A Right Royal Mess?

Asian royals have been much in the news. Royalty backing a coup in Thailand. Royalty creating mayhem in Nepal. A revolt against royals in tiny Tonga. A rare royal birth in Japan. And in Korea, discussion of a royal rebirth.

Their role raises the issue: do we need more or less of this remnant of an earlier age of autocratic rule?

Let’s start with two extremes. The King of Thailand, on the throne for 60 years, is widely hailed as a symbol and mediator, the man who has on various occasions appeared to rescue Thailand from political chaos. He not only symbolizes kingship but appears to represent its highest modern accomplishments. But could that be a grand illusion?

At the other end of the scale, as currently judged, is the Nepalese monarchy. The late King Birendra endeavored with limited success to keep a balance between democracy, royal power and the Maoist rebellion. But the 2001 assassination of Birendra and numerous family members by his son, who then committed suicide, brought to the throne an incompetent successor, Gyanendra, whose attempt at direct rule plunged the kingdom into even greater conflict. This is a sad state of affairs for a monarchy that helped Nepal stay at least nominally independent during British rule of India.

Royal overreach could collapse the Nepal monarchy just as it destroyed the Iranian monarchy and the Pahlavi dynasty just eight years after the last Shah spent a fortune celebrating the 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire. His version of modernization and autocracy (he took absolute power in 1975) incited a mix of mullahs, Marxists and the middle classe to throw him out. Ironically, Iran had had a constitutional monarchy before the Qasar dynasty was overthrown in 1910 by an ambitious general who made himself Shah Pahlavi. Revolt against the clerical despotism of the Islamic Republic will eventually happen but the odds are against a royal restoration.

That could be more likely in Afghanistan. The last Afghan king, Zahir Shah, does not bear much of the blame for the tragedy which has overtaken his country. He himself – and a quasi-democratic system – was overthrown in 1973 by an ambitious cousin who made himself president until he was killed in the 1978 Soviet-backed coup. Many older Afghans look back with nostalgia on the poor but tolerant society which was Afghanistan under King Zahir Shah. His royal predecessors, like those in Nepal and Thailand, had been responsible for keeping the country independent.

Then there is Thailand. But is Thailand really the great example of successful monarchism as often presented? Is the Thai monarchy in danger, once King Bhumipol is no longer with us, of going the same way as Nepal or Iran? After all, the Thai monarchy was at low ebb when Bhumibol came to the throne in the wake of his successor’s mysterious death in a shooting accident. Republicanism was even mooted. Military leaders such as Pibul Songkram saw the monarch as a near irrelevance to be ignored.

It could well be that the Thai monarchy has overreached itself in two directions, firstly in its role in the ousting of an elected, if corrupt, populist, Thaksin Shinawatra. Does this prepare the ground for an eventual populist reaction, a re-awakening of republicanism?

Secondly, the monarchy may have overstated its role as unifier and symbol. Its current prestige owes at least as much to the man as to the institution. So what price the royal command when he is gone? The crown prince is widely despised, the elder princess is revered but lacks both husband and heir in a country that has never been ruled by a Queen.

But the fact that the monarchy looks likely to lose some of its luster in Thailand does not mean that other countries might not find the institution useful – as indeed do most of the liberal, egalitarian countries of northern Europe – the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Britain and Luxembourg

Indeed, is there a case for using restoration of abolished monarchies as a means of healing historical wounds? Spain found that after General Franco’s death the restoration played a major role in healing wounds and institutionalizing liberal democracy and secularism.

One candidate just might be Thailand’s neighbor and historical rival, Burma. It has not had a monarch since the British ousted King Thibaw in 1885 and sent him into exile, but there are a number of his descendants – though not through the male line – alive. Items of royal regalia, including the Great Throne, are in the National Museum in Rangoon. Might a royal revival be one way of finding a symbol around which military types and Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters could coalesce? Sounds far-fetched but Burma badly needs any way out of its troubles.

