Politico-Administrative Entanglements in Thailand

and a short comparison to Germany

Term Paper, 2011

20 Pages, Grade: A









As has been argued by many scholars1, politico-administrative entanglements provide a strong explanatory framework for Thailand’s current situation. In simple terms, bureaucrats want to retain and perpetuate their strong traditional power in the bureaucracy. They search for opportunities to expand their domain and bureaucratic empires by expanding their functions into all political arenas. Influencing the political game means to maximize politico-administrative linkages and to imbalance procedures in their favour. On the contrary, politicians seek to wield power over bureaucrats too. Not surprisingly, the Thai bureaucracy is characterized with networks of ‘patron-client relationships’ among public administrators and politicians.

Since the Thai civil bureaucratic elite filled in the power vacuum after the 1933 coup, the Thai Public Administration gained substantial control over political power, and has played a very significant role in Thai politics since. The bureaucracy enjoys great power and status over day-to-day administration. But economic interests, and the political parties associated with them, became more powerful as the economy developed. With the number of elected politicians rapidly increasing, the former unchallenged bureaucrats suddenly had to compete for power. The pendulum that once swung heavily in favour of the ruling Thai bureaucrats now seems to turn towards the political elites. But the maximum swing amplitude remains limited as the established politico-administrative entanglements in both ways prevent the swing from closing in on either one of the antagonists. Recent findings show that the pattern of corruption scandals seemed to have changed: elected politicians and senior bureaucrats are, for the first time, colluding in complex schemes to generate illicit income. In the end, both bureaucrats and politicians come to terms with the Thai “zero sum” political game. The setup of bilateral interconnections enable a win-win situation although both groups try to regain the upper hand ever since. Most recently highlighted by Thaksin’s Government term and his public sector reforms aiming at reshaping the Thai bureaucratic culture so as to co-opt and finally subdue the power of Thai bureaucrats, in the process creating a more effective instrument of personal and partisan rule.

This essay aims to outline above-mentioned politico-administrative entanglements in Thailand to enhance the understanding of the current state of affairs. This means analysing one of Thailand’s mayor shortcomings: the mutual influence of the state bureaucracy and state politics on public policies. At first, a short briefing in historic public policy supremacies tries to deliver a background which will enable us to better understand the roots of the entanglements and the self-perception of both parties involved. In the next step, the mutual influences will be disentangled, focusing on the gradual politicization of the bureaucracy first; the methods to bureaucratize politics will follow suit. Both cases will be divided into their formal and informal formats. In addition to the Thai conclusions, a comparison to the German case will be drawn. By sketching the historic and current German politico-administrative linkages and comparing them to the Thai case, this paper aims to analyse what preconditions and processes have led to different and similar pattern between Thai and German politico-administrative interconnections.


Although the beginnings of Thailand’s centralized system of government can be traced back to the 13th century, King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910) is credited with establishing the basis of the modern Thai state by, for example, replacing local hereditary governors with appointed senior officials and enhancing the separation between personal and public property. In 1928 the Civil Service Act was passed, which created the modern Thai civil service and standardized administrative procedures and practices in all ministries. In 1932 the Peoples’ Party overthrew the absolute monarchy of King Rama VII in a bloodless coup. The first Thai constitution was drafted that year, and the first parliamentary elections were held in 1933. However, these early democratic reforms were short-lived. In 1933 a military coup installed Colonel Phraya Phahol Pholphayuhasena as the new prime minister.

