Mapping Global Populism — Panel #7: Democracy in Thailand: Navigating Populism and Authoritarianism

Protesters attend a large red shirt rally on May 19, 2013 in Bangkok, Thailand. Red shirts gathered to mark the 3rd anniversary of a bloody crackdown on anti-government protests. Photo: Shutterstock / 1000 Words.

Date/Time: Thursday, November 30, 2023 — 10:00-12:20 (CET)

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(Associate Senior Fellow, Thailand Studies Programme at Yusof Ishak Institute –


"Political Legitimation and Authoritarian Nation Branding in Thailand," by Dr. Petra Alderman (Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Leadership for Inclusive and Democratic Politics at the University of Birmingham, and a Research Fellow of CEDAR).

“The Role of Military in Thai Authoritarianism,” by Dr. Napisa Waitoolkiat (Ass. Professor, Director of the College of ASEAN Community Studies).

"Authoritarian Ministry of Truth: A Case of Thailand’s Anti-Fake News Center,” by Itsakul Unahakate (PhD candidate at the University of Sydney and Lecturer at Thammasat University).

"Youth Perspective: Is Populism for the People? An Ecofeminist Movement from Thailand," by Pattanun Arunpreechawat (NUS Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy). 

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Brief Biographies and Abstracts 

Dr. Michael J. Montesano is an Associate Senior Fellow at the Thailand Studies Programme, Yusof Ishak Institute (ISEAS). Previously, Dr. Montesano served as the Coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme and Co-coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme at ISEAS, where he has been a dedicated member since 2008. With a background that includes six years as the managing editor of the ISEAS journal SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, Dr. Montesano’s extensive experience in the region began in the 1980s. During that time, he served as a United States Peace Corps volunteer in South Thailand and pursued studies in agriculture at the University of the Philippines at Los Baños. Dr. Montesano’s research interests span the economic and social history of modern Southeast Asia and its legacies, with a focus on Thailand, the Philippines, Myanmar, and Provincial Southeast Asia.

The Legacy of Thaksin and the Role of Pheu Thai and Other Political Parties in Thai Populism

Dr. Ukrist Pathmanand is a distinguished Research Professor of Political Sciences at the Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok. With a wealth of expertise, he has been serving in this capacity since 2008, specializing in various fields such as ASEAN Integration, Regionalization of Capital, Energy, and Military in Asia, Thai relations with other countries, and the political economy of Non-traditional Security (NTS).

In addition to his role as Research Professor, Dr. Pathmanand has held key leadership positions within the academic community. Since October 2010, he has been serving as the Director of the Mekong Studies Center of Excellence (MSC) at the Institute of Asian Studies (IAS), Chulalongkorn University. Moreover, he has been the Executive Director of the Institute of Asia Studies since 2007.

Dr. Pathmanand’s contributions extend beyond research and teaching. He has played a pivotal role as the Executive Director of the Publication Project at the Institute of Asia Studies since 1986, showcasing his enduring commitment to advancing knowledge in the academic realm. With a career marked by leadership, scholarship, and dedication, Dr. Ukrist Pathmanand continues to shape the landscape of political science in the Asian context.

Abstract: Since the 2006 military coup that ousted the Thaksin Shinawatra government in Thailand, Thaksin’s political ideology, characterized by populism, has continued to exert influence on the country’s political and economic landscape. Despite spending 17 years in self-imposed exile, Thaksin’s populist policies and political legacy persist. His return to Thailand in mid-August 2023 has sparked a political tsunami, reinvigorated his dynamic political influence and placed Thailand back under the umbrella of Thaksin’s Pheu Thai party, which has become a core part of the current Thai government. Thaksin’s legacy and his political resurgence are not merely academic exercises but reflect a tangible political reality in Southeast Asia. However, there is ongoing debate and curiosity about the nature of Thaksin’s populism. Some refer to it as "Thaksinomics" or the "Thaksinization" of Thailand, suggesting a trend toward authoritarianism. In reality, Thaksin is just a charismatic politician who introduced innovative political mechanisms to gain votes and popularity. This presentation aims to rethink and reinterpret what Thaksin’s populism truly entails.

Political Legitimation and Authoritarian Nation Branding in Thailand

Dr. Petra Alderman is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Leadership for Inclusive and Democratic Politics at the University of Birmingham, and a Research Fellow of the Birmingham’s Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability & Representation (CEDAR). Her main areas of research expertise are nation branding, authoritarian politics, elections and electoral management, and the politics of Thailand.

