Translated by Ann Norman
Introduction by Kwanravee Wangudom
Marking an official end to five years of his military rule, on July 16, 2019, the 2014 coup leader General Prayut Chan-ocha and his cabinet members were sworn in as a new civilian government. What prompted uproar among opposition parties was the newly elected prime minister’s failure to vow to uphold and abide by the country’s supreme law – the Constitution.
According to Section 161 of the 2017 Constitution, before taking office, new cabinet members are required to make an oath of allegiance before the king in the following words:
‘I, (name of the declarer), do solemnly declare that I will be loyal to His Majesty the King and will faithfully perform my duties in the interests of the country and of the people. I will also uphold and observe the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand in every respect.’
In the televised ceremony, in his oath recital, before the newly crowned King Maha Vajiralongkorn, Prayut omitted the last sentence, and added the word ‘forever’.
One month later, with Prayut still refusing to explain as to why he did not recite the full oath, the opposition parties filed an urgent motion to call for a special parliamentary session to question him on two matters: 1) the incomplete oath of allegiance and 2) the subsequent declaration of the new government’s policy without stating the sources of the income as required by Section 162 of the 2017 Constitution.
On September 18, 2019, as the requested parliamentary session was convened, Prayut gave a long speech on government spending, still without stating the sources of the budget nor mentioning the oath recital controversy before leaving the parliament mid-session. Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam was left to clarify the matter.
Despite having authored a book stating that the oath of allegiance must be recited in full, Wissanu, the government’s legal chief and the drafter of the 2015 military-ordered Interim Constitution, made two claims: 1) with the king as head of the state who exercises sovereign power on behalf of the people (as stated in Article 3 of the Constitution, and in all charters since the overthrow of absolute monarchy in 1932), swearing-in ceremony was an affirmation of trust in the person(s) who swore the oath – in this case, the cabinet members before the king – thus, a matter between the government and the monarch; and 2) the ceremony was already completed as His Majesty the King had responded with words of approval and encouragement.
Taking Wissanu’s reasoning and other members of the opposition parties’ concerns into account, opposition chief whip and Pheu Thai MP Sutin Klangsaeng was the last person to speak in the 14-hour long session. His speech proved to be significant in that:
First, it was poignant and evocative as Sutin employed several metaphors as well as “jai words” (Thai words for emotions built on the word ‘heart’) to convey emotional experiences of himself and fellow opposition MPs under Prayut’s regime as well as of Thai people in general. The speech resonated with many and was widely shared and talked about on Thai social media. Some YouTube comments, for example, praised that Sutin “pood-tan-jai” (“put into words what’s in my mind”).
Second, the speech combined at least three conceptions of monarchy: the modern notion of constitutional monarchy, the traditional Theravada Buddhist ideal of virtuous kingship, and the local animist worship of the guardian spirit. Sutin treated all these as compatible. In so doing, his speech strategically functioned as a moral exhortation to the powers that be. That is, it exposed how the government’s actions – and by extension, the king’s possible meddling – were detrimental to both the monarchy’s symbolic authority and its sacredness.
Given its heartfelt expression and its impact inside and outside parliament, this speech sheds a unique light on the workings of the Thai moral universe.
 General Prayuth also appeared to be reading the oath from a piece of paper taken out from his own pocket rather than from a folder generally prepared for by the Cabinet Secretariat Office. Nine days later, former constitutional law lecturer and now opposition MP Piyabutr Saengkanokkul spotted the mistakes and raised the issue. He also raised the issue in parliament during the new government’s policy statement debate on July 25, 2019. See Piyabutr’s parliamentary debate, with actual video clip of PM Prayuth reciting an incomplete oath [min 2.09] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4aiV2hFvZY
[As for] the debate today, from the morning up until now, there’s not a lot to it except the big issue of the conduct of the Prime Minister as we have seen it. We are worried and unhappy that he is deliberately violating the Constitution and is not abiding by the law in any regular manner. If you look over the past, it’s even clearer. At present, I consider it to be an outrageous violation of law, clearly so, and a very big deal. It makes it so we can’t help but worry about the future—that if we don’t do anything with him, don’t admonish him, don’t ask him questions, don’t give him suggestions, don’t discuss things with him, he’s going to be like this again in the future.
