Royalist myth-making

7 10 2009

PPT missed making a comment on a piece by Pavin Chachavalpongpun in The Singapore Straits Times and reproduced at The Malaysian Insider (1 October 2009: “Thai King’s illness deepens uncertainty”) when it was published. Another story in The Independent by Andrew Buncombe and Peter Popham (5 October 2009), with the intriguing title “Thai taboo: what happens when the king has gone?”),  provides an opportunity to post on  some of the myths surrounding the monarchy that are going to be endlessly repeated as the king ages and eventually dies.

At the outset, it needs to be said that the article in The Independent, while superior and more critical than Pavin’s article, also reproduces some of the myths about a great and talented man. However, it is clear that the events that form the backdrop for the two articles have provided an opportunity for a more critical analysis of the monarch’s politics. This is why it is surprising to see Pavin engage in royalist myth-making.

As the Independent notes, “The monarch’s long-drawn out hospital stay is breeding a growing sense of panic about the turmoil that could ensue should he die.”

Also prompted by this hospitalization, Pavin begins by telling his readers that, following the overthrow of the absolute monarchy in 1932, “Thais lived in fear that their monarchy might actually become extinct,” adding that, “for Thais, living without a king was, and is, almost unimaginable.”

Actually, there is no particular historical evidence for such sweeping claims. Indeed, recent historical studies show that the 1932 event was greeted with considerable enthusiasm. Some Thais did fear the end of the monarchy. These were the royalists who schemed and plotted a restoration. Their attempts were opposed by the People’s Party and its supporters who represented a broad constituency that included workers, intellectuals and officials.

Pavin is closer to the truth when he argues – following Paul Handley – that the current king’s “lifelong project” has been to “turn the marginalised monarchy into … the single most powerful component of the modern Thai state.”

It is remarkable that Pavin then makes the royalist claim, repeated ad nauseum by peripatetic journalists, that the “semi-divine” king has “emerged as a guarantor of stability, occasionally intervening directly in times of political crisis.” Having read Handley, it should be clear that the king’s political interventions are not for “stability” but for political arrangements that suit the monarchy and for conservative political arrangements that ensure that privilege, hierarchy and power are maintained in the hands of a tiny minority.

So, yes, the king opens the gates of his palace to student demonstrators in 1973. But he also opposed the progressive ideas that the students represented and was central to the rise of the rightist groups that massacred students on 6 October 1976. He then placed his own prime minister in power who headed arguably the most repressive of Thailand’s governments. That prime minister, Tanin Kraivixien, remains on the Privy Council.

And, yes, the king chastised General Suchinda Kraprayoon and Major-General Chamlong Srimuang following the bloody events of May 1992, but the same king was central to the events that led to the 1991 military coup and the acceptance of the military’s constitution that allowed Suchinda to seek the prime ministership. The king didn’t pull “Thailand back from the verge of catastrophe” but was complicit in these events and intervened to ensure an outcome that allowed conservatives to remain politically engaged.

Pavin also makes the ludicrous claim that the king “has remained firmly apolitical.” The Independent notes: “Despite strenuous denials, not everyone believes the king has remained above politics.” As it shows, the 2006 coup displayed the palace’s involvement in politics. Indeed, the events of 2005 and beyond make it impossible to  conceive how this royalist myth can be so easily repeated by Pavin.

When Pavin writes of the 2006 coup it is to show that the “good king” has “spoken about the need for Thais to uphold unity but has remained silent on the solution to the current political stalemate.” Readers of this blog would know that unity has been a kingly theme for decades and that the meaning of this unity is essentially “loyalty to the throne.” Far from being the “nation’s referee” as Pavin claims, the king has been an active and partisan political participant.

Pavin is worried that there has been “no real attempt to understand the role of the monarchy,” and that this “lack of understanding may lead to misinterpretations of the influence of the monarchy on Thai politics, and may complicate efforts to strengthen it alongside democracy.” He’s wrong. There has recently been considerable discussion of the monarchy’s political role. What Pavin means is that he fears that the  strengthening of democracy may mean that “the institution” has to change.

The Independent article draws a similar conclusion, albeit from a more critical standpoint: “Whether one believes that the king has acted as constitutional glue, or that he has blocked democratic change, many think his death, whenever it comes, will open the floodgates to change. Little wonder there is such anxiety in the kingdom.”

In fact, as the Independent piece implies, arguably the current king’s greatest failure (and a failure of those around him and advising him) has been his inability to accept the position of constitutional monarch and the limits this places on the institution. This is why the palace wants a Thai-style “democracy” rather than a democracy of the people. This is why the palace has long opposed true democratic reform.

Pavin also worries that the demise of this king and the possibility of a succession that might be contested “could create confusion, chaos or even violence when change [succession] inevitably comes.” If his death brings down the Chakkri dynasty, then this is largely of its own doing, for a democratic Thailand, with a real constitutional monarchy would have ensured the survival of the institution.

Because this outcome has been foiled at every turn by the conservative royalists and the loyal military, now the monarchy must rely on repression by the laws against lese majeste and the support of royalist governments and the armed forces. Meanwhile, palace intrigue over succession will continue to be played out behind the scenes.

Of course, Pavin’s piece is not so very different from hundreds of others that have been churned out over the years as a central part of royalist myth-making. No doubt more will follow as the reign draws to its inevitable end.


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12 10 2009
Updated: Pavin on monarchies « Political Prisoners in Thailand

[…] critique on earlier pieces by Pavin is here and here. PPT considers that Pavin engages royalist myth-making and that continues in the Asia Sentinel […]