Abstract: Why do authoritarian nations brand themselves? And how do they understand and use this practice? In her new book, Dr Petra Alderman offers a novel approach to the study of nation branding as a strategy for political legitimation in authoritarian regimes using the example of military-ruled Thailand. This talk discusses how Thailand’s military junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (2014-2019), sought to use nation branding to shape the social attitudes and behaviours of Thai citizens during the almost 5 years of direct military rule.

The Role of Military in Thai Authoritarianism

Dr. Napisa Waitoolkiat is Director of the College of ASEAN Community Studies. She completed both an MA and PhD at Northern Illinois University in Political Science, after finishing a BA (also in Political Science) from Thammasat University in Bangkok. Her research is focused heavily on democratization and the political process—electoral politics, political accountability, and civil-military relations—both in Thailand and throughout the states of ASEAN.

Abtsract: Thailand’s military is an institution autonomous from civilian control which has been dominant across Thailand’s political landscape for decades. It has staged 14 successful coups since 1932, legitimized its clout through security laws, and rationalized its existence and dominance by suppressing insurgents and protestors who might threaten the status quo.  However, the military has notably committed human rights violations, generally enjoying legal impunity for its acts.  Throughout Thai history, governments have either failed to rein in military adventurism or have been led by the military itself. The result has been a tendency toward denying civilian control while perpetrating authoritarianism. In the latest episode of military control, 2014 witnessed Thailand’s latest (14th) military coup. Coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha institutionalized authoritarianism across Thailand, first through a series of decrees, then by a 2014 constitution which also amnestied the coup-makers.  The junta moreover imposed a 2017 constitution which restructured political institutions (e.g., making the Senate a junta-appointed body) and ensured the appointment of pro-junta judges and Election Commissioners. In the 2019 election, the junta-created Palang Pracharat party won a considerable number of votes/seats due to assistance from the Election Commission.  The Prayuth-led 2019-2023 elected government was a façade: despite appearing as civilian control, the military continued to control the levers of power.  In spite of the advent of the elected Pheu Thai government in 2023, the military retains independence from civilian oversight. The military currently remains capable of authoritarianism whenever and however it wants. With no chance of effective civilian control, Thai democratic development remains limited, and seems to be eroding.

Authoritarian Ministry of Truth: A Case of Thailand’s Anti-Fake News Center

Itsakul Unahakate is a PhD candidate at the Department of Political Economy, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, the University of Sydney. His research interests include the political economy of social media, particularly misinformation and disinformation. His thesis focuses on the state’s responses to ‘fake news’ in Thailand. He is also a lecturer at the Faculty of Economics, Thammasat University, Thailand, where he teaches political economy and institutional economics.

Abstract: This presentation is part of an ongoing study on the state’s response to the so-called ‘fake news‘ in Thailand, focusing on fact-checking. In order to control fake news, many governments in authoritarian regimes aim to build their own ‘Ministry of Truth’ by establishing their own fact-checking bodies, which, unfortunately, cannot be guaranteed to be independent and non-partisan. Then, using content analysis, this part of the study compares the patterns of a state-controlled fact-checker’s reports (Thailand’s Anti-Fake News Centre: AFNC) during the COVID-19 pandemic with those of a third-party fact-checker (AFP Thailand). The results demonstrate significant differences between the reports of the two fact-checkers. These suggest that the AFNC is a shortcoming fact-checker, at least by the international standard, and it may have a hidden agenda in addition to its supposed fact-checking duties.

Youth Perspective: Is Populism for the People? An Ecofeminist Movement from Thailand

Pattanun Arunpreechawat is MPP Candidate at NUS Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. 

Abstract: In Thailand, political leaders often implement populist policies, mostly framed toward enhancing economic development and income distribution, targeting the rural poor. This includes a wide range of macroeconomic policies, including bilateral trade agreements. While Free Trade Agreements (FTA) aim to promote national growth, create jobs, and increase the country’s GDP, such policies can bring about negative effects on local communities and the environment, especially marginalized groups, and women. Using the ecofeminism framework, I attempt to analyze the connection between the environmental issue and the plight of marginalized people, especially women and the poor, and how certain populist policies entirely disregard the exploitation and oppression of both. I further argue that many Thai "populist" policies are not inclusive. Rather, they only function to benefit a certain group of people in society. This presentation strives to shed light on how populist policies favor the relentless pursuit of economic growth while disregarding the potential adverse impacts on the marginalized and the environment. Ultimately, the ecofeminist framework aims to create more space for the marginalized in the policy-making process to ensure a more inclusive society.

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