The King Never Smiles: Book Excerpt
Handley reported from Bangkok for many years for the Far Eastern Economic Review. The chapter below describes the bloody 1992 attempts to suppress dissent and the king’s largely unwritten role, which was both different and more ominous than what the public perceived.
Asia Sentinel is grateful to Yale University Press for permission to publish this excerpt
18 May 1992: October 1976 Redux
Related Links: Royal Maneuvers Revival, Renewal and Reinvention: The Complex Life of Thailand’s Monarch Thai King Bhumibol’s intervention on behalf of the NPKC constitution meant Suchinda and the generals of Class 5 would be able to control government for years. With changing the constitution nearly impossible, their opponents in the democracy movement could do nothing but prepare for the elections. Already the big parties were in full gear as 1992 opened, spending heavily to buy members of parliament and the public’s votes. The main question was whether Suchinda would take the premiership for himself or allow someone else to warm the seat first.
To dominate the March 22 polls, the NPKC-controlled Sammakitham and Chart Thai parties both shamelessly courted the most powerful and corrupt politicians in the country to join them. Sammakitham recruited as party leader the northern Thailand mafioso-politician Narong Wongwan, patron of a large bloc of MPs. Allied by their opposition to NPKC power but not much else, were Chavalit’s New Aspiration, the Democrats led by Chuan Leekpai, and Bangkok governor Chamlong Srimuang’s Palang Dharma. The three campaigned on the need for greater democracy and less military control, stressing that the prime minister should come from among the elected MPs. That put the focus on noncandidate Suchinda, who still denied wanting the job.
Before the election results were known, the NPKC named the new senate. As expected, it was filled with military and police officers. Only 116 of 270 senators were civilians, mostly businessmen and bureaucrats with ties to the military. In a meeting with them at the Supreme Command a week after the election, Suchinda instructed them to vote with one voice—presumably the same as his own. In the lower house election, the generals’ parties barely came out on top. That evening, NPKC chiefs Sunthorn and Kaset summoned the leaders of Sammakitham, Chart Thai, Social Action, and veteran rightist Samak Sunthornvej’s small Prachakorn Thai to air force headquarters to form a government. The Nation wrote that the meeting before military leaders, as well as the location, were ‘‘unbecoming of important political leaders in a democratic system. It sent the generals a message that they could continue to interfere in the parliamentary system
The parties nominated Sammakitham’s Narong for prime minister. Three days later, the U.S. embassy let on that Narong had earlier been denied a visa for suspicion of involvement in heroin trafficking. It fit Narong’s reputation and his huge, unaccountable fortune. Now with a convenient excuse, on April 3 the NPKC generals and the party leaders substituted Suchinda as nominee. Many people believed Narong’s nomination had been Suchinda’s clever subterfuge. Still, even if it was long anticipated, Suchinda’s nomination came as almost a second coup. As the four opposition parties attacked the government, students draped the Democracy Monument in black to symbolize the death of democracy. But there wasn’t much else they could do. On April 7, General Sunthorn and Arthit Urairat, the new speaker of the lower house, submitted Suchinda’s name to the king. Absolving himself, Arthit insisted that Sunthorn made the nomination alone as NPKC chairman. Ignoring the public outcry, King Bhumibol signed off on Suchinda’s appointment. The next day, the former Democratic MP Chalard Vorachart sat down in front of parliament and announced a fast to the death if Suchinda refused to step down.
Chalard, who years before had undertaken a similar protest against Prem, ignited the opposition. Other activists immediately joined him in fasting, even as they endured harassment and threats by Red Guard-type toughs.
The protesters’ numbers grew daily, and when on April 16 parliament opened, the opposition could be seen on national television wearing black in protest. The next day the new cabinet roster said much about Suchinda’s view of himself as a new Prem. While retaining the defense portfolio for himself and naming several Class 5 generals and allies in key positions, he chose technocrat veterans of the Prem and Anand governments for the main economic policy posts. The cabinet included 11 MPs from the Chatichai government whom the NPKC had accused of corruption. It also included political scientist Thinnapan Nakata, a political adviser to Prem for eight years who, sounding much like the king, insisted that neither elected politicians nor the bureaucracy worked effectively for the people. Just before joining Suchinda’s cabinet he said he did not believe in fussing over the principles and methods of democracy. The focus should be the people’s quality of life, not theory. ‘‘Democratic theorists must think of principles that are people-oriented . . . [I am] for the majority of the people. The royal institution is also for the majority of the people.’’
