GOVERNMENT OF THAILAND: BRANCHES, SYMBOLS, THE MONARCHY, WOMEN AND THE MILITARY

GOVERNMENT OF THAILAND

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy with a democratically elected bicameral legislature and parliamentary style of government. Thailand is ruled by a prime minister. The House of Representatives enacts all the laws.

Thailand has an elected parliamentary government somewhat similar to the one in Great Britain. The prime minister is the leader of the party with the most seats in Parliament, and major elections are called if a no confidence motion against the government in power or with four years of the previous election. In the past no one party controlled a majority of the seats and as a result the country was usually ruled by a weak, bickering coalition government led by a heavy handed, dictatorial prime minister.

"National unity is achieved, Thais agree, through the Theravada Buddhist faith, a high sense of patriotism (the word Thai means "free"), and the monarchy. One scholar told Time, "Political culture changes with economic growth, as people become more aware of rights and freedoms.:

Local divisions: 76 provinces (changwat), including Bangkok Municipality. The provinces are in turn divided into 795 districts ( amphoe ), 81 subdistricts ( king amphoe), 7,255 rural administrative subdistricts (tambon ), and 69,866 villages (muban ). Each tambon is composed several numbered villages or hamlets (muban). Tambon generally range in size from 1,400 to 7,000 people.

The 76 provinces (changwat, singular and plural) in Thailand are: Amnat Charoen, Ang Thong, Bueng Kan, Buriram, Chachoengsao, Chai Nat, Chaiyaphum, Chanthaburi, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Chon Buri, Chumphon, Kalasin, Kamphaeng Phet, Kanchanaburi, Khon Kaen, Krabi, Krung Thep Mahanakhon (Bangkok), Lampang, Lamphun, Loei, Lop Buri, Mae Hong Son, Maha Sarakham, Mukdahan, Nakhon Nayok, Nakhon Pathom, Nakhon Phanom, Nakhon Ratchasima, Nakhon Sawan, Nakhon Si Thammarat, Nan, Narathiwat, Nong Bua Lamphu, Nong Khai, Nonthaburi, Pathum Thani, Pattani, Phangnga, Phatthalung, Phayao, Phetchabun, Phetchaburi, Phichit, Phitsanulok, Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, Phrae, Phuket, Prachin Buri, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Ranong, Ratchaburi, Rayong, Roi Et, Sa Kaeo, Sakon Nakhon, Samut Prakan, Samut Sakhon, Samut Songkhram, Sara Buri, Satun, Sing Buri, Sisaket, Songkhla, Sukhothai, Suphan Buri, Surat Thani, Surin, Tak, Trang, Trat, Ubon Ratchathani, Udon Thani, Uthai Thani, Uttaradit, Yala, Yasothon

Flags, Names and Symbols of Thailand

Thailand is officialy a kingdom. The formal name of Thailand is Kingdom of Thailand (Ratcha Anachak Thai). The term for citizen(s) is Thai (singular and plural). By some translations Thailand means "Land of the Free" (Prathet Thai ) and this is an apt name for this country where anything goes. By other translations it simply means “Land of the Thais.” The Thais call their country “Muang Thai,” which also means “Land of the Free.” They call themselves the “Khon Tha,” which means “free people.” “Siam” and “Siamese” are terms mainly used by foreigners. From 1855 to 1939 and from 1946 to 1949 Thailand was known as Siam—Prathet Sayam, a historical name referring to people in the Chao Phraya Valley—the name used by Europeans since 1592).

Flag: Five horizontal bands of red (on top), white, blue (double width), white and red. The red stripes represent unity of the nation and the blood of life. The white stripes represents religion and the purity of Buddhism. and the blue stripe in the center represents the king. The original flag was red. A white elephant, symbolizing the royal family, was added in the early 19th century. In 1916, a flag of red stripes was introduced because it was easier to make. The central stripe was changed to blue to honor Thailand’s World War I allies, whose flags were red, white and blue. The flag of Thailand is similar to the flag of Costa Rica except the blue and red colors are reversed.

The elephant is the symbol of Thailand. The garuda (a mythical half-man, half-bird figure derived from Hinduism) is also regarded as a symbol of Thailand.