Thailand subsequently oscillated between army and civilian leadership, mediated by the monarchy. The outcome was chronic political instability and administrative fragmentation1 2. The occurring power vacuums were filled with the military and civil bureaucracy3. The military and civil bureaucracy continually held political power until the late 1970's and Fred Riggs famously coined the term “bureaucratic polity”4 to describe its phenomenon. In that period, The Thai civil bureaucratic elite5, together with the military bureaucrats gained substantial control over political power, and has since played a very significant role in Thai politics6. The bureaucracy enjoyed great power and status and its supremacy over day-to-day administration was unchallenged. The normal trappings of democracy were weak and underdeveloped, and local government as such was non-existent. David Wilson gives a fitting assessment of the military rule administration: “[…] politics has become a matter of competition between bureaucratic cliques for the benefits of government. Its main strengths […] lay not in rational direction or control of state policy and administration but in maintaining its position in the power system. To this end, it developed the capacity both to extract resources from the populace while maintaining social order and also to organize autonomously its own internal affairs so as to satisfy its dominant purpose – the attainment of wealth and status for its members7. From there on, state intervention in the economy expanded markedly, as new elites used an array of economic interventions to exercise state power and divert resources to support their individual bureaucratic fiefdoms8.

Following the upheavals of the early 1970s, economic interests and the political parties associated with them became more powerful as the economy developed, and business interests played an increasingly important role. Furthermore, new dynamics such as the media and the growth of civil society became growing factors in political and administrative life. The 1975 Civil Service Act introduced a modern position classification system and required recruits to take an entry examination. In the early 1980's, all these developments led to the liberalization of the "bureaucratic polity". A "soft" authoritarian regime, which some Thai scholars described as "half democracy", emerged. A former senior military officer appointed Prime Minister led the government. He was not accountable to the newly established elected House of Representatives. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives (Lower House) had to share its political powers with an appointed Senate (Upper House), whose members were nominated by the government and came primarily from the ranks of the state bureaucracy and the Royal Thai Armed Forces. But even with the entry of elected politicians in the cabinet in the 1980s, the Bank of Thailand, the Office of Fiscal Policy, the Bureau of Budget and the Ministry of Finance were insulated from political pressure. They remained under the control of powerful technocrats, whose loyalty to nation and King superseded loyalty to the government of the day9. Trained economists who were government bureaucrats usually did economic planning in the 60s up to the 80s10.

In the 1990s the number of elected politicians was increasing rapidly. After the transition to “real democracy” in September 1992, the old bureaucratic elites were still holding on to significant political powers, particularly since the military defended its political and institutional autonomy as well as significant political prerogatives11. But suddenly the former unchallenged bureaucrats had to compete for power and seemed to have taken the back seat. The pendulum that once swung heavily in favour of the ruling Thai bureaucrats now seems to turn towards the political elites. Economic policy-making and implementation became highly politicized. The 1992 Civil Service Act established the legal basis for the current civil service and outlined the role of the politicized Civil Service Commission and its secretariat, the Office of the Civil Service Commission (OCSC), as the central personnel agency for civil servants12.

Meanwhile in the Thai political discourse, party politics were reproached with incompetence, corruption, and a dubious morality. Thai economist Pasuk Phongpaichat characterized this as follows: "In the view of [civil society], the parliamentary system had simply been co-opted into the bureaucratic state. The battle was still between the people and the state, the people and paternalist domination, the people and patronage system which now encompassed not only bureaucrats but elected representatives13. In the inaugural test of the 1997 constitutional reforms in March 2000, voters for the first time elected 200 senators through a nationwide ballot. Although marred by political patronage and fraud, the election ended the 68-year-old practice of appointing members to the upper house under a veil of political patronage that favoured vested interests such as the bureaucracy and the armed forces. But retired civil servants and political affiliates still accounted for more than half of all seats in the Senate and business associations for a further 10 per cent. In 2007 a new system was established with half of the Senate getting appointed again.

Then came the term of Thaksin Shinawatra. While he himself proved to be a dubious figure, his sweeping re-election victory in 2005 broke the mould of Thai political rule over the bureaucracy. Thaksin’s predisposition, from his background as CEO of a personal business empire, was to challenge Thailand’s deep-seated bureaucratic traditions, with their stately and convoluted patterns of decision-making. He publicly decried Thailand’s bureaucracy as old-fashioned and corrupt while extolling business virtues and entrepreneurial styles14. Thaksin sought to centralize effective, day-to-day power over strategic arms of the bureaucracy so as to harness its resources to the ends of his party and its supporters.