And the big mistake of his happened to be the violation of Article 161 of the Constitution, [i.e.] making an incomplete oath of allegiance. And it just so happened that the words he skipped—if he made a mistake and then admitted it, we would be satisfied, we wouldn’t be worried. But when he hasn’t told us at all if it was a mistake or on purpose, hasn’t clarified even a little, with nothing cleared up after repeated questioning by every measure, that makes us more worried. Every Thai person is getting more and more worried. Why? Failing to uphold the Constitution and abide by the Constitution—these matters are worrisome. If the one who breaks the law is an ordinary villager, we don’t stress over it. The power to do damage and the damage itself is limited in scope. But if someone at the level of a prime minister doesn’t follow the law—sir, the power to destroy the lives of 65 million Thai people is in his hands—how are we not going to worry? Sir, it’s not all that scary if an ant goes crazy. It can only affect the vicinity of an ant. But if an elephant goes crazy, what’s that going to be like? Of course we worry.
And so this is why we must ask Mr. Prime Minister these questions. We have tried using softer measures by asking him in Parliament and he did not reply or provide clarity. We tried formally submitting a question and he didn’t show up the first or the second time. And so we have to do this today. We’ve come today to ask him questions. If he says that he made a mistake and that he will fix it, I believe we will be satisfied. The matter will end here. People throughout the country won’t need to worry. Foreign countries won’t need to follow what’s going on or bring up the issue of confidence. If he did it deliberately, what was the reason? We want to know. Once we know, hopefully we’ll be relieved, the mood of the country will be lifted, and so we can move forward with fixing the country’s economic and other problems.
Here’s a comparison ordinary people will understand. Mr. Chairman, you’ve flown in an airplane before. Compare Thailand to a plane. The Thai people are all the passengers. The captain flying the plane is the Prime Minister. This plane has flown along braving hot and cold, experiencing difficulties for five years. In the 6th year, with elections behind us, we think this plane should be safe at this point, and we can get back to our lives. But then we find out that the whole time the captain of this plane has been violating traffic regulations left and right. That makes us unhappy. So we’d like to ask the captain, “Why do you fly like this? Are you doing it on purpose or is it beyond your control? How can it be fixed?” If the captain comes out and says, “Hello honored passengers, we are taking you there safely. I assure you we will reach our destination safely,” wouldn’t we be relieved? The trembling on the plane dies down. But if the captain doesn’t say anything, the people on board will only get more agitated, with their hearts in their throats. And if on top of that, the captain comes out seeming drunk and threatens the passengers, how are the passengers going to react?
If the comparison to a plane isn’t clear, how about a car? Everyone will get it. This car carries Thai people. The chauffer is the Prime Minister who has gone through red lights, three or four of them. It’s only a matter of time before he leads us into a fatal crash. So we would like ask the chauffer, “Are you inebriated? Are you high on amphetamines or drunk with power?” If the chauffer turns around and says, “I’m not drunk! In a minute I’ll be better. You can rest easy,” it will put the passengers at ease. But what actually happened was the chauffer turned around and barked abuse at the passengers. He didn’t instill them with confidence. That is our situation.
Several fellow members [of Parliament] today have cited causes for worry. His violation of the Constitution, for example, was in making the oath of allegiance—right in front of our country’s head of state, and he still did it wrong. Everyone is of the opinion that he did it on purpose. And why would they conclude that? Well, they raise his past as an example. He seized power. He used Article 44 to administer the country. Some say, after that law came out [elections] were postponed how many times? How many times has he used Article 44 to postpone them? To enlarge the election districts. To tinker with the election districts. To do as he pleased with the Akara mine. Then, in the mechanism for recruiting the Senate, he did not abide by the Constitution either. He submitted the Act to the Parliament without even noticing that it so clearly went against the Constitution. Didn’t take a look and still dared to submit it here. When the past is like this, and the present is as outrageous as this, the future is going to be devoid of any guarantee from him about the future. When he fails to promise to abide by the Constitution, nothing is unthinkable. Is he going to seize power again? That’s what my fellow members are asking. What’s more, they see how the Army Commander comes out snarling. That thing he refrained from saying [in the oath]—does that have some relation to the Army Commander’s demeanor lately?
