Surveying the Wreckage of Thailand’s Monarchy

The past week has been a great one for determined republicans, but it has been sorrowful for those, like this writer, who believe that monarchies still have a useful role to play in modern states.

Republicans may be few in number in Thailand – at least in public – but their numbers must surely grow as the institution of the monarchy is increasingly regarded not as a force for national unity and worthwhile tradition but as the captive of interests who take its name in vain.

The 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, it is reported, has given royal assent to the latest military coup. But, we are told, the king was not actually present at the ceremony and no word has been forthcoming from his lips. It is hard not to come to the conclusion that the long-ailing monarch is so surrounded by courtiers that he has a limited grasp of what has been going on, or is simply too weak to make decisions and put himself at the head of a process of compromise within a democratic formula.

Serious, sympathetic discussion of the role of the monarchy is curtailed everywhere – outside as well as inside Thailand – if not ruled out entirely by the abuse of lèse majesté legislation, which threatens harsh penalties for the slightest criticism of the royalty. The result can only be the further identification of the monarchy with the forces that have yet again rejected the choice of the electorate.

Until recently, that was represented by Suthep Thaugsuban, who might have been written off as a self-aggrandizing maverick with a dubious past, and to a lesser degree by the Democrats led by the unelectable Abhisit Vejjajiva. But now it is the army itself, a genuinely national institution, which has shown its true color – yellow not a neutral khaki.

As one who was in Iran in the days immediately before the overthrow of the Shah, and one who remembers the relatively recent fates of such kings as Nepal’s Gyanendra, Egypt’s Farouk, Iraq’s Faisal, Afghanistan’s Zahir Shah and Vietnam’s Bao Dai, current events make eerie viewing.

Of course, Thailand is different. The king has not held direct power, as did the Shah, since the 1932 revolution that ushered in what has now been 80 years of intermittent democracy and military coups. The monarchy faces no ideological enemy like the republican ayatollahs in Iran. Nonetheless monarchies that fall out of touch with the people can disappear surprisingly quickly.

One does not need to be a defender of Thaksin’s power abuses nor Yingluck’s wasteful rice and railway spending schemes to recognize how much damage has been done, not just to the position of the monarchy but of other institutions such as the Constitutional Court. Repeated, overt denial of the validity of elections and actions in tacit support of mob leaders such as Suthep and previously Sondhi Limthongkul have merely exacerbated social divisions.

Corruption was not unique to the Thaksin administrations and the economy relies far more on small business and foreign investment than on Bangkok’s big business groups.

Given the age of King Bhumibol and the comparative lack of esteem in which his anointed successor, the Crown Prince, and other royals including Queen Sirikit, are held it is more than possible that the army now will come to see itself not so much as the defender of the monarchy but as the center of power and core of national identity.

The monarchy will just be decoration, as it was the days of military strongmen Sarit Thanarat and Pibul Songgram, wheeled out to support some nationalist or special interest agenda.

As a foreigner who has been visiting Thailand often over 40 years, it is distressing to hear the disdain for fellow Thais showed by the spoiled Bangkok elite, writing off Thaksin’s supporters as simpleminded, easily-bought peasants from the North and Northeast. Have they not noticed that these people now have education and means of communication?

Are they not aware that Thailand has a labor shortage because the value of labor has risen and Thailand has to import workers from Myanmar and Cambodia? Have they not noticed that the lower-income districts of Bangkok itself are Thaksin strongholds and that the Democrats have won few seats in the newly urbanized provinces surrounding Bangkok?

The monarchy in Thailand has at times been a force for great progress – most notably under kings Mongkut and Chulalongkorn – and for stability, as during difficult times in the 1960s and 1970s when internal threats were significant and war raged nearby.

But by default the institution now appears to be a force for reaction, or at least it is adding to not healing the divisions that naturally exist in a society that has undergone 50 years of rapid development and rising expectations.

Philip Bowring, a founding editor of Asia Sentinel, is a kinsman of John Bowring. who negotiated the 1855 Siam-British Treaty of Friendship with King Mongkut and later was appointed by Mongkut as Siam’s ambassador to the courts of Europe. His biography of John Bowring, “Free Trade’s First Missionary, which includes details of Sir John’s relationship with Mongkut, will be published soon by Hong Kong University Press.