Thailand’s northern neighbor, Laos, has only been without a monarch since the Communist takeover in 1975. Some old lotharios and cold warriors fondly remember Royal Air Lao and its cheap flights from Hong Kong to the fleshpots of Vientiane. The Pathet Lao were quite ruthless in destroying royal symbols and the last monarch died in detention. But a direct claimant to the throne is alive and well in exile. Ideology and party discipline are gradually waning, the royal capital Luang Prabang is a world heritage site and little Laos may before long feel that a monarch is a useful symbol for maintaining identity when surrounded by giants like China, Vietnam and Thailand.

Of course one would well ask whether remaining a monarchy was any help to Cambodia. Former King Sihanouk’s erratic attempts to preserve his power may have contributed to the chain of events which led to the Khmer Rouge takeover and slaughter. His son and successor has scant influence over a one-party government of apparatchiks and corrupt officials in league with businessmen. But the monarchy’s existence probably has a moderating and unifying influence.

Vietnam is a lot further away than Laos from even thinking about a restoration. The image of Ho Chi Minh still rules, even if his principles do not. The last emperor, Bao Dai, had the misfortune to get caught between the Communists and the French in the 1950s and ended up on the wrong side. So nostalgia for him is in short supply. But who knows about the future of a state that is so fiercely proud of its history of independence from China that a monarch may yet come in handy again.

Which is where the revival of monarchical interest in that other fiercely nationalist neighbor of China, Korea, looks interesting. It may seem improbable given the North’s deification of Kim Il Sung and the South’s determination to show off all aspects of being a fiercely modern, democratic, scientifically advanced, socially progressive society and thus scarcely one to need ancient symbols.

The monarchy’s role as symbol was undermined by Japan’s effort, following the 1910 annexation, to integrate the Korean aristocracy with its own through intermarriage. The last direct descendant of a Korean monarch, Prince Gu, whose mother was a Japanese princess, died in 2005. But there are claimants to throne, notably Prince Yi Seok, a history teacher who has started a signature campaign for restoration of the monarchy within a democratic constitutional framework.

It seems far-fetched. But both Koreas are in competition to prove, in very different ways, their nationalistic spirit. What better way of bridging their differences than by re-creating a royal symbol of Korean unity?

Koreans may even wryly note the cunning use made by General Douglas MacArthur of the Japanese Imperial family despite the emperor’s role in the prosecution of the war. Allowing the national symbol to remain in his palace made the US occupation much easier.

But do not imagine that monarchs are useful everywhere. China had not had a true Han emperor for 400 years before its first republic. The last emperor to rule most of India before the British was a Muslim – Akbar. No prospect there of a revival of the Mughal empire, which finally died in Delhi in 1850. Indonesia has the Sultan of Jogjakarta and a few scattered claimants to dead monarchies. Balinese royal rule was snuffed out by the Dutch in 1908, but it still has an aristocracy.

Malaysia of course still has nine sultanates from which it has created a rotating kingship, which principally provides a market for Rolls-Royce cars and keeps luxury hotels busy. The rotation ensures that sultans get their turn regardless of competence or even sanity. Not all states have a sultan and non-Malays are not represented in the system. The multiple monarchs make it a costly venture and few see the king as symbol of Malaysia. There could also be a better way of choosing the king. But it has its uses in keeping Malay traditionalists happy, the award system thriving and giving a ritual underpinning to the federal constitution.

But looking a little nervously at Malaysia is one of the few sultans still to rule rather than reign – the sultan of tiny oil rich Brunei. The country’s survival is owed largely to oil and the British. But it was once just part of the great Sultanate of Sulu, encompassing much of northern Borneo, western Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago. The Philippine-based Sultan of Sulu still represents the threadbare Philippine claim to Sabah.

Generally speaking, monarchies may have a place in small or homogenous nations but in the modern context they make little sense in large or diverse countries. But they can survive in Asia only if thrones are occupied by people who understand the limits of their position in modern societies, democratic or not.