Thailand’s Royal Shirt Industry

Looking solely at the recent run on pink shirts at local markets, Thailand’s monarchy appears stronger than ever.

The latest fashion craze, which threatens to replace the booming yellow-shirt industry spawned during royal celebrations last year, started after Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej exited the hospital last week in a pink collarless shirt and a pink blazer. An astrologer reportedly told the king to wear the color typically associated with baby girls and bubble gum because it also symbolizes Mars and would help him gain strength.

This week, however, the king was shown wearing a green blazer with a pink shirt, as green can reportedly bring success for someone like Bhumibol, who was born on a Monday. Vendors immediately ordered more green shirts, giving king lovers yet another alternative to the yellow shirts that have been dominant for nearly two years.

Certainly many of Bhumibol’s 66 million subjects hope the revered monarch will live forever, even if it means wearing a combination of yellow, pink and green. The king abruptly entered a Bangkok hospital last month for treatment on a blood clot on the brain, the latest in a string of health concerns over the past decade.

While Bhumibol was recovering, his much less popular son and heir apparent, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, represented the king at the colorful Royal Barges ceremony on the Chao Phraya River to mark the end of Buddhist lent. The prince took the king’s traditional place on board the auspicious century-old royal barge Suphannahongse, or “Golden Swan” a highly symbolic gesture that suggests the prince will indeed take over from his father, a move that had once been a hot topic for debate.

Celebrations for the king will reach a fever pitch in the next few weeks as the nation prepares to mark Bhumibol’s 80th birthday on December 5 the one time in the year when the king makes scheduled public remarks. In anticipation of the event, parks, mass transit lines, offices, radio and television stations are repeatedly playing “Father of the Land,” a palace song unveiled earlier this year that gushes: “The Mighty Artist who is the greatest in all arts and sciences/rhymes and poems, overwhelming all hearts/The skyline fills with rain, and every single tree greets with joy/to love and unite for the Father of the Thais.”

But while the sight of the masses in yellow shirts—and now possibly pink and green shirts as well—is testament to the strength of Thailand’s monarchy, the outlook is much less rosy than current sentiment reveals. According to some scholars, last year’s coup was a way for the palace to prevent the powerful former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from having too much influence over Vajiralongkorn when he eventually takes the throne. But a year later the very same questions concerning succession remain.

“I think the coup has created a bit of a crisis in the long term for the monarchy,” said Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University.

“The monarchy has been dragged into or chosen to interfere in politics, and that has raised more and more discussions in Thai society that are bubbling under the surface,” he said. “At the same time, the palace is wildly promoting the monarchy in crazy fashion with the yellow shirts, and that’s actually caused resentment because people must spend money to buy them. The king is getting old and has just recovered from a major illness. If the king dies, the palace can’t act the same way to promote the next one.”

In addition to an unpopular heir, although Thaksin was deposed and his party dissolved by a junta-appointed court, his former associates have regrouped under the People’s Power Party (PPP) and Thaksin is now acting as a key adviser from exile. Early polls suggest the PPP could win more seats than the Democrat Party, its main rival, in the December 23 election, leading some to suspect the state apparatus will do all it can to subvert the party ahead of the polls.

The awkward rules to limit campaigning and confusing voting methods reveal the quandary the royalists face in their attempt to hold onto power: The public won’t stand for an outright dictatorship, but an election would likely see the return of their enemies. A PPP victory would also provide an international blow to the coup group, as headlines declaring that the Thai people have essentially chosen Thaksin again would fly around the world.

“The conservative factions of the ruling class tried to entrench their power with the coup, but I think they’ve got real problems,” Giles said. “They can’t hold a fair election and they can’t pull a Musharraf [in Pakistan]. All they can do is create a horrible mess of an election. It’s a shambles really.”

Thailand’s strict lese-majeste laws stifle open debate on the monarchy’s role in political affairs, but that doesn’t prevent the topic from coming up in private conversations. Indeed, many analysts have noted that criticism of the monarchy has reached new heights since the September 2006 coup.

A group of anti-coup protesters have openly accused the king’s top adviser, General Prem Tinsulanonda, of masterminding the coup. Videos that mock the king, the prince and Prem have appeared on YouTube and have been spread around town, prompting the government to block certain video-sharing websites earlier this year.

“The king’s popularity is now declining,” said Sulak Sivaraksa, a well-known social critic who has been repeatedly accused of lese-majeste violations. “Now you have the Internet and all kinds of illegal criticism, and [the king] doesn’t make his lifestyle transparent so a lot of people are questioning…. Taxi drivers say things about the king you would never hear before.”

The monarchy’s elevation to near-divine status was by no means inevitable in Thailand. Giles notes in his book “A Coup for the Rich” that the first declaration from the revolutionary People’s Party when they overthrew absolute monarchy in 1932 stated in part: “If the people are uneducated & stupid as the Monarch claims... it is because our Monarch is stupid and has prevented the people from receiving education.”

The monarchy’s power and prestige reached new heights after a coup in 1957. Old ceremonies and traditions were revived, including the act of prostrating before royalty, which King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) had banned when he took the throne in 1873.

Bhumibol’s power grew throughout his decades on the throne, helped by a barrage of propaganda and laws that prevented criticism. All seemed to be going well until Thaksin rose to power in 2001, using his telecoms fortune to buy influence in media networks once controlled by the royalists.

A smorgasbord of populist policies endeared Thaksin to the rural poor, who re-elected him in 2005 with a record 19 million votes. Thaksin’s ouster the next year at the hands of the military appears to have given rise to anti-royalist sentiments among his most ardent supporters.

“Before, many people could love both Thaksin and the monarchy together. But after the coup maybe 10 percent of people who love Thaksin now question the monarchy,” said Thanapol Eawasakul, publisher and editor of Fah Diew Kan (Same Sky) magazine, a political quarterly that has been banned in the past for lese-majeste .

Thanapol said that a risqué video of Vajiralongkorn and his wife that was widely circulated in Thailand earlier this year had also dealt a blow to the monarchy’s reputation.

“Many people in Thailand are conservative so they don't like this,” he said.

Although the coup may have left the monarchy open to criticism, that hardly means the revered institution will come crashing down anytime soon. More likely, say critics, it will struggle to retain its immense power and influence after the current king passes away.

“When the king eventually dies it will be a crisis for the ruling class, but not for Thai society,” said Giles. “I don’t go along with the theory that the king has held everything together over the years and suddenly the country will fall apart.”

Sulak said the monarchy’s prospects in the future are largely out of its hands.

“Whether the monarchy will survive or not depends on people outside the monarchy,” he said. “Now we have a military-run monarchy. In Laos after the [communist] liberation the rulers thought it was too expensive to keep the monarchy so they sent the king to a concentration camp and declared a republic. I don’t think Thais are that drastic.”