All of these are things people are worried about. I am one of those people. The last time he seized power, I was taken to Ratchaburi and detained there for four nights and then taken into a van by soldiers for detention in Roi Et for another four nights. Will something like this happen again? We have a right to think that. So today we’ve come to ask him, and advise him that if he really has those intentions, he’s got to turn over a new leaf! If he can’t turn over a new leaf, then resign. Many have pointed out that announcing policies without stating the source of the budget is a very clear violation. If he dares do wrong to this extent, what other unlawful things is he going to do in the future? This is the reason for [our] discussion all day today and [our] waiting for a reply.
All these people are not just speaking for the heck of it. Along with questions posed to Mr. Prime Minister and Mr. Wissanu, everyone has given solutions and suggestions in hopes of a reply. If the reply proves gratifying, [we all] go home and sleep. The citizens, too, will feel at ease. The atmosphere of the country improves allowing us to fix the country’s problems. But what we’ve received is one disappointment after another. For the third time, for the fourth time. Saddened too many times to count. What are we disappointed about? The fact that Mr. Prime Minister gave no reply, but when he left the room he gave an interview saying he wouldn’t resign, nor shuffle the cabinet. And that he believed it was within his right to give no reply. Was that a dare? He totally disrespected the Parliament. He feels no pity for the hearts of those of us who are representatives asking on behalf of the people. And he doesn’t show up. Oh well, never mind. He’s responded just now, saying he will not reply concerning the matter of the oath of allegiance, but will only reply concerning policy—without going into the source of the budget? No way. He dodges the question by blathering about the economy. Why doesn’t he show us the source of the budget? He says nothing, except that little bit he absently throws out there about two Acts on the budget that we should go look at. How come they are more important than the Constitution? The Constitution clearly says the source of the budget must be declared. How can he claim an Act overrides the Constitution?
He finished speaking, then left. Then we turned our hope to Mr. Wissanu. We waited for a hopeful sign from him, but we are both disappointed with and saddened by the honorable Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu. I used to admire him for his talents. I used to say you were an idol of mine back when you hosted the show “Discussing the Country’s Problems.” I really liked that. I like your style of speaking. The part that stays with me, your way with words. I very much liked your ideas and ideology. Today I am greatly disappointed one more time. How so? Today you told a lie. I don’t want to use this word to describe someone I respect. You said that when the Prime Minister reached into a bag and pulled out a piece of paper to read in the ceremony, that was normal practice for everyone before, every prime minister has done it. Sir, that’s not true. Professor Piyabutr [Saengkanokkul] has already spoken [on this]. You can watch the video clip tomorrow. Every prime minister. Take, for example, Prime Minister Prayut himself. He never did it like this before either.
And he said that it had never been otherwise, that this was the usual practice. We have clearer evidence than that. I’m sorry, today I don’t think I brought it. But tomorrow I will have a statement for the news. A document of the Secretariat of the Prime Minister explains and preps for the steps for the ceremony this time around. Their staff gave it to me, so I read it—and learned what the steps are for offering the oath of allegiance according to the Secretariat of the Cabinet. But I can remember. Tomorrow I will give the news statement to you. It laid out the steps complete and in full. It also specified that a brown or blue folder from staff must be handed over to the prime minister so that he would read from it. The steps of the ceremony were clearly set out, to the contrary of what he [Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu] said. And so I know that he didn’t speak truthfully, and he spoke before the Parliament and before people throughout the country. I am suspicious of him on this point. He’ll have to prove to me that the ceremony can actually be done this way. Why, even an opening ceremony for a subdistrict-level sports tournament comes with a folder. This is an oath offered to the head of state. He pulled out one single piece of paper, and then said this was customary. Go ask the ordinary people listening today; they won’t believe it.
But what I am even more disappointed about today is he did not speak frankly. He “rode a horse to inspect the camp” [he “beat around the bush”]—and I feel sorry for the horse. He tried to explain and have us understand that an oath of office and an oath of allegiance are two different things. The point he should have addressed was: no matter what sort of thing it was, why didn’t he say the words as spelled out by the provision in the Constitution? Would it be wrong to follow that? If it wasn’t wrong, why didn’t he say it? If he said “I will uphold and observe the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand in every respect,” if the Prime Minister said this, how would it be wrong? If it wasn’t wrong, why didn’t he say it? And to not say it—what does that suggest?
