Book Review: Kingdom in Crisis

On a Sunday evening in Bangkok in September of 2010, an extraordinary event occurred during a protest against the Thai generals who had infamously crushed a pro-democracy movement at the Ratchaprasong intersection, with the loss of 91 lives on either side.

On that Sunday evening, according to Kingdom in Crisis, an authoritative new book on the eight-year-old Thai political crisis by former Reuters journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall, "It became clear that everything had changed for Thailand’s monarchy.” To that point the king had arguably been the most venerated monarch in Thai history. But now “hundreds of people were shouting a crude insult and inflammatory accusations at an unthinkable target. The ‘bastard’ was King Bhumibol Adulyadej.”

How Thailand got to that point is a sad and dispiriting tale that is unlikely to end soon despite the May 22 coup perpetrated by Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, which has put tight screws on society – so tight that the government is pursuing dissidents far overseas, running a communications lockdown at home and seeking to institute Orwellian rules of order.

What has occurred in Bangkok is a war for the country’s very soul involving the centuries-old web of interests centered in the capital city, made up of the courtiers in the palace, the business community and others who support them. They are arrayed against millions of formerly poverty-stricken rural dwellers in the northeast who were awakened starting in 2001 by telecommunications billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, who instituted a series of strong populist measures to better their welfare. In the process he became the most popular prime minister Thailand had ever seen. .

There appears little doubt that Thaksin was also feathering his own considerable nest as he went. But Thai politics has always been deeply corrupt. What turned the elites against him wasn’t as much his corruption as his wooing of Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, the king’s wastrel son, who has to have been Bhumibol’s worst nightmare. While the king cast himself as the people’s monarch – even while living in luxury in vast palaces and presiding over a fortune estimated at US$20 billion – Vajiralongkorn was rapidly showing himself to be a psychopath, a bully and a profligate aligned with Chinese gangsters, who abandoned his royal wife to marry first a nightclub hostess and then, having packed her off, a bar girl.

As Marshall relates in painful detail, Vajiralongkorn horrified the palace machinery and the aristocrats who were connected to it. The thought of seeing him become monarch, especially as a tool of the wily Thaksin, was more than they could deal with. The palace itself split, with Queen Sirikit backing her son’s succession and others attempting to replace him with the vastly more popular Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. When Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party won its second election in 2005, raising further Vajiralongkorn’s prospects, that was pretty much enough. A combination of the elites, the military and the royalty came together to foment the 2006 coup that drove Thaksin from power.

Despite allegations of his corruption and dictatorial tendencies, Thaksin’s popularity has been such that despite a long series of subterfuges to get rid of popular democratically elected governments, including seriously suspect court actions, the elites have been unable to do so. In their attempts, however, they have turned reason on its head, using language that the Nazi propagandist Goebbels would understand. The main vehicle to bring down Thaksin or his surrogates initially was the People’s Alliance for Democracy, the so-called Yellow Shirts led by media mogul Sondhi Limtongkul – by mob rule in the streets. The later protests, led by southern Thai warlord and politician Suthep Thaugsuban, was called the People’s Democratic Reform Committee. It was not formed by the people, was not democratic, was not created for reform and was hardly a committee.

Over eight years of turmoil the elites appear to have ended Thaksin’s government aspirations for now at least, but they also managed to destroy the credibility of virtually all of Thailand’s government institutions including the courts, the police and the political parties. And, according to Marshall, they have largely managed to destroy the credibility of the one institution they were trying to save, the monarchy itself.

In any case, he writes, the current succession crisis is at one with a long series of murderous ones going back to the period when the Ayutthaya kingdom was in power. “Thailand’s destiny has always been defined by two parallel conflicts. For centuries, the ruling class has always sought to suppress and exploit ordinary people who have struggled for a fairer society. And for centuries there has always been continued feuding and tension among different factions of the establishment fighting to preserve and expand their power.”

The May 22 coup brought a sad and depressing end to what Marshall describes as what was always an illusion in western minds, particularly the US government, which regarded the country as a Southeast Asian democracy, governed by a wise and benevolent king, a bulwark against Communist expansion. In Marshall’s telling, Bhumibol was never either particularly wise or particularly benevolent, or democratic. In that way, Kingdom in Crisis is an invaluable adjunct, a continuation to Paul Handley’s pathbreaking history of Thailand, The King Never Smiles, published in 2006.

One gets the feeling that Marshall is overly critical of Bhumibol, who remains revered by vast numbers of his subjects, and for good reason, despite clear anti-democratic tendencies. One way or another, the 86-year-old king sought to do what he believed was right for his subjects, clearly unlike his son, who continues to split the elites, running the danger of destroying the institution.

In Thailand's early history, told well in this extensively annotated and indexed book, the bitter warfare over the succession could be hidden. But in today’s era of modern communications, it can’t. And it will continue to its depressing end.

“There is no prospect of any deal or accommodation between the feuding factions ending the crisis, because neither side can trust the other to keep its promises,” Marshall writes. “For the leading figures behind the elite struggle against Thaksin and Vajiralongkorn, there is no way back now. They have committed themselves, and the losers in the conflict will be crushed by the winning side.”

Marshall, a 17-year veteran of Reuters including two years as the agency's Baghdad bureau chief and two more as as managing editor of the Middle East region, has basically sacrificed a long and distinguished career to write this book because no news agency could risk telling the story without facing charges. Marshall himself would be arrested on the spot if he were to return to the country.

Is it a story worth sacrificing a career for? Marshall obviously thought so. It tells a depressing story of the last years of the world's longest royal reign. The king and queen themselves have apparently had debilitating strokes that have reduced them to the status of department store dummies, but they continue to be trotted out at ceremonial occasions to stare blindly into space by palace factions determined to use them for their own ends.