King, country, chaos? – Part II

20 03 2010

The Economist’s longer story on Thailand (18 March 2010) seeks to look behind the scenes of the present political unrest to examine “deeper fears about the royal succession.” We examine this story in some detail as it raises matters seldom openly debated in Thailand.

The newspaper claims that by last Sunday the “people’s war against the elite” saw a crowd “brimming with elation, [that] had passed 100,000.” That’s on the lower end of estimates, leaving aside the government’s propaganda. The story then says that by “mid-week the red shirts seemed no closer to their goal of forcing out the prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, and forcing new elections.” Well, yes, but 3-4 days is not even close to the People’s Alliance for Democracy’s non-stop rally of 2008, which approached 200 days. One wonders why the Economist (and much of Thailand’s mainstream media) expected the red shirt’s to achieve its stated aims in such a short time?

The Economist is right to point out that the “army stands squarely behind Mr Abhisit”. It might have said that the army put Abhisit where he is now and that they are not just behind him, but they made him. Interestingly, it was only yesterday that Abhisit seemed to get the message that appearing on television surrounded by men in uniform was just too strong a political message, and now he is seen with men in suits. At least that portrays the image of a government of the elite rather than the puppet government of the military and palace.

It is also true, as the Economist points out, that “Ruling-party politicians complain that the lowly red shirts are paid proxies and do not represent mainstream opinion. They bat away the idea that an election may be the only way to prove their point, arguing that an orderly vote is impossible amid the tumult. Most of all, they blame [former premier] Mr Thaksin [Shinawatra] for the uproar.” This is an endless rant that began with PAD and has close affinities with the allegations of paid voters. Even when the rich and powerful see their servants, gardeners, guards, waiters, masseuses, and other low-paid minions support the red shirts, they choose to believe this has nothing to do with deeply-held resentment of the “nai.”

Moving to the king, the article observes that: “To Thailand’s royalist movement the monarch is the nation’s father, and the “fighting children” on the streets are a source of distress to him. Some fear that Thailand’s troubles may be thwarting King Bhumibol’s full recovery from the respiratory illness that has kept him in hospital since September.” Then the author adds: “But it is precisely because ‘father’ is on his way out that his ‘children’ are fighting.”

That might at least be an interpretation that breaks from the line of it all being of Thaksin’s making, but it is a flawed argument. Like blaming Thaksin, it is a position that is seeking explanations in personalities rather than in political and social realities. In PPT’s view, the king and Thaksin are players in a drama that is located in the vast inequalities that have become increasingly sharp as Thailand has rapidly integrated into global patterns of production and consumption. This is why red shirt attacks on amart, double standards, elite privilege and, now, “class war” draw so much support from the poor and exploited. But these shibboleths also have resonance for a struggling group of workers and those hoping to be upwardly mobile.

But let’s take the important points the article makes about the monarchy seriously, for the monarchy is the richest of the rich, at the pinnacle of the establishment, at the core of the amart, and its ideology is the keystone of the royalist ideology that attempts to keep people in their place. In the Economist’s view, the monarchy is critical because “power in Thailand flows along patronage networks that start with the king.”

On succession, the newspaper thinks that the “crown itself should pass smoothly. The designated male heir is Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, aged 57, and there is not much scope for doubt about his claim. A long mourning period, perhaps six months or more, will allow a pause in the political dogfight. Some protagonists may come to their senses and seek a compromise. The death of King Bhumibol would also signal a generational shift in Thailand: younger voices could start to be heard.” PPT wonders why the author thinks the king is about to drop off the perch? He could hang on for years.

Like so many other commentators, this one believes the current “king will be a most difficult act to follow,” adding that “Vajiralongkorn is already widely loathed and feared.” For the prince, becoming king means that he “must fill the shoes of a beatified icon whose achievements have been swathed in a personality cult.” We might add that the task of beatifying the prince, while difficult, has begun in earnest, and it relies as much on his current wife and adult daughters as on his own achievements. They are being pumped up as stars by the media. Sirikit played a similar role for a time in the early years of this reign.

Can it work again? Probably not, although the article cites “Sulak Sivaraksa, a veteran royal observer and social activist, says that the prince has matured during his third marriage and is more respectful of others than in the past.” In any case, apparently the “prince knows he is unpopular” and a political acquaintance says “he doesn’t care.”

The article then joins in the myth-making about the monarchy and asserts: “… King Bhumibol’s virtues … include monogamy, Buddhist piety and old-fashioned thrift…”. PPT is not at all sure what this is about. Acknowledged as one of the world’s richest monarchs, with a stable of hugely expensive cars and taking huge lumps of public funding, the thrift seems an odd angle. The other claims we leave to the gossip mill.

The point seems to be to say that “the crown prince is a poor substitute” in terms of the alleged virtues of his dad. The article then repeats some of the well-known stories: “Salacious stories of his private life are daily gossip. A video circulated widely in 2007 showed his third wife, known as the ‘royal consort’, at a formal [birthday] dinner [several years ago] with the prince in a titillating state of undress. Diplomats say Prince Vajiralongkorn is unpredictable to the point of eccentricity: lavishing attention on his pet poodle Fu Fu, for example, who has military rank and, on occasion, sits among [and at the table of] guests at gala dinners. In the 1980s his rumoured ties to the criminal underworld, which he denied in a newspaper interview, inspired the gangster nickname of ‘Sia O’.” Obviously much more could be added, but the story seems clear.