It’s a matter between the government and the king. Sure, you can grab at that. So it’s a matter between the government and the king, but you can’t speak these words [from the oath]? It’s between the government and the king, but can’t he speak the words specified by Article 161 of the Constitution, that he’ll uphold and abide by the Constitution? And what’s even worse, what makes me extremely uneasy is, you tried to have us believe that it didn’t matter whether the declaration of the oath was correct or incorrect, complete or incomplete, that it counted as valid as long as the king gave his blessing speech. I don’t think so. You used to work for a university. I used to work for a university. I was responsible for arranging the graduation ceremony for at least five years. The students or graduate students came up and received their diploma from the hand of a royal figure. Afterwards, the king [or royal family member present in his stead] would always give a speech. It wasn’t within His Majesty’s scope to say whether this degree was legitimate or illegitimate, whether it was or was not a result of cheating. In the same way, it is not within His Majesty’s scope to say: “Was the oath complete? Tell me. Did you say those words? Why didn’t you say them? What about this part, Prime Minister, why didn’t you say it?” Is this within His Majesty’s scope?
It’s royal grace, it’s great kindness: His Majesty delivered his guidance speech to everyone, right or wrong. Then after His Majesty bestowed the diplomas, what happened? There were fake degrees at almost every university. We had to chase after all those diplomas and take them back. This shows that even if you receive a diploma bestowed by the hand of the king, it doesn’t mean that your diploma is valid. Many who have been fired from their jobs received their diplomas from the hand of the king. Therefore, the honorable [Deputy Prime Minister] shall not politicize a king’s blessing speech. Today, I believe that each instance of a king’s blessing speech is without political import. Whether one is valid or invalid, don’t go trying to decipher it [from a king’s blessing], whether to the benefit or to the detriment of one’s side.
More importantly, the phrase “it is a matter between the government and the king”—that pains me [he feels “sateurn jai,” or “shaken heart”]. I believe there has to be another word next to it. The government declares an oath of allegiance before the king, but it’s the declaration of an oath via the head of state to the people. It has to be bound to the people, not a personal matter of the king, not a private matter between the government and His Majesty. Rather, it is one’s oath via the king to the people that one will administer the country with honesty and in accordance with the Constitution.
If you stop at “the government and the king,” it is an inappropriate phrasing. Wherever it is heard, feelings will be hurt [people will feel “noi jai” or disregarded]. The king is a figure the people rely on. We feel secure about the government’s promises when they are made before someone we have the most confidence in, the Head of State. Why doesn’t the Prime Minister give an oath to the Head of Parliament? Because we don’t feel confident. We will feel the most confidence and security towards our bodhisattva [an idealized Theravada Buddhist king as a future Buddha through the accumulation of moral perfections]. We must think again about these words. However he wants to explain it, he still must answer why he didn’t repeat the words specified by the Constitution. Otherwise, he is about to create a new chapter of history. Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha and Mr. Wissanu will together create a new chapter of history from this day onwards. Whoever declares an oath of allegiance doesn’t need to refer to Article 161, Paragraph Two. Just do whatever’s convenient. Just participate in the proceedings of the oath declaration, period. No substance necessary. Proceedings? OK. Content? No need! Shall we do it like that? If so, today a new chapter of history has begun, created by General Prayut Chan-ocha and Mr. Wissanu Krea-ngam.
Today what distresses us the most is that Mr. Prime Minister and the Cabinet have turned a small issue into a big issue, an easy issue into a difficult issue. This is not a difficult issue. If he had admitted it like a man on the day he announced the policy, and had gone and fixed it (anyone else would have fixed it; Barack Obama would have fixed it), if you had apologized to the people, apologized to the Parliament just a little, it would have ended. The matter would not come to this. And that’s not all. Today you left us with a big problem that is an internal wound. I don’t believe the explanation from Mr. Prime Minister and Mr. Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu, no matter how convoluted and winding it was. A few people close to me are whispering, “dragging down the sky [the monarchy] for self-protection.”
