A Brief Political History of Thailand
Thailand’s government, based upon the Westminster system, formed in 1932 after shifting away from an absolute monarchy. Since that time 25 open elections have taken place, as well as 19 coups d’état, 12 of which were successful. The National Council for Peace and Order, formed in 2014 following the most recent coup, dissolved in 2019 with the election of the current government. While these frequent changes have created a perception of Thailand being unsafe, daily life for expatriates in the country remains largely unaffected. However, due to the unique nature of Thai politics, it’s critical to be aware of a few important guidelines.
All the Colors of the Rainbow
Step onto the street on a Monday, and you may see pink shirts dotting the crowds. Wander through the city center during a political protest, and a sea of red may flood the streets. Colors in Thailand carry social and political connotations, and even foreigners should be aware of the meanings to avoid any faux pas. Most commonly recognized are the colors of the opposing political movements: the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (commonly referred to as the Red Shirts) and the People’s Alliance for Democracy (commonly referred to as the Yellow Shirts). The tension between the two groups has led to much of the recent unrest in Thailand.
During periods of celebration, particularly for the monarchy, it’s common to wear the royal colors to pay respect. While yellow was traditionally worn for the King, pink is more common now due to the political connotations of the former. On the Queen’s birthday purple shirts are worn. Shirts and other items are often made for other commemorative events as well.
Long Live the King
His Royal Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who passed away in October 2016, had ascended to the throne in 1946 and had served longer than any other head of state around the globe. His importance to Thailand cannot be underemphasized, and his work in developing the country economically and socially catapulted it into the modern era. His son, His Royal Majesty King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, Rama X, is the current ruler.
It’s crucial to note that the reverence given to the King is not simply a cultural norm, but rather a required standard. Thailand’s lèse majesté laws consider defamation of the royal family to be a criminal offense, punishable by imprisonment. This applies to all living in the country, whether Thai or foreign. It is better to err on the side of caution and simply avoid commenting on the monarchy.
If You Can’t Say Something Nice…
Most importantly, as an expatriate you should always remember that you are a guest in this country. Thai politics and culture are highly charged issues, with many dramatically opposed opinions represented among the diverse population. NIST maintains a policy of neutrality, and all foreign staff members are encouraged to adhere to this same position. While our community’s philosophy and culture strongly support universal human rights, equality and social progress, we also recognize that the best way to accomplish these aims as a school is through education rather than political activism.
Thus, while the examination of social and political issues can be valuable in classroom learning, publicly expressing divisive opinions on Thailand’s government and culture is highly discouraged.
The Monarchy in Daily Life
It’s easy to be surprised by the numerous ways reverence for the King can play a part in everyday activities. As you adjust to your life in Bangkok, keep an eye out for some of these to avoid confusion.
If you happen to be passing through a BTS station at 6:00 AM or 6:00 PM, be prepared for a surreal scene as every person suddenly stops moving. Every day at these times the national anthem will play, and all pedestrians will stop until it has finished.
When you watch a movie in one of Bangkok’s many theaters, don’t get too comfortable when the trailers and commercials are running. Just before every movie begins, the royal anthem is once again played, and everyone is expected to stand to pay respect.