Thailand: Names, Slogans and Ideas

The formal name of Thailand is Kingdom of Thailand (Ratcha Anachak Thai). The term for citizen(s) is Thai (singular and plural). By some translations Thailand means "Land of the Free" (Prathet Thai ) and this is an apt name for this country where anything goes. By other translations it simply means “Land of the Thais.” The Thais call their country “Muang Thai,” which also means “Land of the Free.” They call themselves the “Khon Tha,” which means “free people.” “Siam” and “Siamese” are terms mainly used by foreigners. From 1855 to 1939 and from 1946 to 1949 Thailand was known as Siam—Prathet Sayam, a historical name referring to people in the Chao Phraya Valley—the name used by Europeans since 1592).

Thai nationalism is summed up by the expression “king, country and religion.” The land known today as Thailand has a long history of human habitation dating back to the Neolithic Period. Excavations of settlements from the Bronze Age at Ban Chiang uncovered ancient earthenware believed to date from around 3600 B.C. The Mon, Khmer, and Tai tribes later migrated from southern China. Presently, the Mon are settled in Myanmar and the Khmer in Cambodia, while the Tai set up their Thai city states, starting in northern Thailand, with three main cities: Lanna, Sukhothai, and Phayao.

A unified Thai kingdom was established in the mid-14th century. Known as Siam until 1939, Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country never to have been taken over by a European power. A bloodless revolution in 1932 led to a constitutional monarchy. In alliance with Japan during World War II, Thailand became a US treaty ally in 1954 after sending troops to Korea and later fighting alongside the United States in Vietnam. Thailand since 2005 has experienced several rounds of political turmoil including a military coup in 2006 that ousted then Prime Minister Thaksin Chinnawat, followed by large-scale street protests by competing political factions in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Demonstrations in 2010 culminated with clashes between security forces and pro-Thaksin protesters, elements of which were armed, and resulted in at least 92 deaths and an estimated $1.5 billion in arson-related property losses. Thaksin's youngest sister,Yinglak Chinnawat, in 2011 led the Puea Thai Party to an electoral win and assumed control of the government. Yinglak's leadership was almost immediately challenged by historic flooding in late 2011 that had large swathes of the country underwater and threatened to inundate Bangkok itself. Throughout 2012 the Puea Thai-led government struggled with the opposition Democrat Party to fulfill some its main election promises, including constitutional reform and political reconciliation. Since January 2004, thousands have been killed and wounded in violence associated with the ethno-nationalist insurgency in Thailand's southern Malay-Muslim majority. [Source: CIA World Factbook]

The spelling of Thai names, places and words sometimes varies. This is because the Thai language has its own script that is quite different from western Roman writing and the way Thai sounds are interpreted can be a judgment call or a matter of opinion.

National Anthem of Thailand and Standing at Attention When It Is Played

The National Anthem of Thailand is called the "Phleng Chat Thai." The music by Phra Jenduriyang was adopted in 1939. The lyric by Luang Saranuprapan was music were adopted in 1939. By law, people—both Thais and non-Thais alike—are required to stand for the national anthem at 8:00am and 6:00pm every day. The anthem is played in schools, offices, theaters, and on television and radio during this time.

In much of Thailand, people stop whatever they are doing at 8:00am and 6:00pm to sing the national anthem along with broadcasts from loudspeakers. If you are busy Hualamphong Railway Station when this happens even people who are sleeping on the floors stand and direct their attention at a portrait or Rama V, while the anthem is played.

According to to Farang in Thailand: “The Thai National Anthem is played each day at 8:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. By played, I mean broadcast on every local and national TV and Radio channel and from speakers in train stations, subway stations, public parks, civic and government buildings. While the national anthem is played all activity stops in public areas like parks and train stations. There is an alert the national anthem is going to be played— there will be the sound of the bells of a clock striking the hour and then a “countdown”. At the first notes of the national anthem, all people that are sitting will stand and activity stops. [Source: Farang in Thailand]