And after this what happens? From this day on: 1) they have created a new chapter of history. And that history will record that they thoroughly destroyed the rule of law and the legal state. The first casualty is Article 161, Paragraph Two of the Constitution. We can just throw it away. Cut it out. It is no longer in effect nor enforced.
If there is inequity in society, that society has discontent. I spoke of economic inequity in a previous deliberation. This is inequity of a social kind, a political kind. Something everyone in the country is saying today is, “Ask the Prime Minister for me whether he would allow it if any other Prime Minister were to offer an incomplete oath of allegiance like this, [if he were to] announce a policy without announcing the source of the budget like this?” If it were a prime minister named Thaksin, Yingluck, or Sutin [i.e. myself] they would have been torn to pieces. But this is a prime minister named Prayut [and] a deputy prime minister named Wissanu, so they can be very comfortable. What the ordinary people say is, “They can do anything and it’s not wrong. But whatever we do, it’s all [judged to be] wrong.” This is a deep wound. The crux of the issue of disunity. If there is no justice, unity will not arise. If unity doesn’t arise, reconciliation won’t come.
That he thinks that he’s above the law and no one can to anything about it . . Yes, Mr. Prime Minister just now said that he can’t be removed and that he will stay on. That he can’t resign. Plus he and Mr. Wan Nor [Wan Muhamad Noor Matha – leader of Prachachat, political party] I know how they challenged one another. [Mr. Wan Nor said he would file a petition to the Supreme Court and the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) to consider the Prime Minister’s violations of the code of ethics and bring a no-confidence motion against him.] Yes, today the Thai people probably can’t do anything to him. They can’t win arguments with him. But they do not accept him. If this society, this country is inconsistent with regard to the law—this government can do this without being in the wrong, another government is wrong whatever it does—this wound is reopened again and again. He keeps twisting the knife in the wound. He seized power and said that he would create reconciliation. But today he creates inequities with regard to the law. And they are huge. He did something this wrong and can still remain [and] go strolling outside [the parliament]. Will unity and reconciliation arise [this way]? I don’t think so. This is just making things worse.
And most importantly, what has happened now, will continue to happen going forward: the institution that we respect, a ritual that used to be sacred, will no longer be sacred. After this, anyone can declare whatever oath they want to declare, before the face of the king or whatever, and can say whatever they want to say; is that so? If that is so, this ceremony has lost all sanctity. Won’t it reach the revered person, won’t it lessen the prestige of the most honored?
Say, in a village, there is a house of the local guardian spirit which the villagers believe in. What the village leader must do as a leading example for the children and grandchildren is to always bow to the house of the guardian spirit, always pray to it, always revere it, and so the children and grandchildren who come after will exalt it more and more highly. They can use the spirit house as the shelter of a bodhisambhara they can rely on [bodhisambhara means “the accumulation of virtue to become the Buddha.”] But if the leader of whatever village leads the children and grandchildren to not bow to the spirit house, walk right past it, or to bow but then pray only if they feel like it, in the end the spirit house will lose more and more of its sacred status. In the end, pigs, dogs, crows, and chickens pee on it. Does the person who is Prime Minister think [about this]?
Aside from administering the country and fixing the problem of people’s livelihoods, one thing he needs to do is make sure that the roof beams are in place [idiom referring to an orderly country where the law is observed]: promote the rule of law and the legal state—put them in order—so they are sacred and systematic, for the sake of people in the country. He neglects this point. And most importantly, why didn’t he uphold the prestige of the king? If he knew his oath was incomplete—remember the children and grandchildren who may come to think that the spirit house isn’t sacred—then do [something] right away. When we warned him, he had the chance to do something to restore the sanctity, but he did nothing. As he did nothing, this means that apart from not trying to make the spirit house sacred for the spread of worship among the children and grandchildren, [his] being indifferent also diminishes [the sanctity].
People like me didn’t go to military school like Mr. Prime Minister. We never took the water oath of fealty, nor received an Order of Rama medal. We don’t have enough capital to point fingers and accuse others of disloyalty. We don’t have that kind of capital. All each of us has are 50,000 votes from the hands of the people. When I tell him this, is he going to believe me? I don’t know. One day I could be accused of being disloyal. But he who drank the oath water of fealty, who received an Order of Rama medal, how come on this little matter he can’t express himself?