With more than 40 hunger strikers now together with Chalard, on April 20 the opposition political parties organized an anti-Suchinda protest of 50,000 people in front of parliament. Chuan and Chavalit demanded constitutional amendments that would require an elected prime minister, give greater power to the lower house, and shrink the senate. Although the government prohibited broadcast media from reporting the rally, the newspapers were full of the controversial events. Chalard finally collapsed on April 30 and was sent unconscious to a hospital. He lived, and the protesters began to run out of gas.
A presumed last big rally against Suchinda was organized for Sanam Luang on May 4, the day before the Coronation Day holiday. That evening about 60,000 Thais listened to opposition politicians and activists denounce the military and Suchinda, and demand the constitutional amendments. The demonstrators were peaceful and appeared resigned that the fight would be consigned to parliamentary politics as in the Prem years. Then everything changed, when Palang Dharma leader Chamlong read his melodramatic ‘‘last letter from Chamlong Srimuang.’’
He declared that he too was going on a hunger strike, but unlike Chalard he would take only water and no glucose or other aids. ‘‘I have considered it thoroughly and decided to put my life on the line. . . . If I have to leave the world in a few days, I will not regret it. Goodbye.’’ The crowd was deeply moved, and the government and the palace were shocked. Chamlong, a Class 7 graduate of Chulachomklao Military Academy who now lived a fairly ascetic life, was seen by some critics as bizarre and eccentric, while others considered him a potent demagogue. His declaration of a fast to the death seemed to confirm to the establishment that he had a very non-Thai way of thinking and acting.
During Coronation Day rites the next day, as was customary, the king gave an audience to the top members of government and awarded royal decorations to 120 public figures. Leading the list were most of the members of the NPKC and their wives, which many in the pro-democracy camp called an insult. That evening, at a garden party at Government House, the atmosphere was edgy and defensive.
Suchinda told reporters menacingly, ‘‘It’s not difficult to gather a mass of people. I can gather five million tomorrow. Do you want to see that?’’
The government tried to stifle Chamlong’s challenge by censoring media reports. Television reported only on cabinet ministers and a senior monk criticizing
Chamlong’s behavior as destructive to nation, religion, and king. The king’s media adviser Piya Malakul had his Jor Sor 100, the capital’s popular talk-format radio station, run a barrage of denunciations of Chamlong and the protesters. Callers who criticized the government were cut off.
The next day in parliament, just as Suchinda began to deliver his formal policy statement with television cameras broadcasting live, the opposition walked out. Now people saw it was not just a fringe movement against Suchinda. That evening an estimated 80,000 people peacefully protested near parliament as Chamlong’s wife and several others joined his fast. At this point the king was petitioned to intervene by a group of worried academics led by Dr. Prawase Wasi, a respected Buddhist ethicist whom Bhumibol had known since the late 1950s. They told the king that the military had betrayed the people’s trust by turning the 1991 coup into permanent political power, undermining democracy. They fretted that if Chamlong died, the result would be bloody chaos. The king made no official response.
In fact, the military had already taken a key step toward that conclusion. On the day of the opposition walkout, May 6, new army commander Issarapong, Suchinda’s brother-in-law, convened the police and military generals of the capital security committee to set in motion a tactical plan named Pairee Pinat: Destroy the Enemy. More than a thousand heavily armed jungle combat fighters and paratroopers were moved into central Bangkok and put on full alert.
The next day in parliament, the opposition criticized Suchinda’s policy statement point by point. Then Suchinda mounted the podium and delivered, on live television, a furious five-minute denunciation attacking Chamlong as bent on destroying Buddhism, and Chavalit as a communist and republican. Suchinda declared it was his job to defend the nation, Buddhism, and the monarchy against such threats.
All of Bangkok froze at the premier’s harsh language. The stock market immediately plunged and parliament was adjourned in pandemonium. Suchinda had drawn the line for a fight, and with a large force of well-armed troops at hand, he had already determined how it would go.
Pairee Pinat was a tactical approach for fighting a communist-backed insurgency and leftist urban terrorism. It didn’t involve police controls or modern riot equipment. The point was methodical suppression by methods including assassination of key figures, beating and shooting protesters, and mass arrests. It was devised by the United States and taught to allies like South Korea and Thailand in the 1970s. It clearly didn’t work well in Vietnam, nor in South Korea against a pro-democracy uprising in Kwangju in 1980—likewise a year after a military coup—in which more than 200 Koreans were massacred.