The article then considers some alternatives for the throne and again runs through some of the gossip. Some hope for the increasingly pudgy Sirindhorn and others raise the potential for “a jump to Prince Vajiralongkorn’s children, such as his youngest, Prince Tipangkara, with a regent, perhaps Princess Sirindhorn.” As a footnote, the author describes Sirindhorn as having a “saintly image as a patron of charity.” Well, yes, that’s the image, but of late it has been changed somewhat as she seems to have become the collector of donations to the monarchy. Just before she jetted out to meet the Burmese generals, she was shown on television day after day receiving funds hand over fist.

Apart from the dislike of the prince, why do these hopes for Sirindhorn spring eternal? None of the other siblings are mentioned for they are all obviously totally hopeless. According to the article, “Prince Vajiralongkorn is distrusted in military circles [because of] his past association with Mr Thaksin, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006. Mr Thaksin, a telecoms billionaire turned populist politician, was said to have lavished money on the prince. That may have been the real reason for the coup, which appeared to have the blessing of Prem Tinsulanonda, the chairman of the Privy Council and thus the king’s chief adviser. The fact that Mr Thaksin, who is living in exile in Dubai, is still in contact with the prince is deeply troubling for those same royalists. In a recent interview with a British newspaper, the former prime minister lavishly praised the heir to the throne.” PPT thinks there were many more pressing reasons for the coup in 2006, but this perspective is one frequently aired, especially by those who claim insider military connections.

One of the big public unknowns relates to the privy council. Presumably the prince has his own people he’d like to have advising him when he’s king. The council serves at the will of the monarch, so the prince can boot out the current crop of aged men dominated by military and judicial appointments. The article cites an unnamed “foreign scholar” as saying that the prince’s men “will definitely not have the calibre” of the current council. That’s a big claim for the current lot seem to have created the very situation that the Economist frets about.

Usefully, the Economist also cites the long-running saga of the failed appointment of a police chief. It says that this impasse is reflective of the prince’s poor judgment as Abhisit’s “choice for police chief was blocked by members of his own team, including Nipon Prompan, an aide to Prince Vajiralongkorn, who lobbied for another candidate. A ‘powerful and mighty’ backer was reported to be pushing the second man, a former head of national intelligence under Mr Thaksin. Mr Nipon later resigned from the cabinet. Mr Abhisit was unable to confirm his man, who is currently acting chief. The row exposed Prince Vajiralongkorn’s clumsy meddling. It also provoked apoplexy among King Bhumibol’s courtiers, says a palace source. Prince Vajiralongkorn was told that ‘we don’t do things like this,’ the source says.”

But as the article points out, this is something of a fib as “the palace has long patronised loyalists in the army and bureaucracy.” Indeed, the palace always makes known who it wants in important position. Thaksin has plenty of time to regret the palace-pushed appointment of 2006 coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin as army chief. The article states that “Vajiralongkorn is itching to meddle in the annual autumnal shuffle of senior jobs in the armed forces and extend his support base, says a senior Asian diplomat. How far he succeeds may determine how long he lasts.” And, it raises the “possibility [of] … a royal pardon for Mr Thaksin so that he can return to manage state affairs for the new king.”

The Economist then turns to the question of what to do about the monarchy and succession, suggesting that a “way out of this predicament would be to shrink the Thai monarchy back to its previous size. Top-down reform of the institution is more palatable than a push from below with republican overtones. Under King Bhumibol its stock has fallen already from its zenith…”. PPT is not sure why republicanism is to be feared. After all, there are plenty of stable republics around. We would have thought that a shrinking of the monarchy would only be useful if it is combined with an enhancement of democratic governance.

The Economist seems to write of PPT when is observes that: “Some might argue that King Bhumibol shares the blame for the failure of democratic institutions to take root in Thailand.” That’s undoubtedly true, and was a point made many years ago by the Australian academic Kevin Hewison when he noted the king’s personal disdain for political principles associated with democracy. In part because of this disdain and the fear of the masses, Thailand has become “a cautionary tale of a botched democracy.”

Of course none of this debate about the monarchy and succession is the stuff of national debate and consideration in Thailand. This is due to the threat of “arrest under the lèse-majesté laws or a new, equally nasty computer-crimes law.” It is claimed that under the present king “the silencing of opponents has been controversial, but many tolerate it out of respect. Prince Vajiralongkorn can expect no such leeway.”

Then a really neat piece of gossip is added, from Sulak. He claims that the king has sent out “three trusted emissaries to present ideas for reforming the institution…”. Interesting, but with the article, PPT agrees that a “radical rethink seems unlikely.” In any case, the article then cogitates for a few paragraphs on potential reforms and worries about the monarchy’s total lack of transparency, most especially on the public funds that it takes by the truckload. It also worries about the grand patronage system means that “elected ministers who care about their careers are continually looking over their shoulders for signals from the palace. Mr Abhisit attends so many royal ribbon-cuttings that it is hard to imagine how he finds time to govern…”.

The article finishes by noting that this debate should be held in Thailand, but that “Royal censorship has kept much of this debate under wraps. That is a pity.”



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