If you are exercising in the park, you stop exercising while the anthem is played; buying an orange juice—as I was yesterday morning in a Sky train station— you stop. You stand quietly during the anthem and resume your activity once it is completed. It is fantastic to be in the middle of the Sky train station around hundreds of people, about to approach the turnstile and exit and suddenly the national anthem comes through the speakers and everyone stops. In a setting like this you can witness the peer pressure of a large group- if a foreigner doesn’t know the protocol and sees a few hundred people stop, they stop. Yes, they might have a puzzled look on their face for the first few seconds, but most gleams what is happening through the music. I never tire of the playing of the anthem and showing of national pride, I make a point of trying to be in a busy place at 8a and 6p for the playing of the anthem stop. My favorite places: Lumpini park for the morning and the Siam stop on the Sky Train during the 6p rush hour. [Ibid]

Royal Anthem of Thailand and Standing When It is Played in Cinemas

Phleng Sansasoen Phra Barami (“A Salute to the Monarch”) serves as the royal anthem and is played in the presence of the royal family and during certain state ceremonies. It accompanies photos of the royal family shown before every film shown at every cinema in Thailand. Falling Rain is a royal anthem written by King Bhumibol.

In Thailand people are required to stand in respect to the King at the commencement of films.If you enter a movie theater while the picture of the royal family is on the screen you are expected to stand at attention with your hands at your sides. People who have remained seated duing the show of respect have been heckled by other moviegoers and even arrested.

According to Wikipedia: The lyrics of Phleng Sansoen Phra Barami or Phleng Sanrasoen Phra Barami were composed by Prince Narisaranuvadtivongs, around 1913, and were later revised by King Rama VI. There is no certainty about the identity of the song's composer. The music may have been composed by a Russian composer named Pyotr Schurovsky. Some sources mention several Thai musicians and the Dutch musician Heutzen as the authors. Phleng Sansoen Phra Barami was the national anthem of Siam until 1932, when it was replaced by Phleng Chat. [Source: Wikipedia]

“The royal anthem is performed during state occasions, as well as when a high-ranking member of the royal family is present for a function. In addition, the royal anthem is still played before the beginning of each film in movie theatres, as well as before the commencement of the first act in plays, musicals, concerts, and most other live performances of music or theatre in Thailand. At the beginning and closing of television and radio programing, the anthem is also played. For example, Channel 7 airs a video of the anthem, with pictures of King Bhumibol Adulyadej from his birth to the present day shown. [Ibid]

On April 22, 2008, Chotisak Onsoong, an ardent republican who objects to the degree that monarchy is revered, and Chutima Penpak, a devote Muslim who object to the idolization of human beings, were charged with breaking lèse majesté laws for not standing when the Thai national anthem was played at a cinema. They launched a campaign called ‘Not Standing is No Crime, Different thinking is No Crime’. A cyber petition has been launched at www.petitiononline.com to collect signatures to support their cause. Some Thai signed the petition to support Chotisak and his friend. Some, however, cursed them and told them to leave the country. [Source: Prachatai, April 22, 23, 2008]

Chotisak said he did not have any intent to insult the monarchy, and his ‘sitting still’ did not constitute an offense against the monarchy. He cited Articles 4 and 28 of the constitution that guarantee the rights and freedoms of Thai people to choose to do or not to do anything in accordance with their beliefs and faiths. And he called for the lèse majesté law, or Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, to be revoked, as it has been used to restrict people’s rights and freedoms and goes against the constitution. “Many people have exploited the lèse majesté law to destroy their enemies, without taking any responsibility. And the interpretation of the law has become ever broader to the point that anything can constitute a lèse majesté offence”, said Chotisak. [Ibid]

King Trailok and the Saktina System

By fusing Hindu and Confucian ideas with Thai interpretations, King Trailok (1448-88) developed the saktina system of political, social and hierarchal organization that lasted until the 20th century and still exerts an influence today. King Trailok realized that land ownership was the key behind wealth and power and set up the system in which no person posed a threat to the monarchy and the only way they could increase their land holdings or wealth was through royal patronage.

Under the saktina system each landowner was given a number which corresponded to the amount of land he owned. This number was called saktina , literally “power of the fields.” Top officials, the Chao Phya , held a grading of 10,000 and were allowed to own up to 4,000 acres of land. Peasants on the other hand had a grading of only 20 and were not allowed to own more than 10 acres (eight is regarded as enough to support of family of six).