When Pairee Pinat was initiated, the troops were issued live ammunition and were told that pro-democracy protesters threatened the country and the holy monarchy itself. Both the king and Prem knew about the operation: Suchinda and Issarapong communicated regularly with palace officials and Prem, who also had his own sources of information in the military. There is no sign that the palace institutionally or the king personally questioned this posture, even though the atmosphere on the streets evoked that of the days before the massacres of October 14, 1973, and October 6, 1976.
Suchinda’s coarse parliamentary attack galvanized about 70,000 Thais to join a protest on May 7, ignoring Kaset’s announcement of a strict ban on demonstrations. They remained entirely peaceful and cooperated with the small contingent of police standing by. The next day more than 200 university academics petitioned the king to dissolve parliament or push Suchinda to step down. Protest leaders found most palace channels closed to them, but Chamlong and Chavalit had direct lines to Prem, ensuring that the throne heard their point of view.
Suchinda maintained the theme that he was protecting the palace. He received a Buddhist group and told them he was fighting political and religious fanaticism. Army-controlled radio and television pressed the idea that Chamlong and Chavalit were communist, republican, anti-Buddhism, and, essentially, un-Thai, and refused to acknowledge the popular foundations of the anti-Suchinda movement.
The king finally responded, cautiously. While he declined to meet anyone from the demonstrators’ side, he called in Suchinda and the military commanders. What was said wasn’t clear, but afterward Suchinda announced on television that he wouldn’t resign, but also would not order a crackdown on the demonstrators. At the same time, however, the military announced that Sanam Luang would have to be cleared for a Buddhist ceremony involving Princess Sirindhorn on Sunday, May 10, and the royal plowing ceremony, scheduled for May 14. This seemed to be the main result of his royal audience.
Early that Friday evening, well over 100,000 protested at Sanam Luang. Still fasting, Chamlong arrived and told the demonstrators to march toward parliament. Before they had gone a kilometer down the broad Rajadamnoen Road, they were halted at Panfah Bridge by a barbed-wire barricade. Behind it were deep ranks of combat-clad troops with automatic weapons, blocking off approaches to parliament and Chitrlada Palace. The next morning, a weakened Chamlong succumbed to what he said were the crowd’s wishes for him to give up his fast. The government gave no ground, however, and instead threatened to forcibly clear the streets by Monday morning.
Bhumibol now intervened openly, pushing the political parties to compromise on amending the constitution. They agreed on amendments that included requiring the prime minister to be an elected MP, making the head of the lower house the president of parliament, and other procedural changes making the lower house more powerful. But because the government parties didn’t commit precisely to when the changes would take place, some 25,000 protesters remained on the street the next day, Sunday. That afternoon the favorite princess Sirindhorn was scheduled to drive down Rajadamnoen for the five o’clock ceremony at Sanam Luang to launch Buddhism Promotion Week.
This became the focus of competing claims of allegiance to the throne. The government said the demonstrators, by not clearing out altogether, were interfering with the princess, and so offended the monarchy. Piya Malakul’s Jor Sor 100 broadcast that the Chamlong-led demonstrators were blocking the path of the princess. To the contrary, under Chamlong’s direction the demonstrators cleaned up the broad avenue and posted portraits of the princess and her parents at curbside hours before her arrival. The street was completely open and secure, like whenever the royal motorcade passed.
But the princess never came. Instead of traversing Rajadamnoen, under military guidance her motorcade took a long evasive detour to Sanam Luang. Demonstrators were confused: Did their princess not trust them? Or had the generals prevented her from coming? Slowly dismay turned to anger, and again the protest crowd began to swell, until late that Sunday night, finally, the government parties committed themselves to a fast amendment process. Just hours before the military moved on the demonstrators, they dispersed.
The king-brokered compromise was short-lived. By Monday evening government party heads Banharn and Kaset reversed themselves and declared there had been no agreement. They had refused, in effect, the king’s demand. As they did, Suchinda threatened hard military retaliation if the demonstrators turned violent. Yet it was the week of the Buddhist holy celebration of Vishaka Puja, and the protest leaders had already decided to reduce their activities and soften their rhetoric.
Thursday, May 14, was the annual observance of the royal plowing ceremony, and the democracy movement stayed quiet as King Bhumibol, Prince Vajiralongkorn, and Princess Sirindhorn attended the rites at Sanam Luang. When the royals traveled to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in the Grand Palace that Saturday to perform rituals for Vishaka Puja, protesters again stayed away out of respect.
