The Independent and SMH on the monarchy

24 05 2010

PPT thought it would reprint these stories in full, with some comments, as they are probably blocked in Thailand:

King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand: The monarch whose silence is deafening

By Peter Popham (The Independent, 22 May 2010)

No living leader has sat on a throne as long as he has. But frail in hospital, and conspicuous by his absence during his country’s crisis, is there still time for the King of Righteousness to heal the wounds of a fragile, Buddhist society?

PPT is unsure why the international media harps on the need for an intervention. As we have said before, the king has intervened in these events, and the country reaps what he and his allies sow.

As the rattle of gunfire dies away, the blood is hosed from the city streets and Thailand sits down to ponder the cost of its ferocious uprising, many are quietly wondering if the monarchy of King Bhumibol Adulyadej will be one of the casualties.

He is the world’s longest-reigning monarch and in many ways one of the most extraordinary. He began life as a thoroughly modern royal: born in the United States in 1927, educated at a francophone school in Switzerland and the University of Lausanne, where his science studies were cut short by the family’s decision to return home at the end of the Second World War.

And like another science-loving Asian monarch, Emperor Hirohito of Japan, he found himself thrust into a fantastically archaic role – or rather a dual role, with an apparently modern face directed to the outside world and an ancient, sacred identity fashioned to give him spiritual authority over his people.

For the heads of state and diplomats who crossed his threshold, he was a king in a suit, a Thai version of British or Scandinavian monarchs: a constitutional figure, a symbol of the state without personal power. For his people, by contrast, the great majority of them pious Theravada Buddhists in a country which also has an ancient residue of Hinduism, he was very much more than that: he was the avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, and in Buddhist terms the “Dharmaraja”, the King of Righteousness. He was “a sacral leader”, in the words of his biographer, Paul Handley, “with blood-born magical powers and transcendent vision”.

For the outside world he did service as an urbane figurehead. And at home his gentle, studious nature persuaded his people that he had the virtuous character that is a necessary complement of the gifts of blood. He entered the monkhood for a token 15 days in 1956 on the death of his grandmother; he consulted numerologists and patronised magic-practising monks and performed all the ceremonies required of a Dharmaraja.

He did everything to convey that he was indeed “the Strength of the Land” (the meaning of his name) and possessed the numinous power to hold his nation together. This was not in fact continuity, but a studied revival of practices that lapsed with the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932. “The God-like status of Bhumibol,” wrote political scientist Michael Connors, “was not part of the family treasure, but something he and hundreds of officials in the palace and other agencies have contrived to create.” An important aspect of this myth-making was to insist that Bhumibol was serenely removed from the squalor of everyday politics. Speaking of his accession to the throne, he said in 1974, “I was 18, and very suddenly I learned that politics is a filthy business.” It was crucial to the success of his image that, in Handley’s words, he was “never seen to play politics… An uncrossable chasm was created between the virtuous throne and virtueless politicians”.

But like the Japanese attempts to portray Emperor Hirohito as a man above the politics that led to war, the idea that Bhumibol was above the fray was a carefully manufactured lie. He was already wealthy when he came to the throne; according to Forbes magazine in 2008 he was the richest royal in the world, with an estimated wealth of $35bn. In addition to huge land holdings, including nearly 4,000 acres in Bangkok, his Crown Property Bureau is the majority shareholder of Siam Cement, the biggest conglomerate in the country, and has ruthlessly redeveloped historic parts of the capital for profit. His closest allies are in the business world and the military. Over the years, behind the carefully maintained façade of piety and political neutrality, a monarchical elite of great power and wealth dug itself in.

The lie was exposed by the emergence of Thaksin Shinawatra, the policeman turned telecoms billionaire who set up a political party, Thai Rak Thai (Thai loves Thai) in 1997, in the wake of the Asian financial crisis. Since the mid-1950s, King Bhumibol has claimed to be the friend of Thailand’s poor by sponsoring rural development projects including a bridge, a dam and irrigation projects and by carrying out a token land reform project on royal land.

