Commentary on the king’s birthday

5 12 2010

We have one critical post already, but here’s a rundown on some of the news on the king’s birthday, where PPT tries to highlight some aspects of the reporting:

MCOT News has pretty much what you’d expect from them. “Millions of Thai throughout the country offered alms to Buddhist monks early Sunday to celebrate their revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 83rd birthday.” Of course, these “millions” are always led in “celebrations” by the higher-ups: “People from all walks of life, led by Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra, offered alms to 284 Buddhist monks in the plaza at Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), Bangkok’s City Hall.” State agencies and the security agencies have been hard at work organizing “celebrations.” The NPR report below refers to “massive” celebrations organized by these agencies. All are funded by the taxpayer.

One innovation is that MCOT tells readers that despite being in hospital since 19 September 2009, his “condition has improved significantly.” Again, PPT can only ask why is he still there? What don’t we know from the opaque royal agencies that manage news.

NPR in the U.S. has a longish story that is arguably the most complete (actually, it seems to be by AP’s Grant Peck: “Thailand on Sunday marked the 83rd birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, but elaborate celebrations could not mask concern over his health and the future of the royal institution.” The report says “[t]housands of flag-waving citizens cheered his car’s journey to the ceremonial Grand Palace from Siriraj Hospital…”, not the tens of thousands claimed in local reports.

NPR notes that the birthday speech expressed “what has become a routine, general call for unity and hard work to keep the country happy and prosperous in the face of the sometimes violent political conflict it has endured in recent years.”

While having some of the usual blather about a “unifying figure,” at least NPR states the king “is regarded as a unifying figure in times of national crisis.” That regard is now mostly seen in yellow-shirted academics and the royalist regime. The king is said to have spoken only “briefly in a slow and rasping voice to dignitaries at the Grand Palace…”.

Taking up the leaders leading the masses in “celebration, NPR notes that “a candle-lighting show of devotion [will be] led by the prime minister…”.

The report then makes a claim also seen in a rather bland and uncritical video report by Al Jazeera (http://www.youtube.com/v/Uemt7IjkOYo?version=3): “Bhumibol’s near-disappearance from public life has coincided with a period of political instability after a 2006 military coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra polarized the country. The king has been unable or unwilling to play his traditional mediating role to ease the conflict.” It also adds that, “Traditionally, the palace managed to stay aloof from the parry and thrust of politics, its influence exercised behind the scenes or only in extreme cases where a crisis posed an immediate threat to the kingdom’s peace and stability.”

For PPT, this is a remarkably naive position. As a primer, the journalists should study Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles. For the recent period, they need to put their spectacles on for clearer vision: the king has made several speeches to judges at critical times – and it has been judges making many of the big political decisions for the establishment – and he has met with Abhisit at strategic moments, most recently just after the Democrat Party escaped from the scrutiny of the Constitutional Court. More critically, such naivety ignores a point made long ago by political scientists and political sociologists  regarding “non-decision-making.”

Maybe these journalists can try this academic article from 1963…. Of course, one could also surmise that if the royalist government is doing just fine in the palace’s view, then there is no need for public intervention (especially when the intervention to get the 2006 coup in place got so much publicity).

NPR is right to observe that “Defenders of the status quo, including the current government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, say the monarchy is under attack by radicals who wish to undermine its authority and prestige, or even abolish it. While serious opponents of the royal institution are a tiny minority — and liable to long jail terms if they speak publicly — the past few years have seen unprecedented questioning of the monarchy.”

And, the observation that political polarization rests in large measure with royal actions is valid: “The polarization became greater as gestures made by the king’s top aides and even Queen Sirikit seemed to give a nod of approval to Thaksin’s opponents, including ‘Yellow Shirt’ protesters who in 2008 occupied the prime minister’s office for three months and took over Bangkok’s two airports for a week. Their protests were aimed at ousting two successive pro-Thaksin prime ministers.”

The little note on the prince’s role is also apposite. He is reported to have declared: “On this occasion, I would like to promise that I will carry out my tasks appropriately according to my status and my duties, based on reason and rationality in order to maintain the Chakri Dynasty’s honor and the prosperity and security of the country…”.

AFP refers to “elaborate celebrations” and has the required line about the king being “widely revered as a demi-god by many Thais…”. The note that “[a]ny discussion of the royal family is an extremely sensitive topic in politically turbulent Thailand, where the palace has also been silent over the organisation of the king’s succession,” requires a correction: yes, “sensitive,” and enforced as such by lese majeste laws. The report notes: “Under strict lese majeste rules, anyone can make an accusation that another person insulted the monarchy — punishable by up to 15 years in prison — and police are duty-bound to investigate.” And, while foreign journalists like to speculate – prompted by wishful thinking royalists – the palace has been pretty clear on succession (and see above).

For a deeper understanding of the role of the monarchy and politics that avoids some of the syrup required of journalists, PPT suggests not only Handley (noted above) but also the range of papers at our commentary pages, here, here and here. And, of course, the two new books posted on here and here.


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5 12 2010
Thailand: News stories about King’s birthday · Global Voices

[…] Prisoners in Thailand summarizes the news stories and commentaries about the 83rd birthday of Thailand's […]

5 12 2010
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[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by NEWSpace, อิสระภาพ แห่งข่าวสาร. อิสระภาพ แห่งข่าวสาร said: Commentary on the king’s birthday: We have one critical post already, but here’s a rundown on some of the news o… http://bit.ly/eIqY5v […]

3 05 2011
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[…] PPT hasn’t commented for some time on the king’s hospitalization. He’s been in hospital since 19 September 2009 despite almost every report since 23 September 2009then stating that he is recovering or that his “condition has improved significantly.” […]

25 12 2012
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[…] and almost every report since 23 September 2009 had stated that he is recovering or that his “condition has improved significantly.”  The reports from the Royal Household Bureau on royal health are almost never more than […]

25 12 2012
Royalist courts make another conviction for the monarchy « Political Prisoners of Thailand

[…] and almost every report since 23 September 2009 had stated that he is recovering or that his “condition has improved significantly.”  The reports from the Royal Household Bureau on royal health are almost never more than […]