Seminar on “Discourses of Kingship in Contemporary Thailand”

Professor Lockhart stressed the importance of understanding Thailand’s monarchy to any effort to understand the country. As an historian, his approach is to take an historical perspective.


31 October 2018 — Professor Lockhart stressed the importance of understanding Thailand’s monarchy to any effort to understand the country. As an historian, his approach is to take an historical perspective. His goal in the seminar was to examine understandings of the monarchy that have originated in Thailand itself in the form of discourses. Assumptions, language and frameworks constitute these discourses. When formalized into an ideology, a discourse comes to serve as the basis for government. Discourses may be popular, while an ideology is more coherent and official. 

Professor Lockhart drew a distinction between “kingship” and “monarchy”. The former refers to theory, and the latter to an institution. But “kingship” is used relatively rarely in Thailand now. 

The seminar focused on the decades since the end of Siam’s absolute monarchy in 1932, which Professor Lockhart divided into four periods, and on the changing relationship between monarchy and constitutions.

  • The 1932-1957 period was one of the primacy of the constitution.
  • The 1957-1973 period saw the building up of the “public monarchy”.
  • The 1973-2006 period brought the emergence of new discourses on the monarchy. The prestige of the monarchy and its role reached new heights, and more writing about the monarchy appeared.
  • The period from 2006 to the presence has seen the evolution of an ideology, centred on “Democracy with the King of Head of State”.

Until 1932, the Thai monarchy was understood to be absolute. The English term “absolute monarchy” was used from the 1880s for about half a century to draw a contrast with “limited monarchy”. The latter was understood to refer to constitutional monarchy. Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, a brother of King Chulalongkorn (r 1868-1910) drew a distinction between Siamese paternalism and Khmer autocracy, ritual and ideas about royal divinity; each figured in contemporary Thai kingship, but Damrong played the importance of the latter down.  Only at the time of the end of the absolute monarch in 1932 did a Thai term for “absolute” (somburanayasitthirat) to describe the monarchy emerge. It seems to have been an elite coinage, one that had the connotation of ancien régime.

In 1946 Prince Dhani Niwat offered his famous lecture on “The Old Siamese Conception of the Monarchy”, which served as a blueprint for the future of the Thai monarchy. Like Damrong, Dhani played the importance of the Khmer influence on idea of Thai kingship down. He cast the monarchy as limited, paternalistic, and tied to Buddhist values rather than historically absolutist. 

From 1957, during the dictatorship of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, who was personally close to King Bhumibol (r 1946-2016), the construction of a new public monarchy began. The king and queen, and their children, became more visible in Thai society. Their international travels served as a form of royal diplomacy.

The year 1973, when the king intervened to bring an end to political crisis, brought a big change, according to Professor Lockhart. This was the first such intervention, and like that of 1992 it became iconic. The decades up to 2006 also saw prominent Thai thinkers begin to write and speak about the monarchy and its role. Their writings had considerable resonance, and they offered three basic discourses, which developed from the late 1970s to the 1990s.  The first was the “tham discourse”, centred on ideas of dharma and of justice, and stressing the idea of the thammaracha, a term that was even used to describe King Bhumibol at the time. The second was the “paternal discourse”, which echoed the ideas of Damrong and Thani. The third was the “British model discourse”, drawing on Walter Bagehot’s idea that the monarch had the right to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn. Thai scholars argued that that was the role that Bhumibol played. They also noted that, like Britain, Thailand had certain “conventions of the court”. This discourse raised the question of whether the British and Thai monarchies were in fact similar, or whether the Thai monarchy was unique. If the latter, then Thai kingship could not be judged in the same way as the British monarchy. 

Since 2006, when a military coup drove Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from power, Thailand has been in a prolonged political crisis. The discourse of “Democracy with the King as Head of State” has become an ideology. The important innovations leading to this discourse came in the constitutions of 1997 and 2007, whose Article 7 used this expression and specified that Thailand was governed in accordance with that tradition. This ideology has a pedigree, Professor Lockhart noted, dating to on Field Marshal Sarits skepticism about the applicability of Western democracy to Thailand. It stresses Thai uniqueness. It also reflects a long-term failure to establish the authority of constitutional rule in Thailand. It effectively recognizes the inadequacy of constitutions in providing for all situations that may arise. “Democracy with the King as Head of State” has now become the ideology of the monarchy, and even of the Thai state. 

Professor Lockhart noted that the adoption of this ideology raise several important issues. One is imprecision. A second is that the late King Bhumibol himself resisted the idea that Article 7 gave him a blank check to exercise his power in politics.  A third is that it leaves open the question of the applicability to the royal institution in general of ideas that emerged with reference to an individual of particular charisma, King Bhumibol. These issues mean that Thailand is the only constitutional monarchy in the world without a clear ideological framework for the relationship between constitution and monarchy. Thais will have to work this situation out in the future. 

In response to questions from the audience, Professor Lockhart noted that Thais were still getting to know King Vajiralongkorn and that he was less visible to his subjects than in the past; that the long-term relevance of an ideology derived from the reign of a single king must remain a question; that in fact absolutism in Thailand may have been the creation of King Chulalongkorn, who cut the legs out from under Siam’s nobility.