In the 2009 budget, approximately 35 per cent of the recurrent budget is spent on civil service staff costs, which is remarkably higher than ASEAN norms15. In 2011 the non-government sector and civil society in Thailand still remains weak and is growing only slowly.

III. THE POLITICIZATION OF THAI BUREAUCRACY “Who keeps company with the wolf will learn how to howl.”

- English proverb

In Thailand, there has always been a constant tension and discussion between the control of political interference that a centralized, hierarchical system can bring and the need for flexibility and decentralization, which can improve performance but, in turn, re-open the system to political abuse. Traditionally, Thailand always focused on centralized political and administrative systems on state level with only moderate decentralization efforts. Hence, as this paper does not and cannot claim to be complete nor all embracing, only the state level interferences are to be picked, leaving the local levels of individual interference, fraud and favouritism aside.


1 Bowornwathana provides a very good up-to-date analysis of the Thailand state of affairs in: Bowornwathana, B.: Bureaucrats, Politicians, and the Transfer of Administrative Reform in Thailand, In: Pierre, J., Ingraham, P. (2010): Comparative Administration Change and Reform: Lesson Learned, McGill- Queen: University Press, pp. 207-232.

2 Klein, J. (1997): A Blueprint for Participatory Democracy. Asia Foundation Working Paper no. 8. pp. 16-26.

3 Dhiravegin, L. (1983): Political Attitudes of the Bureaucratic Elite and Modernization in Thailand, Bnagkok: Thai Watana Panich, p. 7.

4 It implied a system of government characterized by military rule, political cooptation of top civil servants, competition among bureaucratic cliques, politicization of civil service, patronage and corruption.

5 See: Riggs, F. (1966): Thailand: The Modernization of a Bureaucratic Polity, Honolulu: East-West Center Press.

6 In the course of this paper the bureaucratic elite will be defined as follows: Individuals in the civil bureaucratic system who have the authority, formal or otherwise, to formulate policies, the implementation of which have a significant effect upon society and its members. See: Bowornwathana, B.: History and Political Context of Public Administration in Thailand. In: Berman, E., (2010): Handbook of Public Administration in Southeast Asia. New York: Francis and Taylor.

7 Found in: Wilson, D. (1962): Politics in Thailand. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, pp. 22-23.

8 Klein, J. R. (1998): The Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand: A Blueprint for Participatory Democracy, In: Asia Foundation Working Paper #8, p. 7. Bhanupong, N., Warr, P. (1996): Thailand's Macroeconomic Miracle: Stable Adjustment and Sustained Growt, Bangkok: OUP South East Asia, pp. 15-16.

9 Compare: Bowornwathana, B. (2000): Governance Reform in Thailand: Questionable Assumptions, Uncertain Outcomes, In: Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration and Institutions, Vol. 13, No. 3, pp. 393-408.

10 See: Wescott, C.G. (2001): Key Governance Issues in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand, and Viet Nam, Manila: Asian Development Bank, p.37.

11 Klein, J. R. (1998): The Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand: A Blueprint for Participatory Democracy, In: Asia Foundation Working Paper #8, p. 46.

12 Found in: Bowornwathana, B. (2000): Governance Reform in Thailand: Questionable Assumptions, Uncertain Outcomes. In: Governance 13, pp. 393-408.

13 See: “A verdict on bureaucracy”, The Nation 12/02/03 and “Thaksin aims at civil service reform”, The Nation 02/07/03.

14 See: “The Civil Service Today” (1995) by the Australian Public Service Commission and the University of Canberra, pp. 173-174.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Politico-Administrative Entanglements in Thailand
and a short comparison to Germany
Thammasat University, Bangkok  (Faculty of Political Science)
Thai Politics
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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597 KB
bureaucratization, politicization, Thai bureaucracy, Thailand, Politico-administrative entanglements
Quote paper
rer. pol. Andreas Bruckner (Author), 2011, Politico-Administrative Entanglements in Thailand, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/176433


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