But with the government having reneged on amending the constitution, the protests resumed on Sunday, May 17, now guided by a new organization, the Confederation for Democracy. The confederation was led by a committee of nongovernmental organization directors, labor and student leaders, and political party heads, including Chamlong and Chavalit. They made the point that they were a broad-based movement and not simply a tool for Chamlong’s and Chavalit’s ambitions. When they resumed their demands for the amendments and Suchinda’s resignation, Suchinda assigned a Class 5 police general with a brutal reputation to handle the protests, instead of the more moderate chief of police. The army deployed some 40,000 troops around the capital and established military checkpoints all around Chitrlada Palace. The palace gates were further blockaded by well-armed paratroopers. To some it appeared as if the military was cutting the palace’s access to outside, rather than protecting it.
By eight in the evening on May 17, the crowd at Sanam Luang had reached about 150,000, a cross-section of Bangkok: poor workers, middle-class civil servants and shop owners, and wealthy yuppies. They were much angrier than before. The Confederation for Democracy leadership had earlier decided to march to Government House, where the prime minister and his cabinet worked. Again they were halted at Panfah Bridge, where a brigade of disorganized traffic police waited behind razor wire. Behind them was a phalanx of combat troops with machine guns. Most people remained calm, but some in the crowd began throwing rocks and bottles, some of them clearly trying to provoke a violent confrontation. Over several hours they managed to tear down the razor wire and disable a fire truck that sprayed water on the crowd. Deliberately deployed without riot-control equipment, the police fled in disarray. This provided the military an excuse to step in, a modus operandi of both 1973 and 1976.
As the government declared a state of emergency, the military regrouped at another line farther down Rajadamnoen, with heavier equipment and armored vehicles. But the demonstrators didn’t follow. Most remained at Panfah Bridge, where a small group of men burned a handful of cars and a vacated police station.
They were organized provocateurs, both sides later agreed, though whose has never been established. Still no weapons were used, and injuries were minimal. By two in the morning three-quarters of the protesters had gone home, and at Chamlong’s urging the rest sat down peacefully at the bridge, talking, singing, and dozing in the calm. Wholly unprovoked and without warning, at four o’clock the troops marched on the crowd and began shooting into it. As they scattered, a number lay dead and many more were injured. By the time the sun rose, the blood was being hosed off the street. On television, announcers reported that the protesters had tried to attack Chitrlada Palace. The military claimed the demonstrators had fired first. Both were lies. There was no shooting from demonstrators, and no guns or even knives were found. Nobody went near the palace, and no one had intended to. Nor was there any need to clear the street. Monday was a holiday, and no one was going to work on Rajadamnoen Road.
The palace spent that Monday morning collecting information. Prem talked to all the military men. The other privy councilors talked to their contacts. But prodemocracy groups said they were mostly brushed off. It did not appear that the king was getting a full view of the situation, other than what Suchinda announced on television, that Chamlong’s demonstrators had guns and threatened the throne.
Early Monday afternoon, after Chamlong and several thousand people returned to sit in protest on Rajadamnoen, combat troops descended to arrest them. They mostly fired blanks in the air, but down side streets, away from cameras, more people were shot with live ammunition.
That evening the crowd swelled anew at Sanam Luang, its composition now younger and wilder. The protesters were prevented from marching down Rajadamnoen by new barricades, and as darkness fell, brigades of combat troops encircled the area. The military pointed machine guns at them through the razor wire, and there were sharpshooters on rooftops. They began firing when the protesters set alight several buses and began pushing them toward the barricades. Assassinlike, the rooftop marksmen cut down people at the front of the lines. The ground troops fired into the crowd, several times stopping for a break and then starting again. Scores of protesters were hit, with several dozen killed.
In the early morning hours, finally the military cleared the entire area, issuing arrest orders for leaders of the Confederation for Democracy. As news of the killing spread across Bangkok, people began to ask quietly, where is the king? Why hasn’t he stopped this? Was he behind Suchinda, or was he prevented by the troops and armored cars around the palace from interceding? The questions came from average Thais on the street and from business leaders and members of parliament.
Rumors spread that the king was being held prisoner by the military, or that he had fled the capital with Prem to Nakhon Ratchasima, as in 1981, to muster troops against Suchinda. All of the rumors presumed the king could not have supported Suchinda. But meanwhile the army itself prepared for battle, apparently believing that Chavalit and Chamlong would call on their own loyal army troops to fight back.
All through that Tuesday, May 19, there was no evidence where the royal family stood. In a well-protected motorcade commanded by Kaset, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn went to the airport and left for South Korea. Princess Sirindhorn had left for Paris with Princess Galyani the previous week on an official trip. There were pleas from all around to stop the violence and for the king to intervene. Phra Yanasangworn led the sangha council in a public call for all sides to stop ‘‘killing each other,’’ although no one from the government side had been killed.