Many people have already proposed a way out. They had very good proposals. A real pity, too—because, from the statements the Prime Minister made outside today, he seems uninterested. They said he should do the oath again, [that he should] adjust himself, adjust his heart and mind, to be in line with democracy. They have given beautiful advice, but it’s like he doesn’t listen. Tell this, Mr. Chairman, to Mr. Prime Minister that what he must do going forward, the first step, is to restore the confidence of people in the country. What will he do to make the ordinary people confident that this chauffeur is not going to crash them into a building and kill them? That they won’t starve? The budget for which he did not announce [details], it was to conceal economic facts. What will he do so the people in the car say that going with this chauffer means no hunger, no fatal crash. He can do it: he can resign right away, readjust the cabinet, redo the oath. But what is important, is he must do something so that the people are confident that this government has legitimacy under the law, that it’s a valid government. And he must make the people trust him that he won’t violate the law.
Another thing that must be done alongside it: he must praise, revere, and nourish the thing that we all respect so it becomes yet more elevated. What did Panthai Norasing do? The Prime Minister knows this well. He is a soldier so he must know Panthai Norasing. He sacrificed himself to preserve and revere the [royal] institution. How do people who drink the oath water go to the point of dying in place of the royal throne? I admire one figure. Apart from Panthai Norasing, I admire one fighter who many people have probably forgotten: Police Major Anan Senakhan. He was a single-minded fighter in the period when I was a teenager. Pol. Maj. Anan said, “If I die at the hands of the dictatorship, please take my bones, grind them up good, and bury them under the Bodhi tree at Thammasat [University].” Why the Bodhi tree yard [at Thammasat University]? Because he had great faith in Thammasat as a place where democrats are produced. The symbol of Thammasat is the Bodhi tree yard. He was willing to give his life to nourish the Bodhi tree yard so it would become more elevated.
If Mr. Prime Minister wants to sacrifice himself, then simply resign as a tribute to the Great Bodhi Tree, to nourish the bodhisambhara so that it becomes more elevated, so that we can continue to be protected by it. How come he can’t do that? His resignation would be a symbolic expression, saying this spirit house has strong occult powers, such that even I still have to resign. And then he can just come back—how is this hard? The cards are already stacked in his favor: 250 senators. Whatever he wants to do, they let him have it. He can do that in order to uphold [the prestige of the king], then return [to politics]. We will be happy to continue as the opposition [in Parliament]. But if he doesn’t do that, then from now on what will the Thai people think [of this]?
He said that no one could do anything to him, that he would stay in office like this. That’s correct. The Constitutional Court has ruled so [that General Prayut was eligible to be Prime Minister after the 2019 general election]. We are forced to oblige. We will no longer rely on [the court]. It’s okay. Mr. Wan Nor will appeal, and that is one tiny hope for us, so we’ll hold on to that hope. But one thing that we expect from him that he must realize: the next election cycle. However good at this [he is], I believe he won’t stay longer than four years. Once there is an election, we won’t be waiting for the Constitutional Court, nor any other organization either. The people are where our hope lies. [As for] Mr. Prime Minister’s behavior today, his arrogance, we’ll see on election day. Today we have done our duty all the way even if our time has been cut short from until midnight to 6pm. My sincere apologies that I have gone 12 minutes overtime. I hope we receive your understanding in having [now] performed our duty as the opposition. Thank you.
2 thoughts on “Sutin Klangsaeng’s Speech on PM Prayut’s Incomplete Oath of Allegiance: An Insight into the Workings of the Thai Moral Universe”
My take on the speech is that it is similar to Thomas Paine using some arguments from the Bible in “Common Sense” (even though we know from later work, “The Age of Reason,” that he despises the Bible). My take on PM Sutin Klangsaeng’s speech is that it works on two levels. If you are a royalist, he has accused Prayut on solid royalist grounds. Meanwhile someone like myself barely notices and easily dismisses royalist elements of the speech as strategic, and reads this speech as entirely about the urgency of maintaining respect for the rule of law and of the constitution. The speech also even works a third way: “These are our ideals about our king and his role.” Left unsaid is that the current reality bears no resemblance to the ideal. There is no need to say it as the national embarrassment that is Vajiralongkorn is already forefront in everyone’s mind.
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