A man’s first wife held half the saktina points as her husband. A minor wife held one quarter. Slave’s held nothing but if a female slave of the landowner gave birth to child she attained the same status of a minor wife. People were taxed, punished and compensated in relation to their saktina. Economic and social life were bound to the system. For example, if a group of people met with a slightly smaller group of people, the smaller group would wai to the larger group. The saktina didn’t adapt very well to modern commerce and international trade and was abolished, along with slavery in 1905 under King Chulalongkorn.

Thailand’s Constitutional Monarchy

The Thailand government is a constitutional monarchy similar to that of the United Kingdom, in which a Prime Minister serves as head of a parliamentary government and a hereditary Thai king functions as head of state. This form of government has been in place in Thailand since 1932 following nearly 700 years of outright rule by various lines of Thai kings. The widely revered Thai King serves as spiritual and moral leader of the country as well as head of state, but wields no outright political authority. King Bhumibol has been the constitutional monarch and head of state since June 9, 1946. [Source: Tourist Authority of Thailand]

The Constitution stipulates that the king is "enthroned in a position of revered worship" and is not to be exposed "to any sort of accusation or action." As ceremonial head of state, the monarch is endowed with a formal power of assent and appointment, is above partisan affairs, and does not involve himself in the decision-making process of the government. King Bhumibol Adulyadej remains the nation's most respected figure because he was popularly perceived to be the embodiment of religion, culture, and history. He ensured political stability and unity by lending legitimacy to important government actions and, in potentially destabilizing situations, as during the abortive coups in 1981 and 1985, the bloody demonstrations in 1992 and the coup in 2006 by discreetly signaling his support of the incumbent government. [Library of Congress]

The monarchy is hereditary and based on the Palace Law of Succession enacted in 1924, which allows the king to appoint his heir. If he has failed to do so, the Privy Council nominates an heir for National Assembly consideration. The heir suggested by the Privy Council may be a prince or princess.

In Thailand, the eldest son of the king automatically succeeds when the king dies. Women can ascend to the throne. The mode of succession is set forth in the Palace Law on Succession. In the absence of a crown prince, or if the crown prince declines succession, a princess can succeed, subject to parliamentary approval. When the throne becomes vacant, an heir is appointed by the Privy Council. Until the heir formally ascends the throne, the president of the Privy Council acts as regent. Prince Vajiralongkorn, the only son of King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit, was designated as heir on December 28, 1972, at the age of twenty.

History of Thailand’s Modern Government

Thailand has existed as a modern nation-state since the founding of the Chakri Dynasty and the establishment of Bangkok as its capital in 1782. In 1932, a ‘revolution’ absolved the absolute rule of the monarchy and established a Constitutional Monarchy, removing the political authority of the crown and founding a nascent ‘democracy’. [Source: Tourist Authority of Thailand]

In 1946, direct elections were finally held in which the people of Thailand voted for members of a bicameral legislature (Senate and House of Representatives) to be presided over by a Prime Minister representing the executive branch. The Judiciary, including a Supreme Court, acts independently of the executive office and the legislature, though it was not until the 1996 constitution that more effective checks and balances were instituted.

From its inception ‘democracy’ in Thailand has been turbulent, with 17 coup d’etats passing power back and forth between leaders of the military and an elite bureaucracy that borders on plutocracy. The country has also been governed under 17 different constitutions; the Kingdom's current constitution the result of the most recent coup d’etat, a bloodless overthrow of then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawattra in 2006. After the coup Thailand was embroiled in political wrangling over the implications of that coup. Subsequent legislative shake ups were caused by mass protests both against and in favor of former Prime Minister Thaksin.

See History for more details on all these matters.

