The monarchies of ASEAN: Outdated relics of times gone by?

Photo: Gunawan Kartapranata/CC BY-SA 3.0

A Thai man has been sentenced to 35 years in prison for defaming their monarch. Is it time ASEAN turned its back on the monarchy?

by Oliver Ward

35 years in prison for insulting a monarch over Facebook. Last month Bangkok’s military court sentenced Vichai Thepwong to a 70-year sentence. He pleaded guilty to the charge, so the sentence was halved to 35 years. This is still the longest sentence ever handed down under the lèse-majesté laws.

The case calls into question the relevance of a monarch. Several ASEAN nations maintain their monarch. But is it time to move on from these outdated systems? Or do they hold their relevance in the contemporary world?

Each country’s monarchy has a different role

In the case of Thailand, King Vajiralongkorn holds office as part of a constitutional monarchy. Under his father, King Bhumibol, the monarchy offered stability to the country. He served the people in a way that elected officials couldn’t. He travelled the country and heard people’s problems. He sought to find pragmatic solutions, without being distracted by political gain. He looked for ways of fighting poverty and economic risk through his “sufficiency economy” philosophy.

The monarchy remains above politics and is one of the spiritual pillars present in the country. Under Bhumibol, the Thai royal family recognized their limitations and did not interfere with politics. The monarch holds the right to be consulted, the right to warn and the right to encourage, but they cannot overstep these marks.

Brunei’s monarchy offers a totally different role

Unlike a constitutional monarchy, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah holds absolute authority in Brunei. Since 1984, he has ruled Brunei through the use of centralised power.

Both examples are vastly different but both have their own relevance in the modern political and social scene of Southeast Asia.

The Sultan of Brunei uses vast oil wealth to finance an elaborate welfare program. The high standard of living brings political stability to the country. Like in a democratic nation, the monarchy of Brunei has survived because the people validate the system. While he maintains the support of the middle and upper classes, the system of absolute monarchy will survive and flourish. In this case, the king has the same political relevance as any democratically elected leader.

Under the constitutional monarchy in Thailand and Cambodia, the monarchy flourishes when it does not wield political power. This may make these monarchs less politically relevant, but they have social relevance in a way which transcends politics.

Monarchical systems evolve

Malaysia provides a dynamic example of the monarchy falling out of relevance and evolving accordingly. In Malaysia, an elective monarchy exists. The roles occupied by a constitutional monarch or an absolute monarch could not fit with Malaysian society.

The ruler needed to unite a fragmented population of many different ethnicities. An absolute monarch could not have governed with enough balance and nuance to pacify the different groups. The introduction of a 5-year King who is elected solved this problem.

The Malaysian monarch carries political power, the ruler has a voice in government. However, the Malaysian ruler is seen to be politically neutral and unbiased. The Malaysian ruler is also the Head of Islam for Malaysia. This means the Malaysian ruler is a hybrid between the Thai and Cambodian constitutional monarchs and Brunei’s absolute monarch.

The ASEAN monarchies all occupy vastly different roles. Questioning the relevance of ASEAN monarchies is a fruitless exercise. Each has its own level of relevance. Some are more politically relevant than others. But each occupies its own role in the nations society with its own unique function. Monarchical systems have proven to be robust. The monarchy is in no danger of going anywhere anytime soon. But that is not to say that their role will not change.