Catharin Dalpino on the Recent Thai Parliamentary Elections

Catharin Dalpino is Professor Emeritus at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where she taught courses in Asian Studies and in US foreign policy. She has also taught at the State University of New York-Albany. Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; George Washington University; Simmons College; and Seton Hall University. For five years she was Director of Georgetown University’s Thai Studies Program. From 1993 to 1997 Professor Dalpino was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. She has also been a Fellow at the Brookings Institution; a Resident Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and Associate at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy; a Visiting Scholar in Southeast Asian Studies at SAIS; and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. From 1983 to 1993 Professor Dalpino was a career officer with The Asia Foundation, and was the Foundation’s Representative for Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. In that capacity, she re-opened the Foundation’s programs in Laos and Cambodia after a hiatus of fifteen years. She was the founding director of the Aspen Institute Program on Agent Orange in Vietnam (2007-2009), which urged the US Government to provide assistance for Vietnamese affected by exposure to dioxin during the Vietnam War. Professor Dalpino is the author of two books about US foreign policy and numerous articles and journal chapters. She has testified before Congress, on both the House and Senate sides, more than a dozen times.
Enya Kamadolli '26 interviewed Dr. Catharin Dalpino on September 8, 2023.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Catharin Dalpino.

Given the results of Thailand's parliamentary election last May, why is the Move Forward party not currently in power? More generally, do you think that progressive parties like Move Forward will have a chance to gain power in Thailand? What structural changes are needed to grant progressive parties a chance in parliament, if any? Several parties that are in the ruling coalition would say that they are progressive parties, whether they are or not. But what distinguishes Move Forward from the others, as we found after the election, is that Move Forward is still very tied to reform of the monarchy in their policy. That was the deal killer which prevented them from being able to hold, command, and organize a ruling coalition, and that certainly was the motivation behind the judicial action against Pita Limjaroenrat. There was the small matter of the laws about conflict of interest, but that probably would not have arisen had Move Forward abandoned their policy platform of monarchy reform. The Senate would never have approved a coalition led by Move Forward unless they had removed that agenda, and Move Forward knew that. This was a decision on their part to stick to that principle, and go down fighting, which they did.

What is considered to be a “progressive party” in Thailand’s Parliament? How do you think Move Forward differs from and compares to a standard progressive party? I make a distinction between Move Forward, which I would say is a pro-democracy party, and Pheu Thai, which is a populist party, which is not the same thing in this case. There are many examples in history when populist parties can be quite right wing and fascist, and technically speaking, so can many communist leaders as well. The definition of progressive party in Thailand has changed over time. Thirty years ago, a progressive party was a party that favored civilian rule over military rule. Since then, the definition has become a lot more precise in terms of adhering to more classic definitions of democracy, although civilian rule is still not a given in Thailand. Thus, I would say that Move Forward is certainly the most progressive party, but it also depends on how you feel about the monarchy. The monarchy is an extremely touchy subject inside Thailand, and as far as the Thai government is concerned, outside of Thailand as well. By choosing to keep on the policy platform the reform of section 112 of the Constitution, which criminalizes criticism of the monarchy (Lese Majeste), Move Forward knew they were heading into a windstorm. Ultimately, today's definition of the progressive party is one that pushes for a more and more democratic constitution. We have to remember that the 2017 constitution was essentially drafted by the Junta that had taken over and overthrew the last Shinawatra to rule Bangkok, and thus a progressive party is also one that looks to curb the powers of the military as well.