Sirindhorn made a taped statement from Paris calling for calm and unity. She said she had tried to call her family but couldn’t get through. This was normal; international telephone lines to Bangkok were usually poor, and at the time they were swamped with calls. But people took it to mean she was prevented from speaking to her father. After that, Suchinda came on television to deny that either he or the royal family had fled Bangkok. He again denounced Chavalit and Chamlong as bent on destroying Buddhism and the monarchy.
The next day, as more rumors spread of coming fighting between military factions, there was still no indication of the king’s position. Suchinda’s forces had blocked off all of the old city center and there was sporadic gunfire. Suchinda made another short televised announcement, mainly to say that he had things under control. With him were governing coalition party leaders Narong, Banharn, and Samak. Samak, as in the 1970s, insisted that shooting the people had been acceptable because they were communists.
That evening, several tens of thousands of demonstrators massed at Ramkhamhaeng University in eastern Bangkok, and the military began to move troops in their direction. Just after ten o’clock, televisions flickered with a grainy picture, the sound almost inaudible. It showed King Bhumibol on a chair with privy councilors Prem and Sanya kneeling at his side, like temple guardians. On the floor in front, their legs tucked behind them in near-prostration, were Chamlong and Suchinda. The king spoke. ‘‘It may not be a surprise as to why I asked you to come to this meeting. . . . But it may be a surprise as to why General Suchinda Kraprayoon and Major General Chamlong Srimuang have been invited, when there may be many other performers and actors involved. However, the two of you have been invited because at the beginning there was a situation in which the two of you were confronting each other, and at the end it has become a confrontation or a struggle on a larger scale.’’ Whatever the issue at stake, if the confrontation continued, he
said, ‘‘It would only lead to the utter destruction of Thailand.’’
To solve the problem, he said, some people had proposed dissolving parliament and holding new elections. But he claimed that the political parties almost unanimously rejected the idea, and so he couldn’t do that. Another solution was to amend the constitution, which, he said, was exactly what he had already recommended in his December 4 speech. Although the constitution was already ‘‘reasonable,’’ he said, this was still a good solution. He then said: ‘‘When I met with General Suchinda, General Suchinda concurred that the constitution should be first promulgated and it could be amended later; that was a possible alternative. And even lately General Suchinda has affirmed that it can be amended. It can be gradually amended so that it will eventually be improved in a ‘democratic’ way. . . . Therefore, I think that if possible, we should consider the alternative suggested in my address of the 4th December to solve the original problem, with a view to solving the present problem.’’
With the country headed toward collapse, he requested that Suchinda and Chamlong ‘‘sit down and face the facts together in a conciliatory manner, and not in a confrontational manner, to find a way to solve the problem, because our country does not belong to any one or two persons, but belongs to everyone. . . .What is the point of anyone feeling proud of being the winner, when standing on a pile of ruins and rubbles?’’ He ended with a Buddhist-like invocation to work together and rebuild the country: ‘‘You personally will feel much better, knowing that you have done the right thing. How you will achieve this will depend on your joint cooperative efforts. These are my observations.’’
Because the sound on television was so bad, for the public the main message was visual, simply that Bhumibol had Chamlong and Suchinda at his feet, with Prem and Sanya alongside as enforcers. ‘‘No man can argue on his knees,’’ wrote Bagehot of a monarch’s power. Not many noted the nucleus of the king’s remarks.
He squarely placed the blame for the eruption on Chamlong and the prodemocracy movement, because they had not acquiesced to his December recommendation to patiently seek the amendments—which, he implied, were of dubious necessity anyway. Suchinda, on the other hand, had generously accepted the king’s position, and he had recently reaffirmed that he was prepared to accept amendments.
The king appeared to be asking, so why were people in the streets fighting?
Rather than recognize truly popular sentiment and acknowledge Suchinda’s government’s refusal to change the charter—and the impossibility of amending it against the military-controlled senate’s will—Bhumibol had rendered it all as Chamlong’s personal vendetta.
The next day, the world was in awe at Bhumibol’s intervention. The violence and protests stopped, although troops remained on the streets. Chamlong was ordered, presumably by Prem in the king’s name, to call off the protests, Suchinda to resign, and the political parties to amend the constitution. While Chamlong disappeared from view, the generals didn’t. Suchinda, Kaset, and Issarapong defended their actions as legal and necessary acts of self-defense against protesters attacking with guns, grenades, and firebombs. There was no truth to it. Suchinda insisted on holding on to the premiership until parliament amended the constitution.