But as Bangkok boomed through the 1970s and 80s, much of the countryside was left behind. In his bid for power, Thaksin vowed to help poor farmers by paying off their debts and raising the minimum wage. He came to power in 2001 and was as good as his word; though accused of numerous serious abuses, no one disputes he did a great deal to help the rural poor in the north-east, in the process exposing the royal development efforts as token.

As the friend of the rural poor, he created the fund of intense popular support which led to the creation of the Red Shirts who have been fighting and dying these past days in the streets of the Thai capital. And as the fighting has grown more bitter and desperate, the issue has become far more than the fate of an individual politician. Thailand has become disastrously polarised.

It is precisely in desperate situations like this that the King of Righteousness is expected to make his rare, quasi-magical interventions. Bringing unity to the nation was supposed to be King Bhumibol’s duty and his gift: at the moments of greatest turmoil the king would speak or act, the Dharmaraja would emerge from the clouds with his pained, unsmiling face, and calm the waves and quieten the storm.

As students of politics are taught time and again, an inaction is as much an action as anything else.

It happened like that in 1992, after one of Thailand’s many coups, when tens of thousands of protesters confronted troops on a Bangkok university campus. Suddenly there he was on television, sitting on a sofa wearing a pale suit; kneeling on the carpet before him were General Suchinda Kraprayoon, the prime ministerial candidate of the coup group, and retired Major-General Chamlong Srimuang, leader of the pro-democracy movement, urging them to bury their differences. The fighting stopped the next day. A general election brought in a civilian government, and an apparent end to the interference of the military in the nation’s political life. It was a dramatic demonstration of his Majesty’s unifying powers.

It was also a demonstration of the king’s desire to save the authoritarian forces that seemed to be being pushed aside.

Yet this time around, as Thailand faced an equally destructive crisis, the king has been unable to perform any such function. One reason is that he is clearly unwell: in October 2007 he suffered what appeared to be a minor stroke, and was unable to make his traditional birthday speech. He has been poorly ever since, and the latest rumours indicate that he is again in hospital, suffering from exhaustion and a lung infection. But it is not only because he is unwell that the king can no longer act as the great unifier: it is because he has a dog in this fight. The 2006 coup and the emergence of the monarchist yellow shirts blew his “neutral” cover. If he has been as silent as the sphinx through this crisis, it is also because there is nothing that he can say that would be any help.

An excellent point.

Whatever happens to the ailing king and his widely disliked successor, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, Thailand faces a long crisis – one which the monarchy cannot solve. “There might still be people in Thai society that want to see the king play a role in resolving the crisis,” said Jon Ungpakom, a former senator and democracy advocate, “but a large section of society realises that we should not depend on the monarchy for resolving crises. If we are to be a democratic system, we must learn to deal with our problems for ourselves.” And 63 years under the comfortingly archaic cover of a holy king, during which average incomes have increased 4,000 per cent, have allowed Thailand to neglect this fundamental task.

A life in brief

Born: 5 December 1927, Cambridge, Massachusetts, US.

Family: The younger son of HRH Prince Mahidol Adulyadej and Mom Sangwal. He is married to Mom Rajawongse Sirikit Kitiyakara; they have four children.

Education: Briefly went to Mater Dei school in Bangkok before moving to Switzerland in 1933 and studying at the Ecole Nouvelle de la Suisse Romande in Lausanne. Degree in law and political science at the University of Lausanne.

As the story says, this is incorrect. The king did not graduate.

Career: Ascended the throne following the death of his brother, King Ananda Mahidol, on 9 June 1946. He has made several interventions in politics and is credited with facilitating Thailand’s transition to democracy in the 1990s….

*****

Monarchy at a turning point

Hamish McDonald
Sydney Morning Herald, May 24, 2010 – 12:27PM

Told to think ”Thailand”, most people would come up with food, sex and silk – with gossip about its royal family, politics and military thrown in by anyone who’s been a bit longer than a beach holiday at Phuket.

Any gossip about politics and the military can’t get really down and dirty without a mention of the royals. The added frisson is that this is highly illegal if it extends beyond private chatter. The wrong talk about the royals can get you long jail terms under the lese majeste law.

Thai authorities go to enormous lengths to preserve the royal mystique. Since the royal and military interventions in politics of 2006-07, an outfit called the Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation has been closing down hundreds of websites and blogs deemed disrespectful.