Do you think it is possible for a party to take a hard line on monarchy reform and succeed? Or would any party that is similarly as progressive have to be willing to compromise on things like criticizing the monarchy in order to ultimately take power and win the prime minister’s seat? Lese Majeste is the third rail; you touch it and you'll become electrocuted. It is quite possible for a progressive party to take power. It would even have been possible for Move Forward, if they had dropped Lese Majeste from their own party platform. They were willing to say that that was not the policy of the coalition, but they were going to continue to push for it. There was a very good chance that they would have been accepted with a lot of horse trading with the Senate, if they had dropped that advocacy. Pheu Thai was gunning for Move Forward as well, because Pheu Thai was second in the polls they had expected to win and were surprised. Pheu Thai ultimately outmaneuvered Move Forward. One of the things that Pheu Thai did was bring two very small military-affiliated parties into the coalition, lending some stability to the ruling coalition. Pheu Thai probably felt that it was better to have them in the tent than outside of the tent, and who could better say that than a party that had two Prime Ministers overthrown by military coups. 

Given that Pheu Thai is in power and not Move Forward, do you think Move Forward will want to grab for power via a different avenue? Perhaps either by either instigating a referendum to rewrite the Constitution, as threatened, or perhaps just stirring public discontent more generally. I don't think that they will do either, as Move Forward is still in the parliament. They are now the opposition, they will be the leader of the opposition, and they still hold a lot of seats, although Pita is not going to be in parliament very much longer. I suspect that the Constitutional Court will ban him from politics, which has happened to many politicians, including many Pheu Thai politicians. Pheu Thai is the third incarnation of a party led by the Shinawatra family. Move Forward won’t likely foment revolution of the kind that we saw in the late 2000s.  Rather, I think that they will try to put policy reform before Parliament.  I’m not certain whether there would be a referendum on section 112, since that would certainly stir up trouble. Anyway, Move Forward made their point by getting the largest number of seats. Depending on what happens with party leadership, they will probably try to stick around.  

Independently of a Move Forward instigation, do you think that any sort of public protests are on the horizon? That is very possible, even if not deliberately instigated by Move Forward. Where things would have been very volatile or explosive, was if Prayut or Prawit (who led the 2014 coup) ended up as prime minister, given the fact that they got one or two seats. Even the military knew that was too much. Thais would have taken to the streets and there would have been violence.

Do you think there is any chance we will see a referendum in Thailand in the near future? Or at least call for one amongst the people? Referenda are extremely risky, as they can be very inflammatory. Any reform would likely instead go through the parliament. To reform the monarchy, it should happen through the parliament, so that negotiations only include a small group of people who want to keep their parliamentary seats. They will know exactly how far they can push something or not, rather than trying to control it on the streets, which is what a referendum would do. 

What continues to underpin the monarchy’s power in Thailand? Why, for example, is it so hard to get parliamentary change passed in regard to the monarchy? Change still requires the consent of the monarchy. Thailand is not an absolute monarchy, it's a constitutional monarchy. Some change came about with a coup against absolute monarchy in 1932. It wasn't just a military coup; there were civilians participating in that coup as well. The oldest party in Thailand, the Democratic party, came out of that. It hasn't really been terribly consequential lately, but it's still around. The monarch is a constant in a constitutional monarchy, as Britain demonstrates. The monarch has a role to play in policy. You can't exclude the monarch from reform of the monarchy: it's constitutionally impossible.

Thailand’s conservative Senate is often cited as the major barrier to progressive change in Thailand, including reforming the monarchy. What role does the Senate play as a barrier to reform? There are not proposals on the table to go from a constitutional monarchy to a republic. There are always republican movements in constitutional monarchies, but a serious movement won’t fly in Thailand. The role of the Senate is to protect the military and to protect the monarchy. The Senate's powers and role stem from the 2017 constitution as well. They have very strong powers when it comes to choosing a Prime Minister, which is why it is so important that a political party be able to send a ruling coalition to the Senate that the Senate will approve. This is why Move Forward’s coalition would not have been approved, given their policies. In all countries, upper houses tend to be stodgier than lower houses by way of design.  As in many other countries, the Thai House of Representatives is larger than the upper house, less aristocratic, and less conservative. 