He also demanded an amnesty to protect himself and his military cohorts. Although this outraged the democracy movement, the king went ahead and granted the amnesty. Finally, near noon on Sunday, June 24, after a private audience with Supreme Patriarch Yanasangworn at Wat Bovornives, Suchinda resigned the premiership, declaring that he had fulfilled the king’s own wishes to bring about peace and reconciliation. The next day parliament opened with a longtime Prem and then NPKC legal adviser as acting premier. The lawmakers quickly passed the first and second readings of the desired constitutional amendments.
The final reading was scheduled for two weeks hence. Yet it was not all over. Suchinda remained as minister of defense, and Kaset, Issarapong, and the others kept their military positions. The parties that backed Suchinda still controlled parliament, with the support of the NPKC-appointed senate. Unrepentant, the generals defended themselves in several different forums, including one with incredulous foreign diplomats, declaring they had been protecting the king and country from seditious communist elements. When the
pro-democracy groups called for rescinding the amnesty, they countered with coup threats.
A few days later the five government parties nominated Chart Thai’s Air Chief Marshal Somboon Rahong as prime minister. But when house leader Arthit Urairat submitted the nomination, the palace silently stalled. While nothing was made clear, people understood that the king wanted the constitution amended first.
Some perceived that he recognized that Somboon would cause more problems. After Somboon’s nomination was unofficially reviewed a second time at the beginning of June, Prem declared that the king wanted a premier acceptable to all people.
There were strong rumors that the king wanted his own privy councilor, Chirayut Isarangkul. But the government coalition, still directed by Suchinda and Kaset, insisted on Somboon.
Everyone waited tensely for June 10, the date of the final reading of the constitution. After the amendments were passed, Arthit again went to the palace to submit Somboon’s name. At his home with champagne on ice and surrounded by hundreds of supporters, Somboon waited for the phone call confirming his appointment.
When it came, suddenly his face sank in disbelief. As he said into the telephone, yes, I understand, so did everyone else, and cheers erupted from reporters: the king had again named Anand Panyarachun interim prime minister.
Over the next months Anand smoothed over tensions and stabilized the economy. He dissolved parliament and set national polls for September. They went off
fairly well, with the field of parties polarized as devils—the NPKC-tied parties—and angels, the opposition. The latter came out in front to form a coalition government led by the Democrats, and Chuan Leekpai was made prime minister. It was seen as a new beginning for Thai politics.
Anand’s other delicate responsibility was an accounting of the military’s actions that May. General Pichit Kullavanich, a favorite of Prem and the king (and soon to be made privy councilor), undertook the confidential white-paper review over six weeks. The Pichit report was not released, but Anand revealed that it faulted the military for fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of the demonstrations.
There was no broader analysis of why the Thai military produced such corrupt and ambitious cliques that assumed they had a right to hold power.
Nervously, Anand transferred all the top generals involved in bloody May to powerless posts, effectively ending their careers. They took the transfers unrepentantly, still arguing that the demonstrators were a communist-like front bent on destroying the enduring pillars of nation, religion, and king.
Bhumibol’s regal intervention, shown on television screens and newspaper pages around the world, quickly became a landmark act of great kingship. This was the same year as Queen Elizabeth’s annus horribilis, when her family turmoil, acts of god, the uncontrollable London press, and, most of all, a downturn in public affection conspired to wreck the British monarchy’s majesty. Rama IX’s deft peacemaking provided new evidence for the monarchy’s enduring value near the end of the 20th century.
Not only romanticists felt so. Pundits and scholars wrote paeans to Bhumibol as a Solomonic king who thinks beyond partisan politics and personal wealth to the people. Georgetown University’s David Steinberg, an expert on Burma and a critic of its military junta, bemoaned the lack of a monarch in Rangoon to lessen the suffering of the Burmese. For many Thais, it was yet another confirmation of their sovereign’s greatness. Even Anand, never a man given to hyperbole or promotion, said: ‘‘The King is a sole personality who can tell all sides to stop fighting, to stop the confrontation. There is no place in the world where a civil war raged and then someone could come up and ask everyone to end the fight.’’
There is little doubt that Bhumibol’s intervention on May 20 cut short what could have been a much greater slaughter. Beyond acting as a symbol of unity, the modern constitutional king’s most important role is to mediate in insoluble circumstances and take up leadership when it is absent. Bhumibol did this with unquestionable skill, by reducing the entire episode to a personal feud between two ambitious men and then stopping it. He avoided alienating the demonstrators, his loyal subjects, and condemning the military, the men who protected him. He also skirted the real issues of the constitution.
