Thailand: A country that changes

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Michael Kelly, SJ

 Michael Kelly, SJ / Free Articles / Published Date:19 November 2019/Last Updated Date:2 December 2019

Pope Francis will be in Thailand in November during a trip that will take him to Japan. The Thailand he comes to visit appears to be in a time of change – a new king, an unstable government, and a place at the heart of one of the major economic centers of the world. But closer inspection reveals that many consistent threads in Thai history, politics and culture are alive and well and could repeat themselves.

It was in 1932 that the present borders of Thailand were finally settled. Since then the country has had a constitutional monarchy, albeit with unstable governments. Frequently visited by millions of tourists each year, Thailand remains relatively impervious to change. The international engagement does not appear to have modified much in Thailand or the life of Thai citizens over the last almost 90 years.

The two pillars of Thai public life are the monarchy and the military. They are bound together inseparably – the military’s first loyalty is to the monarch.

La Civilta Cattolica

Monarchy and military

King Chulalongkorn, the fifth monarch of Thailand’s Chakri dynasty, is the fountainhead of the institutions and culture that have shaped Thailand from his coronation in 1868 up to today. The monarchy has actually been an immovable legacy of the Thai history since the late 18th century when the founder of the dynasty, Rama I, managed to reclaim much of the country that had been invaded and colonized by the Burmese.

The other foundation consists of the armed forces. Thailand owes its present borders and constitutional monarchy to the first military coup of 1932, when the armed forces took over the country and reduced the absolute power of the king. But the Rama dynasty had created the problem for themselves. The king had overhauled the military in the late 19th century, founding a military and naval academy, creating a ministry of defense and indelibly associating them with the crown.

Thailand’s generals have seized power 12 times since the revolution in 1932. The most recent coup was in 2014. The general who led it, Prayuth Chan-o-cha, ran the country for five years, suspending many civil rights and exercising all the powers of a military dictator.

Then, in an orchestrated election conducted according to his rules in March 2019, Prayut became prime minister by a paper-thin majority. But his authority over the army he once commanded is fading. Instead, it is the new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, who is fast becoming the biggest influence over Thailand’s military. He has bolstered his own military resources by taking direct charge of some of the major elements in the army.

The reach of the king’s power is not restricted to the expansion of his command of the military but extends to the financial resources at his immediate command.

Current unsteady government

The armed forces have never really proved themselves in war. Instead they have focused on campaigns on the country’s political battlefields. Their most fearsome foe was Thaksin Shinawatra, whom they ousted as prime minister in 2006. Then in 2011, Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was elected prime minister only to suffer the same fate as her brother. Both now live in exile.

The feud between their supporters and opponents has become a mainstay of Thai politics ever since. But the army appears finally to have overcome its enemy, presiding over a rigged election in March that relegated the Thaksinites to a parliamentary minority for the first time since 2001, led by Mr. (no longer General) Prayuth. But the coalition is a rickety one, composed of 18 different parties. That leaves Mr. Prayuth ever more dependent on the legitimacy provided by the king.

The army’s penchant for politics has always been tied to the prestige of the monarchy. It is widely believed by commentators that the consent of the governed is less important than the imprimatur of the monarch. A symbiotic relationship between the barracks and the palace has endured since the 1950s, each defending the other’s standing.

The main impetus for change is coming from the palace itself, however. King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who attended Australian and British military academies, served in the army and holds the ranks of field marshal, admiral and air marshal, is obsessed with military titles, training and hierarchy. The queen, a former flight attendant, has risen through the ranks of his personal guard. Her ascent was not purely a show of grace and favor: she had to complete grueling training with her men. She now holds the rank of general.

Since he came to the throne almost three years ago, King Maha Vajiralongkorn has increased the clout of the monarchy in various ways. He has stoked factionalism by weakening the bond between the army and the government that it installed.

Mr. Prayuth and his deputy prime minister, Prawit Wongsuwan, are both former army chiefs. They rose up through the Queen’s Guard, elite troops from a regiment within the army’s Second Infantry Division. The current army chief, Apirat Kongsompong, belongs to the King’s Guard, a faction nestled instead within the First Infantry Division. General Apirat must retire next year and his most likely successor is also from the King’s Guard.

During the reign of the king’s father, the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the relationship between the armed forces and the monarchy was ambiguous. The king’s advisers had a role in the appointment of senior generals, but then again, most of them were former generals themselves. The king never visibly opposed the many coups that took place during his reign, but he did once give a dressing down to a coup leader who had violently suppressed public protests, causing the offending general to resign.

Economy

Thailand’s economy is floundering. With growth rates well below those of its neighbors and rivals in Southeast Asia, growth projections are flat with the unusually strong local currency providing a discouragement to in-bound tourism, investment and exports. An uncertain global economic outlook will likely dampen domestic investment plans. Moreover, a prolonged severe drought has negatively affected agricultural output. Thailand is the country with the highest gap in the world between the incomes of the rich and the poor.[1]

According to Deloitte, “GDP is expected to grow at 3.1 percent in 2019 which is lower than 2018, is driven primarily by a drop in export volumes owing to the trade war situation and global economic slowdown. Domestic demand decelerates due to slower-than-expected private investment, resulting from plummeting export and a slowdown in residential sector.”[2]

Political uncertainty and a sluggish economy can only mean that challenges are ahead.

Culture

Buddhism is the predominant religion in Thailand with 94 percent of the population claiming adherence. No appreciation of Thailand can develop without the recognition of the foundational role played by Buddhism in everything from public life to interpersonal relations. Buddhism in Thailand is of the Theravada school, which is the oldest type of Buddhism still in use.

