Oligarchy in Thailand?

Abstract

A modern conception of oligarchy, which can be housed under an authoritarian regime as easily as it can under a liberal democratic one, can affect our understanding of the potential national political repercussions of extreme inequalities of wealth. This article has two goals: (1) to conceptually analyse the meaning of oligarchy; and (2) to make a
descriptive case for its use in the Thai context. The test case of contemporary Thailand shows what exactly an oligarch or oligarchy means under a military regime and the potential effects for national politics of an oligarchy based on material wealth. Utilizing Jeffrey A. Winters’ Aristotelian-grounded conception of oligarchy for the contemporary world, this article argues that some political outcomes in Thailand are inexplicable without recourse to a modern variant of oligarchic theory and analysis.

Keywords: Thailand, oligarchy, monarchy, military regime, Thai oligarchy.

Introduction

This article argues that Winters’ concept of oligarchy can be extended to politics at the national level in Thailand. The coup d’état on 22 May 2014 by military forces led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, Commander of the Thai Royal Army, may offer evidence against the argument that Thailand has an oligarchy. A year earlier, the representative democracy in Thailand – despite it being “low” on liberalism – may have also opposed such a classification. Thailand with its unique form of constitutional monarchy, sometimes termed a “network monarchy”, also appears to argue against oligarchy. Additionally, a review of Riggs’ now-classic concept of “bureaucratic polity” or Chai-anan’s concept of “three-dimensional Thai state” also seems to chal-lenge any notion of national-level oligarchy.

The present paper argues that while Thailand is not an oligarchy, it does very much
have an oligarchy. This is not a play on words. To understand why the above claim is empirically true, one must revisit the concept of oligarchy and allow for misconceptions to change. Three specific elements need to change. Firstly, the theory of oligarchy, as originally understood by Aristotle, is not a regime, but a very powerful, hard-to-eradicate, and not always coherent element of almost every state and society since Aristotle posited his mixed regime, including contemporary Thailand. Secondly, the theory of oligarchy is a materialist theory of power. Thirdly, the theory of oligarchy can be applied to Thailand and, by doing so, researchers of social science gain a new perspective of recent turmoil in Thai national politics.

Every theory, method or approach provides insight. For some students of Thai politics and society, recognising that Thailand has an oligarchy may induce something of a modest epiphany. For others, this recognition will be more like an intellectual homecoming. There are many ways to describe Thailand’s national politics, including the concept of oligarchy, regardless if one likes or dislikes the word. This article is about theory and classification and how it applies to one national state in Southeast Asia. I agree that a causal argument may be more powerful than a descriptive  argument in the social sciences. However, because there is still so much confusion over the term oligarchy and its applicability outside of Hellenistic Greece, I make a simpler argument of reviewed classification and exampled application. Oligarchy as diction can be more than a facile epithet. Oligarchy is, in fact, a vital force in Thailand’s political society… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs by T. F. Rhoden; photo credit goes to Reuters via International Business Times. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

white-compass-rose-th