But how things reached such a point is another question. Europe’s modern sovereigns have overseen great efforts to develop other institutions and the rule of law to avoid such tragedies and to sidestep interventions that put at risk the throne’s prestige. Bhumibol to the contrary had consistently undermined the development of other permanent institutions. He saw them as competitors to his prestige, and not as shields to protect it. This exacerbated the dysfunctional state of government that required his regular intercession. Bagehot spoke precisely to this issue in The English Constitution: ‘‘So long as parliament thinks it is the sovereign’s business to find a government, it will be sure not to find a government itself.’’ As long as the sovereign assumes such business, the deeper he is enmeshed in politics and the more at risk his own power becomes.
May 1992 was a manifestation of the faults in Bhumibol’s ideal of a royal government, of his unrelenting prejudice against politicians, and his miscomprehension of the social changes that had occurred during his long reign. Despite the popularity of politicians like Chamlong and Chatichai, the king remained committed to his generals. They weren’t even the best generals: the corrupt and mercenary Arthit, Chavalit, and Suchinda all rose under Prem while professional, nonpolitical soldiers fell by the wayside. Yet the king and queen preferred them to even clean politicians. When Bhumibol expressed his preference for soldiers in December 1990, it provided Suchinda justification to seize power.
The king’s defenders say that Bhumibol had no choice but to accept the NPKC takeover, while also insisting it was a popular coup. Neither is exactly true. There was a widespread swing of public sentiment against Chatichai—fomented by both the military and the king’s own remarks—but it didn’t represent a popular call for a military takeover. At the time Bhumibol made no point of standing for a constitution-based transition that might have denied Suchinda power. Moreover, he declined to exercise his prerogative to dissolve parliament and set elections. Such royal powers are not inconsequential simply because they are seldom used. They are specifically for political emergencies.
After the coup, a few well-worded comments for constitutional and democratic principles would have left the junta on warning. Instead, following a year that exposed the generals’ venality, in December 1991 Bhumibol generously endorsed Suchinda’s leadership when he said there was no need to stick to theoretical principles or rule books. His intervention on the constitution, too, was premature: he did not wait until after the parliament voted. As the eruption five months later showed, the king’s habitual interventions left parliament dependent on the sovereign to make its decisions. Responsibilities for controlling the military, changing the charter, and choosing a new prime minister were ceded to the king.
Bhumibol’s skill in saving the day after the bloody convulsion of May 18–20 helped to hide his consistent bias against protesters and popular movements. But all the markers were there, from his silence on the Pairee Pinat preparations to the route change of the princess’s motorcade, to the shrill propaganda in media controlled by palace agents like Piya Malakul. With practiced deftness, however, as in October 1973, the king reserved just enough distance from the generals to emerge still the people’s king. When he appeared to blame Suchinda and Chamlong personally, the protesters could understand that he wasn’t saying the people were wrong. Because the constitution was finally to be amended, they could believe that Bhumibol was on their side.
Even so, there is the problem that Bhumibol acted only three days after the first demonstrators were killed. Aware of this gap in time and credibility, the palace’s defenders afterward insisted that Bhumibol didn’t like Suchinda but, unable to control the general, had to wait until Suchinda’s clique discredited themselves. It was almost an official argument, given how many people around the palace repeated it. One palace intimate explained: ‘‘When the king intervenes, he must succeed. He must know the territory he is charting. This explains the delay.’’
A senior prince called it the ‘‘silver bullet principle’’: the king has but one chance to intervene, and it has to hit the bull’s-eye. He couldn’t even risk declaring a dissolution of parliament, for fear Suchinda would ignore it. His prestige would have been exposed as lacking substance.
Interestingly, the palace agents never claimed the king was out of touch or misinformed, which could have explained the three-day gap. That argument could have dented his omniscient image, and it also would not have been true. Early on he assigned Prem to take charge of the whole situation, and Prem communicated constantly with the generals and many others, and kept Bhumibol briefed. The other privy councilors worked their own networks of informants. There was no real sign that Bhumibol was held hostage inside Chitrlada. If one accepts the silver bullet argument, it suggests a deep fault in his preference for the military, for clearly Suchinda and the NPKC generals were not more loyal, disciplined, or obedient than other Thais. And if Suchinda and his Class 5 cohorts were an exception, a rogue operation, how did they ever get so far?