Do you think the results of this election are a step backwards in Thai politics? There were a lot of news articles written about the initial excitement about Move Forward – in hindsight, do you consider that a false hope? Alternatively, do you think that the outcome of this election says good things about the future of a possible Thai democracy? There definitely needs to be additional structural change. The election was not a step back, but the Constitution in 2017 was. In fact, the most recent election was predictable under the Constitution in 2017. This past election does, however, signal a generational change in the Thai electorate. Pheu Thai miscalculated, because one of the three people during the campaign that Pheu Thai was hinting to put forward as Prime Minister was Thaksin’s 36-year-old daughter, who had no experience in politics or policy. She did not ultimately end up as Prime Minister; they thought she would be a magnet for young voters, but that turned out not to be the case. The youth need to be taken more seriously. 

Do you think we will see increasing polarization between the appointed Senate and the younger generations as they become a growing share of the Thai electorate? Certainly, in the mid to long term, we will see that polarization if the Senate remains the appointed political base of the military. Pheu Thai has learned many lessons about how not to antagonize the military, because that was the main reason that Thaksin was overthrown in 2006. There were several very complicated other reasons, but ultimately it was the military that felt he had accrued too much power. In the 2005 election, he was the first Thai Prime Minister ever to get an absolute majority and not depend on a coalition to form a government, and that scared the military. He also was the first prime minister to serve out a full five-year term and win reelection. 

Thaksin had a lot of support in the 2000 election from Bangkok. In Bangkok, voters tend to be very progressive and tend to be more pro-democratic. They were disillusioned by 2005, especially given Thaksin’s use of the office to further his family's commercial interests. It will be interesting to see how Pheu Thai handles that dynamic. Also noteworthy is this is the first Pheu Thai Prime Minister who's not a member of the Shinawatra family. The question in everybody's mind is how much is Pheu Thai a political party and how much is it the Shinawatra family? It was not a coincidence that the day that Srettha was approved by the Parliament, Thaksin landed in Bangkok. Given everything that has happened—including his being taken immediately to a hospital ward (not to the central prison) and the king's pardon a week later—it looks all pre-arranged. He would never have returned had he not made a deal beforehand. Moreover, the military also felt threatened by Pheu Thai taking away the military's political base, which was situated in northeastern Thailand. That had long been a political base because of the Vietnam War, since a lot of infrastructure paid for by the United States was put into the Northeast. Many former military leaders ran for parliament out of the Northeast, and then suddenly that became Thaksin territory. That is the poorest region of Thailand. Pheu Thai is a very populist party, which was threatening to the military as well.

Now that Thaksin is back in Thailand, can we expect to start seeing him influencing Pheu Thai again? Will that raise the hackles of the military? Srettha is going to learn to toe that line with Thaksin. When Thaksin’s plane landed in Bangkok, he was surrounded by hundreds of supporters in red shirts. Srettha has a very difficult road ahead, especially given that he also has no real political experience. He has to stay on good terms with the military, the Pheu Thai base, and Thaksin, which is a tall order.

How do you ultimately expect the political transition to affect Thai foreign policy, especially given that Thailand is currently being spearheaded by a Prime Minister without political experience? Srettha is learning fast. I will focus on two specific areas. One is the US-China rivalry, which is a concern to every Southeast Asian country, and the other is Myanmar, which particularly affects relations with the United States. The Shinawatra family is a Sino-Thai family, which is true of most Thai billionaires that were able to profit from Thailand's opening to China, particularly in the mid 1980s after the Thai Communist Party was defeated. The business community was finally allowed to have a political voice, catalyzing Thaksin’s rise. Thaksin is a very rich man, or at least certainly was when he was running for election, and that was part of his appeal in 2000.  Thailand was humiliated in 1997 by the Asian Financial Crisis, and Thaksin said he would pay the IMF back early if he became Prime Minister. And he did. Generally, he ran on his billionaire status and his success as a “self-made billionaire.” Historically, when prime ministers have been elected, it was customary for them to go to a temple and light incense and pray for guidance. When Thaksin was elected, he did not go to the temple, he put his wife into the family Porsche and went to Starbucks. His message was “I am the modern man. And I will make Thailand modern, profitable” and so on.  This Sino-Thai business community has allowed Thailand to flourish over 100 years. They were integrated and were the conduit for business with China. In the 1980s, and 1990s, they knew where their ancestors had come from, and that's where they started. That connection has been very strong, and that will continue. 

