Lights Out for a Parliamentary Era in Thailand/Duncan McCargo

 

Close to midnight on 18 May 1995, I joined a throng of reporters in a side-room at Thailand’s Parliament. There, Chamlong Srimuang read out a handwritten statement announcing the withdrawal of his Palang Dharma Party from the Democrat Party-led coalition government following a bruising no-confidence debate. Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai’s first administration promptly collapsed, and an election was called.

I had been an eyewitness at a dramatic juncture in the country’s political history. The rights and wrongs of Chamlong’s typically attention-grabbing move are still open to debate (full disclosure: I wrote my PhD thesis about him), but for once a Thai government fell entirely as a result of parliamentary machinations: there was no mass rally, no judicial intervention, and, above all, no military coup.

Thailand’s unloved National Assembly building, site of many political tempests over the years, will soon be demolished, despite the fact legislators have nowhere else to go.

Thailand’s unloved National Assembly building, site of many political tempests over the years, will soon be demolished, despite the fact legislators have nowhere else to go. A new parliament complex under construction in the Kiakkai area near the Chao Phraya River will not be completed until well into 2019, but King Vajiralongkorn’s Royal Household Bureau is keen to reclaim the site of the current legislature.

After the end of then Siam’s absolute monarchy in 1932, the magnificent Ananda Throne Hall housed the National Assembly for over four decades. The adjacent dedicated parliament building opened in 1974, a corner plot carved from the grounds of the Dusit Palace: the new parliament was designed during the Thanom-Praphat military dictatorship that ended shortly before it opened.

Thailand’s National Assembly belonged to a genre of 1970s tropical-authoritarian parliamentary brutalism

Like the Ferdinand Marcos-era Batasang Pambansa complex in Manila, Thailand’s National Assembly belonged to a genre of 1970s tropical-authoritarian parliamentary brutalism: an unprepossessing exterior coupled with a spectacular meeting chamber that echoed the forms of representational politics, but was largely empty of democratic substance.

Little of the National Assembly is visible from the recently-closed Dusit Zoo on the other side of the road, other than a statue celebrating the much-vaunted benevolence of King Prajadipok (Rama VII), which forms the centrepiece of a dazzling white marble plaza that occludes the parliament itself from direct view. The revolutionary role of the People’s Party in engineering Siam’s transition to constitutionalism is played down in official accounts of the country’s political history. In terms of both geography and iconography, the National Assembly has operated firmly under the aegis of royal patronage.

neither elected nor unelected Thai parliaments have ever captured the popular imagination.

The parliament’s long-mooted departure from palace lands is a mixed blessing: both a coming-of-age and an act of banishment. Since the complex was opened, Thailand has alternated between a bicameral legislature during episodes of electoralism, and a series of unicameral assemblies established during periods of military rule. But neither elected nor unelected Thai parliaments have ever captured the popular imagination. The National Assembly offers no guided tours, and access to the public galleries is by invitation only.

Sadly, there often wasn’t much to see: parliamentary sessions were typically short, and  very few laws were ever passed by elected governments. Nobody watched National Assembly TV. Government policy statements delivered annually in parliament were always airy proclamations of impending prosperity and progress, unfettered by any burdensome references to a legislative programme. MPs and senators had no offices, and catering facilities were dire: no wonder most political business was conducted elsewhere.

The National Assembly came to life only intermittently, especially for no-confidence debates – much anticipated roustabouts that regularly enlivened the chamber during the 1980s and 1990s – and annual budget deliberations, during which every civil servant of any importance camped out in the complex for three days, on hand in the improbable event that a serious question was asked of their minister.

During periods of military rule, malleable appointed assemblies have cleared the accumulated legislative backlog, obligingly passing bill after bill in quick succession, with minimal public scrutiny. Even the mass rallies that regularly brought the capital to a standstill between 1973 and 2014 were rarely focused on parliament itself, partly because the National Assembly operated under the auspices and protection of the monarchy that provided it with a home. Yet for all avid followers of Thai politics, the closing of the 1974 National Assembly building and its impending demolition is a momentous juncture.

The amphitheatre-style meeting chamber boasts what must rank as the finest secular ceiling in Bangkok: an intricate golden design, resembling the interior of a folding umbrella, is punctuated by numerous points of light that draw the eye upward and inspire a palpable sense of awe.

As architectural historian Koompong Noobanjong has noted, the little-known compound houses an intriguing puzzle. Built by military dictators, the buildings were nevertheless supposed to symbolize democracy and progress. The amphitheatre-style meeting chamber boasts what must rank as the finest secular ceiling in Bangkok: an intricate golden design, resembling the interior of a folding umbrella, is punctuated by numerous points of light that draw the eye upward and inspire a palpable sense of awe.

I can’t help wondering whether the Assembly’s lead architect, Public Works Department veteran Pol Chulaswake, didn’t leave a secret message of hope encoded in that splendid chamber: Thais deserved better than the dismal, long-since-discredited generals who commissioned the building, and much finer leaders than most of the civilian politicians who have since sat beneath his spectacular ceiling.

First published in Asia Times, 14 December 2018

Photographs © Duncan McCargo 2022