Branches and Duties of the Thai Government

Legislative power is in the hands of legislature, the institution empowered to pass laws, Known as the the National Assembly, it is a bicameral body made up of a House of Representatives and a Senate. All members of the House of Representatives are publicly elected. In the 150-member Senate, one senator is elected from each of Thailand’s 76 provinces. The rest are appointed. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

Administrative power is the hands of the administrative branch (the national bureaucracy) which is formally under the control of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. The administrative branch, or the administration, administers public policy and enforces the laws, which is the administration or the government. It is made of civil servants and led by political officials who are publicly elected to serve as the prime minister and cabinet members. Civil service personnel implement and carry policies and enforce the laws.

Judicial power is in the hands of the judicial branch, or judiciary, which is exercised by the courts and judges in the name of the state, or the monarch. The power in the trial and adjudication of cases is in line with the provisions in the laws. The courts are divided into the Constitutional Court, Administrative Courts, and Courts of Justice.

For more information, See the sections on the individual branches.

Democracy, Military and Government

Thailand along with the Philippines, Taiwan and South Korea have relatively free-wheeling democracies. In Southeast Asia—an area ruled by authoritarian dictatorships—Thailand stands out as having a democratic government, but one that is troubled. Experiment with democracy began in 1932, when a coup created a constitutional monarchy. Since then there have been frequent coups and military takeovers.

The military has traditionally been a very powerful force in Thai politics. Major changes in government were often brought about by bloodless (and sometimes bloody) coups. The Thais are not great fans of the military but they realize play a part in guaranteeing their country's freedom. All you have to do is take a look at most of Thailand's neighbors—Cambodia, Vietnam. Burma and Laos—to understand what they mean.

The political power of the military is much less than it once was. Its secret funds and procurement practices have been scrutinized. Its control of television and radio has been challenged. When asked if a benevolent dictatorship suited Thailand, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who was installed in 2008 with military help said: “Democracy is the best form of government and I don’t take the view that in any particular society or country there are conditions that would suggest otherwise. I can’t ake seriously the view that sometimes Thai people are not ready or suited for democracy. But I think every society has to go through a learning process. And at different times you have different challenges for democratic development.

The Economist reported: “There was a time, after the passing of its liberal 1997 constitution, when Thailand looked like becoming a role model for democracy and pluralism in Asia. The country's elite still want it to be seen as a progressive, democratic country and a serious diplomatic actor. Unfortunately, in recent years it has slid backwards. This started with abuses by Mr Thaksin, followed by the army's 2006 coup, and then the tacit backing that Queen Sirikit, some generals and Mr Abhisit's Democrat party gave to thuggish anti-Thaksin protesters, one of whose leading sympathisers is Mr Abhisit's foreign minister. Yet, while soldiers act with impunity and royalist rioters get soft treatment, the country's anachronistic lèse-majesté law is enforced rigorously. America and its allies long turned a blind eye to such stains on Thailand's reputation, because King Bhumibol and his army were staunch anti-communist allies.... But the cold war is long over. [Source: The Economist, January 29, 2009]

see History

Women in Government in Thailand

There is long history of a lack of women’s political participation in the country, “At both the national and local levels, women were excluded from active participation. Indirectly, however, they contributed to political power play, political exchange, alliance formations, and probably behind-the-scene plans and intrigues. Women were offered as tributes to kings and members of the royal family and to high-ranking nobles. Princesses were given in marriage in order to foster alliance and to strengthen political ties.”16 Women were given as trophies in politics because of their sexuality. Now, due to an increased access to educational opportunities and political reform, women are taking their place in Thai politics.

Prior to the 1997 Constitution, women were unable to hold seats in the Thai Parliament. The Thai Parliament is currently divided into upper and lower chambers. There are 650 members total. In 1997, women only held 6 percent of the seats. This number remained steady for a few years, until it slowly increased in recent years. In 2010, women were voted into 13.3 percent of the parliament seats. This is still a small percentage, but it shows at least some progress. Some credit for this progress should be given to the United Nations, who has been working to help facilitate more recognition and activism of women in politics since the 1970s.

In the mid 2000s women held about 10 percent of the seats in parliament. In general elections in February 2005 women won 53 of 500 seats, the biggest election victory for Thai females up to that time. Women held 46 seats after the 2001 election. In 2005, women held 19 of the 200 seats in the Senate and 2 of the 36 Cabinet positions—public health and labor. The first female vice president of the parliament was selected in March 2005.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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