The second thing to note is that the United States and Thailand still are treaty allies. But that alliance has been drifting for decades. The reason the alliance has been lackluster is that the United States and Thailand do not have a common major vital threat to their security, as they did during the Vietnam War. As such, there are attempts to reinvent the alliance. Thailand has somewhat reverted to its traditional foreign policy, which is a foreign policy of balancing. This approach prevented Thailand from being colonized by European powers in the 19th century. Now, Thailand, like most Southeast Asian countries, wants a balanced relationship between China and the United States. Srettha is going to try and walk that line very carefully. He skipped the ASEAN meeting in Jakarta, like Biden. But he will go to the opening of the United Nations in New York in September, and he said he would participate in a US-Thai security dialogue with his defense minister. So coming out of the gate, he is signaling that he is going to pay attention to that alliance and to US-Thai relations. That said, there are a lot of things that will be challenging to the relationship. A lot of them have to do with trade. China is going full bore into RCEP and wants to join the CP TPP, and the United States has made clear that it is not going to enter into any multilateral free trade agreements. 

Policy toward Myanmar is very interesting. When Prayut was Prime Minister, he set up a direct dialogue with Myanmar. From the Thai point of view, that was a sensible thing to do. Thailand is the frontline state that would absorb refugees if anything blows up further in Myanmar. Also, Thailand is also now one of the biggest investors in Myanmar because the Western companies and Japan have left. Lastly, there's this perception in the West that the Thai military and the Burmese military have some kind of love connection. They don't. The Thais distrust the Burmese military. They have a close relationship with Myanmar in order to make economic deals, but also to contain the Burmese military. Moreover, there's yet another reason to be involved, which is that they don't believe that the ASEAN five-point Consensus Plan will work with the current situation. Before 2012, the United States and Japan and the West were constantly encouraging Thailand to push the Burmese military to release Aung San Suu Kyi from detention or hold free elections. But no one had that kind of leverage. The Thais are a little bit skeptical of Western views that this can all be solved with some sort of negotiation. 

One last point I want to make about this is that in Bangkok's view, there's nothing wrong with the division of labor with ASEAN handling Myanmar. We saw that approach in the Cambodian Civil War. ASEAN divided up that war in order to lay a path for a peace plan. The Indonesians were in charge of dialogue with Vietnam. Thailand was basically in charge of dialogue with China, because China was supporting the Khmer Rouge. ASEAN recognized that Thailand was a frontline state because if anything escalated, hundreds of thousands were going to come across the eastern Thai border, and Bangkok deserved deference. In Bangkok's view, the current situation in Myanmar is exactly the same. This will likely be a thorn in the side of US-Thai relations. 

Do you have confidence in Thailand’s ability to navigate wanting to have a relationship with both the US and China and simultaneously having an individual agenda on issues like Myanmar? No, I don't have confidence in that. Srettha is going to put a lot more energy into getting the right balance between relations with the United States and China, particularly because China's growth right now is slowing down. But Thailand depends on Chinese tourism and on the development of transportation infrastructure. Pheu Thai may actually have an additional asset. When Thaksin was in power, he cultivated tight relations with Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. He started foreign assistance programs for those countries. Can Pheu Thai lean on that? Is there any leverage to use against the junta? It's just hard to imagine that this conflict in Myanmar is going to be settled with people sitting at a conference table negotiating. It's going to be settled incrementally and it's not going to be a perfect solution. 

Enya Kamadolli '26Student Journalist

Government of Thailand, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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