Moreover, why then did the king pin most of the blame on Chamlong on May 20? Chamlong was rebuked for ignoring his December advice on the constitution, while Suchinda was praised for having agreed that amendments could be made. To assign guilt in this way, Bhumibol ignored the fact that the constitution and parliament were structured to defeat any amendment opposed by the generals. He also ignored Suchinda’s broken promises to amend the charter.
In the same way, the king avoided the conclusion, widely accepted among respected Thais like Anand, foreign diplomats, and academics, that there was a massive institutional problem in the Thai military. This was clear in the generals’ continuing defiance over the months after the May crisis. On the same day that Suchinda resigned, the army commanders held a meeting to declare their unity and defend the assault on the demonstrators. In July, Kaset threatened that a coup was still possible. Even after Anand sidelined the generals, the military openly assisted at least two parties in the election campaign, mobilizing the Red Gaur, Village Scouts, and ISOC to justify the May massacre to voters, insisting it was about a communist threat to nation, religion, and king.
Indeed, Bhumibol himself defended the military in those months. At the end of October, he received in audience 256 newly promoted senior colonels and generals. He made no critical reference to May and instead took to task the military’s critics. The Far Eastern Economic Review had repeated long-standing criticisms of the Thai military, that it remained incapable of convincingly defending its own borders, and yet maintained perhaps the most bloated officers corps in the world, with one general for every 300–350 troops, ten times the level of the West. Of the 600 generals in the army and supreme command headquarters, only half had identifiable jobs, the magazine noted. Bhumibol denied this, arguing that critics had counted retired generals—which they hadn’t. The very number of newly promoted generals in front of him was clear evidence, but still he insisted: ‘‘It has been widely said today that we have too many generals. If so, then there would be no point in bestowing the rank of general on about 200 officers today. The criticism may hurt your feelings but as a matter of fact we have a lower number of generals than foreign countries, in the West or the East. . . . The number of generals in Thailand is not that high and our armed forces are not top-heavy as was said. In fact, [the number] is small.’’
In December Bhumibol again placed the blame on Chamlong, Chavalit, and the protesters. He told the parable of a child who, confronted by a specific problem, ignored ready solutions to instead stir up an elephant, sending the elephant into a fury, setting off a violent chain reaction that finally resolved the original problem, only after much unnecessary chaos. ‘‘The situation nowadays is like the story, confused. On any subject, one person says something, another comes to refute it, using irreconcilable arguments. And how can the country be governed, how can work be done, how can we have anything done, if everything is out of tune? . . . In the end, the obstinate, dogmatic one will win the argument; but that is not good, that is not right. . . . [O]ne must not stipulate too many conditions. Any action must be constructive and everyone will be happy.’’
The audience understood that the message was for the pro-democracy movement, those the king felt unnecessarily pestered the blameless military elephant until all turmoil broke loose.
Even after the dust of May 1992 settled, the king still rejected the conclusions of numerous Thai and foreign scholars, politicians, and businessmen, that the upheaval was the result of an undeveloped political system, one excessively reliant on the monarchy and military to govern and manage development. Bhumibol’s stubborn hold on his own views was clear in an astonishing episode in early 1993. While Thailand was struggling with democratic processes and ambitious generals, neighboring Burma suffered the misrule of a paranoid and brutal military junta, known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or Slorc. They had crushed a popular revolt in 1988 and jailed members of the political opposition, including their leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Still under house arrest, in October 1991 Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of their struggle.
In February 1993 eight previous Nobel Peace laureates visited Thailand, as Burma’s closest neighbor, to demonstrate their solidarity. Oscar Arias, the former president of Costa Rica, South Africa’s Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, and five others were invited by Thai social activists, to the great consternation of the Thai military. After visiting the destitute Burmese refugee camps on the northern Thai border, the group was received by King Bhumibol. They were astounded to hear him lecture them on how Aung San Suu Kyi should give up her fight and return to England to raise her children, and let Slorc run the country. Military governments were good for developing countries, the king insisted, and there was no need to support the Burmese opposition. Suu Kyi was only a troublemaker.
It wasn’t the only time the king said such things. He lobbied American diplomats and foreign academics to accept Slorc as bringing stability to Burma. Like the Slorc generals, he argued from his palace chambers that because Suu Kyi was married to a foreigner and had been educated abroad, she didn’t represent traditional Burmese values, so she ought to return to England and her family there.
Outside Chitrlada Palace, however, a new generation of Thais was cheering for Suu Kyi, and the official policy of the newly elected government of Chuan Leekpai was to support her pro-democracy movement.