to him through the due process prescribed by the constitution of the time, and he would always obligingly grant his consent accordingly.

That means also that the present monarch never intervenes in politics. The only two occasions that may come close to political interventions were those in 1973 and 1992. But they were not. In 1973, the royal intervention was in the wake of the bloodshed in order to end the mass killing and restore peace. It was a humanitarian intervention, not a political one. The 1992 intervention was exactly for the same reason. It is true, however, that there was bloodshed in 1976 – we saw no royal intervention because a sudden coup put a political end to the bloodshed.

 Since the Thai monarch is placed above politics and since his role is quite different from his British counterpart, his intervention or non-intervention can and should never be interpreted as having any political inclination. Therefore, it is clear that a crisis of a political nature must be resolved by political means, not by royal intervention unless lives are being lost. His Majesty's silence and non-intervention in the recent crisis in Thailand is consistent with his practised constitutional role and can never be interpreted in any other way.

 His Majesty's speech to the judges, as cited by the article, was to remind the new judges taking the oath of office of their duty to uphold democracy as well as to deliver justice, no more, no less. That was in line with several other speeches I have heard him deliver to both Thai and foreign audiences expressing his concern for transparency, democratic values, development and people's welfare and well-being.

It is precisely by keeping himself strictly under the constitution, and above politics, His Majesty remains undisputedly the most beloved figure in the land of 64 million. On the "lese majeste" issue, this is a law passed by parliament. Amendments can be made only by parliament. Of course, there are cases for and against amendment. But being above politics and under the constitution, His Majesty never intervenes with the passage of any law. He grants consent to all pieces of legislation that have been duly passed.

Nonetheless, he has spoken in 2005 in public and in a nationwide live telecast that he did not agree with the notion of "the King can do no wrong".

His view was that the King could be wrong, that the "lese majeste" law could cause him trouble, and that criticism of him should be allowed. He referred to some of his views which were criticised and disagreed by others so that he had to abandon them such as the idea whether a certain dam should be constructed. When listening to NGO criticism, he thought of other ways to help with the irrigation.

It is indeed easy to look at the Thai monarchy from a western point of view, especially a British point of view and draw a certain conclusion. But I am afraid such may be far too simplistic. A constitutional monarch in each country has roles prescribed to him or her in accordance with that particular country's conventions and customs developed through history. Hence the Thai and, say, the British monarchy have separate and completely different traditions.

 While respecting your every right to express your view, I believe any analysis of the Thai monarchy should not be approached only from a western perspective, but it must take into account the Thai political, constitutional and cultural contexts. Likewise, a Thai should not criticise a monarch of another country based on his or her experiences with, and perspectives on, the Thai monarchy. We all have customs, traditions and conventions particular to our nations to consider. If they are ignored, the resulting views will be grossly condescending.

[Dr Surakiart Sathirathai is a former deputy prime minister.]  


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