Both countries have monarchies as well as elected leaders. In similar ways to the UK, the kings have little political power but are revered for their moral and symbolic roles.
In Thailand particularly, a law called Lese Majeste imposes strict penalties and long jail sentences for speaking ill against the king. Anyone can be accused and anyone can accuse, and the Royal Thai Police must investigate. Beyond discussing the benevolence of the King in Thailand, general etiquette is to leave the King out of public conversation. In addition to being a figurehead, the king represents a spirituality as well. Due to Therevada Buddhist mythology, the Thai kings are all known as Rama’s and in addition to their good works here on earth, are also fighting spiritual battles against evil on the spiritual plane. The current king, Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, or King Maha for short, became king after his father King Bhumibol died in 2016. Bhumibol was known as Rama IX and Maha is Rama X. Bhumibol was the longest serving monarch in Thai history and sat on the throne for 66 years. King Bhumibol was revered for his kindness and spearheaded many humanitarian projects in Thailand. He also studied agricultural science in college and emphasized updated agricultural techniques in rice production. He was also an avid photographer and traveled around Thailand taking photos.
The political leader of Thailand is the Prime Minister. Although there are numerous political parties in Thailand, there are two political party umbrellas known informally as the red shirts and the yellow shirts. The red shirts are known as a more rural, working class constituency, making up the North and Northeast sections of Thailand where the majority of agricultural production takes place. Previous Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose Thai Rak Thai party (meaning Thai love Thai) is still their most revered leader even though he fled Thailand and currently lives in exile in Dubai. He owned the largest telecommunication company called Shin Corp and left the country after his term to avoid corruption charges. He is beloved by the red shirts because he spearheaded many rural development projects, building roads throughout rural Thailand, expanding access to electricity, and generally improving infrastructure in the North and Northeast. His brutal war on drugs was highly effective at ending opium production in the North, but did so through many extra-judicial killings, giving many law enforcement agencies license to kill drug dealers.
Since Thaksin, the yellow shirts of the Democratic Party came to power. This constituency represents the urban dwellers of Bangkok and other major cities. The yellow shirts are pro-foreign investment and represent the cosmopolitan side of Thai life. Abhisit Vejjajiva was a key Prime Minister of the yellow shirts, and the leader during serious conflict and riot in Thailand between red shirt and yellow shirt protesters. After Abhisit, Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra became prime minister and conflict continued through her term. So much so that she fled the country to avoid corruption charges. During her term, a bloodless military coup took place led by Prayut Chan-ocha. The rationale for the coup was that the military was not partisan and they would be able to bring peace between the competing interests. The military junta government took over in 2014 and has ruled since.
Cambodia has taken a slightly different political path. Their king Norodom Sihamoni has only been king since 2004 and monarchs are elected from the families of two bloodlines, Noradom and Sisowath. Their prime minister, Hun Sen, has been prime minister since 1985. He was a general under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. Then he fled to Vietnam to join their forces which ousted the Khmer Rouge and installed a new government. Hun Sen has been in charge ever since, as has his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
In the early 2010s, the CPP began to feel pressure from a new party called the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) which had begun to gain seats in the legislature and in local governments, and were appealing to growing numbers of youth. Their leader Sam Rainsy is charismatic and also adept at using social media. However, Hun Sen dissolved the party accusing them of being a terrorist organization and Rainsy left Cambodia and went into exile.
Like Thailand, discussing politics with foreigners in public is generally frowned upon in Cambodia. Large numbers of young people want to talk about their disillusion with the political system, but risk being reported to the police by anyone that overhears. The same goes for online. Several activists have faced severe charges for writing anti-CPP sentiments on Facebook and other platforms. I hope to introduce you to many youth in Cambodia, all of which have access to social media. However, keep in mind that they face a bigger risk discussing these things in public than you do.