Despite claims to exceptionalism and even uniqueness, Thailand actually has a polyethnic population and has been a pivotal point for the advance and travel of the main Asian religions – Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam – to many parts of Asia. Add to those large influences the impact of a locally generated animism, then the flavor of Thai Buddhism may be one that pure Buddhists would not recognize.

A walk along any street in Thailand, past banks or into the homes of people in villages will always present the visitor with “spirit houses” to which locals pay their respects every morning and at times throughout the day in the hope that evil spirits will be kept at bay. This sort of animism and belief in the power of representations of the Buddha may be touching and innocent. But they would hardly be endorsed by leaders of a religion that is actually agnostic about a spirit world, even about the existence of God.

All the same, instinctive responses by Thais seeking to remain calm in the face of disturbance or interpersonal disruption are routinely interpreted as “denial” outside the culture but have a different meaning within the culture: anything other than the maintenance of a calm demeanor would mean a “loss of face” and so cultural humiliation. “Calmness” has its roots deep in a centuries old custom every Thai male is expected to comply with: a virtually compulsory stay in a Buddhist monastery for anything from a week to years on end. In the monastery, young men learn the discipline of meditation.

Its effect was on display internationally in 2018 when the coach of the football playing teenagers trapped in a flooded cave showed the adolescents in his team how to remain calm by meditating. The 25-year-old coach learnt his meditation practice during his ten years in a monastery.

But emphasis on “calmness” also means a lot more is tolerated than should be in social, political and economic life in Thailand. Take the children in their cave with their coach: half of the children along with the coach were not citizens of Thailand despite the fact that they and their families were born in and had resided in Thailand all their lives. The fact these people were stateless was simply something to remain “calm” about.

Buddhism in Thailand is also riddled with the sort of financial and sexual corruption that is an all too familiar part of international reporting. Sexual abuse of children on monastery stays, theft and financial misappropriation by monks and abbots and the lavish lifestyles of miscreant monks are common subjects of reports in Thai media. This is in contrast with the way monks live poorly and are genuinely revered in next door Myanmar.

Church

In mid-2019 the Thai Church celebrated the arrival of the first Catholic missionaries. It was the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the first members of the Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP). But even earlier, missionary arrivals in what is now Thailand came during the 16th century under Portuguese patronage. Dominican missionaries were the first to arrive in the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, one of several kingdoms that had at one stage made up today’s Thailand. That was in 1567 when the kingdom was ruled by King Mahathammaraj.

The Dominicans were later followed by Franciscan missionaries and then the Jesuits. However, their activities were still under the Portuguese patronage system known as the Padroado. The most important feature of the Padroado system was that it restricted the pope’s authority over the missionaries. But in 1622 the pope established Propaganda Fide (now the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples) in order to manage mission areas independently of Portuguese Padroado and to reclaim papal authority over missions and episcopal appointments.

In 1659, almost four decades later and after depending on existing religious congregations for work in these missions, Propaganda Fide used a newly established missionary group to work independently of the Padroado and directly under the Vatican. The MEP was formed as the answer of Propaganda Fide to the Padroado which itself had been established under Papal authority in the 16th century.

Pope Alexander VII appointed missionaries originally destined for Vietnam, with Bishop Pierre Lambert de la Motte to Cochin China (which became present day Vietnam) and including Bishop François Pallu as nuncio to China and Laos. As he made his way east, Bishop de la Motte visited the Kingdom of Ayutthaya in 1662 during the reign of King Narai. The Frenchman was the first bishop to enter what later became part of the nation known as Siam. Bishop François Pallu arrived in Siam in 1664 and held the first Synod assembly for clergy in the country where it was agreed that the MEP would build the first seminary in Siam with the aim of forming local missionaries for evangelization. The construction of the seminary was completed in 1665.

Three years after the first Synod, Bishop Pallu returned to the Vatican to ask for permission for the MEP to oversee missionary work in Siam. On July 4, 1669, Pope Clement IX announced the establishment of the Mission de Siam with Bishop Louis Laneau appointed as the first vicar apostolic to oversee missions in Siam and Nankin (today Nanjing). On March 25, 1676, Bishop Laneau became the first bishop of Siam in a ceremony held in Ayutthaya.

Since the foundation of Mission de Siam in 1669, MEP missionaries, with the support of other religious congregations, led evangelization efforts in Thailand and other parts of Asia. By 2018, there are 317,400 Catholics in Thailand, representing 0.46 percent of the total population of 69 million. There are 12 dioceses with 436 parishes and 662 priests in Thailand. Schools, a university, two major hospitals, welfare services and aged care facilities are a testament to the commitment of the Catholic Church to Thailand.

In the same period, the Catholic Church has grown sometimes exponentially in nearby countries – in Vietnam with a recognized 6,330,000 Catholics among 95 million Vietnamese or 7 percent of the population; or 87 million Catholics – 86 percent of the population – in the Philippines where the Church was been present one hundred years before the arrival of missionaries in Thailand; or some 5.8 million Catholics or 11 percent among 51 million in South Korea in half the number of years that the Gospel has been allowed to be preached in Thailand.


[1] Cf. S. Lindsay, “Thailand’s wealth inequality is the highest in the world: What will this mean for the upcoming elections?” in Asean Today (https://www.aseantoday.com/2019/01/thailands-wealth-inequality-is-the-highest-in-the-world-what-does-this-mean-for-upcoming-elections), January 16, 2019.

[2]“Thailand Economic Outlook 2019 Update” (https://www2.deloitte.com/th/en/pages/about-deloitte/articles/thailand-economic-outlook.html).