The Rise and Decline of Thailands Royalist Order: A Study in the (De-)Legitimation of Power

Project: Research

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The royalist military coup staged in Thailand on 22 May 2014—the latest in a series of thirteensuccessful coups carried out since 1932—has ushered in restrictions to civil and political rightsnot seen since the mid-1970s. Having banned all dissent, purged the civil service, andprosecuted a campaign of censorship, arbitrary detentions, searches, and seizures against prodemocracyactivists and intellectuals, the ruling military junta seems intent on returning thecountry to civilian rule only once safeguards are in place against the possibility that an electedgovernment might once again challenge the power of unelected institutions, which itssupporters have vowed to bolster through the re-socialization of ordinary people into “thesubmission culture” (see The Nation, 25 July 2014). It is hardly a coincidence that one has togo back several decades in order to find a regime as oppressive, as Thailand’s royalist politicalorder—the product of an alliance formed by the monarchy, the armed forces, the bureaucracy,and Bangkok’s old moneyed class in the late 1950s—has never experienced a crisis of faith asdeep or as generalized as the one precipitated by the removal of popular Prime MinisterThaksin Shinawatra in 2006. The escalating severity of the measures taken since then in orderto strong-arm a recalcitrant public into submitting to the tutelage of the royalist establishmentreflects its fading legitimacy and moral authority, resulting from the breakdown in the culturalhegemony of the hierarchical “royal nationalism” that had once allowed royalists to minimize(by the standards of the region) their recourse to physical coercion. Having failed to keep pacewith the aspirations of a changing electorate, Thailand’s royalist order threatens definitively tounravel as a result of the succession of eighty-six-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, theworld’s longest-serving head of state.The proposed project is a study in the legitimation and de-legitimation of power, one focusedon explaining the rise, the longevity, and the decline of Thailand’s royalist political order.Broadly speaking, its contribution is twofold. First, the project seeks to contribute to thegeneral literature (spanning the fields of political science and sociology) on “historicalinstitutionalism,” which has sought to make sense of the reproduction and decay of institutionsthrough the workings of self-reinforcing processes rooted in “dynamics of power” and“dynamics of legitimation” (see Mahoney 2000). It seeks to do so by means of: a) Providingmechanisms of institutional reproduction and decay with “micro-foundations,” grounding suchmechanisms in “elementary psychological reactions” (see Elster 2007: 42) accounting for themanner in which the values, preferences, and beliefs of individuals are shaped by theinstitutional setting in which they live; b) Identifying the conditions in which mechanisms ofinstitutional reproduction and decay are more or less likely to be set in motion; and c)Exploring how dynamics of power and legitimation can work interactively—i.e., in a mutuallyreinforcing or mutually exhausting fashion—to favour the reproduction or decay, respectively,of institutions. Second, the project seeks to contribute to the literature on Thailand’s politicaldevelopment by assembling a social scientific explanation that transcends the tendency ofmuch of the existing work to study the periodic fluctuations in the royalist order’s legitimacyas a function of the effectiveness of ideological indoctrination efforts overseen by the state.The empirical implications that the theoretical innovations introduced in this project have forthe study of Thailand are assessed by relying on a wealth of official documents and statisticalevidence, as well as in-depth interviews aiming to ascertain the psychological mechanisms thatdrive the processes of institutional reproduction and institutional decay.


Project number9042285
Grant typeGRF
Effective start/end date1/01/1620/06/19

    Research areas

  • power and legitimacy,hegemony,political development,historical institutionalism,