When the government learnt that Yale University Press was planning to publish the first thorough and non-hagiographic biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles, in 2006, it hired the former US president George H.W. Bush to lobby against publication. He failed to stop the book coming out. It’s banned in Thailand, of course.

Over the past three months leading up to this week’s army crackdown, though, the chatter has reached a deafening crescendo. Spokesmen like the Thai ambassador in Canberra, Kriangsak Kittichaisaree, try to insist the king is ”above politics”, but the monarchy can’t be kept out of the picture of power-play.

King Bhumibol’s very silence in recent months, despite his partial recovery from serious illness and presence at formal events in a wheelchair, is taken as his approval of steps taken by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the army. The 82-year-old king hasn’t tried to wield the reconciliatory powers attributed to a ”sacred” position in the Thai nation, such as in 1992 when he ordered two warring political generals crouching at his feet to stop the bloodshed in the streets.

There is no talk of any royal pardon for ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra who faces two years in jail for abuse of office if he returns to Thailand. The king is hanging the billionaire Thaksin out to dry.

Yet there are intriguing sub-plots. For years Thaksin was said to be building ties, mostly with money, with Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, the heir apparent to the throne still best known at the age of 58 for his penchant for partying with young women and flying his personal jet fighters.

The patronage was part of the case that Thaksin was getting too big for his boots, and starting to usurp royal authority. Which he was, of course, through an entirely conventional political program that handed out million-baht ($39,000) grants for village improvements and started a universal 30-baht healthcare scheme.

This cut across the constructed cult around King Bhumibol as the fountainhead of Bangkok’s beneficence to the rural masses, through well publicised tours where he handed out charity derived from the crown’s huge property and business holdings, commonly valued at $US30 billion.

Things got nasty on April 10, when the Bangkok clashes got violent with 21 civilians and four soldiers killed. Among the army dead was one who was no ordinary soldier, but a full colonel named Romklao Thuwatham, deliberately taken out by a sniper employed by the renegade army general among the Red Shirts, Khattiya Sawasdiphol.

Colonel Romklao came from the army’s 2nd Division, commonly known as the Queen’s Division from its official patronage by Queen Sirikit, the king’s wife. She attended his funeral, as she had done for another opponent of the Red Shirts killed at an earlier confrontation. When General Khattiya was shot fatally by a sniper on May 13, while taking to a foreign journalist, he was not a random target.

Why then, has the Thai press reported that Khattiya’s funeral rites early this week gained royal patronage? Was this initiated by the crown prince? If so, was it a sign of a rumoured estrangement between Queen Sirikit and her son? The mills are grinding again with the old speculation that King Bhumibol may upset the succession by naming his more popular daughter, Princess Sirindhorn, as successor.

PPT understands that royal-sponsored funerals are normal for generals. To not sponsor it would have been a very big signal to anti-monarchists.

From hints emerging from Thai elite circles, though, there seems to be a school of thought that the monarchy is at a turning point, and that to survive as the core institution of the Thai nation, it has to transform itself. Paradoxically, under this theory the tearaway playboy crown prince would be the better character for a more limited constitutional role than the saintly princess, who would essentially try to perpetuate the Bhumibol pattern.

Thais have even been authorised to start discussing this by an unlikely figure, Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, a career diplomat and academic who figured prominently in the Yellow Shirt (royalist) mass protests against Thaksin’s elected proxies.

Talking at Washington’s John[s] Hopkins University in April, Kasit said Thailand’s periodic bouts of street politics were ”messy” but nonetheless ”we should be brave enough to . . . talk about even the taboo subject of the monarchy”.

Handley’s study suggests change could follow several paths, a principal choice being whether the monarchy should drop the link with Buddhist destiny or if it wants to keep its sacred role, retreat to the purely symbolic status of the Japanese imperial household. Either way, it will need to retreat from its central role in social policy.

”Ultimately, members of the royal family will have to make use of one of the monarchy’s greatest unspoken prerogatives: the alchemic ability and right to remake itself before others do it,” Handley concluded. ”That is the key to its survival.”


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