Review of “Saying the Unsayable” on the monarchy

13 12 2010

The Bangkok Post has a review of Saying the Unsayable: Monarchy and democracy in Thailand, edited by Soren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager (Nias Press, 278 pp, 795 baht ISBN 978-87-7694-072-0). It is reviewed by Chris Baker:

Half way through this book, one of the contributors asks, “Is Thailand primarily a democracy protected by a constitution that guarantees rights, or is primarily a monarchy with authoritarian structures that prevent democratisation?” Not so long ago, such a question was unimaginable. The standard formula is that Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, a parliamentary democracy with the King as head of state. But ever since the People’s Alliance for Democracy swathed themselves in yellow and announced “We fight for the king”, cracks have appeared in that formula. The mantra that the monarchy is “above politics” has never made much sense since monarchy is nothing if not a political institution. The claim that monarchy is beyond discussion or debate falters because the institution is too important to ignore. As Thailand’s economy has become so rapidly and drastically globalised, more and more outsiders want to understand the country’s key institutions because it matters to their business profits and personal lives. In academic writing on Thai politics, monarchy is now the prime focus of attention.

The eleven contributors to this book of essays include seven foreigners and four Thais. Two of the Thais have elected to use a nom de plume. Yet this is a careful book which has nothing personal or strident, no whiff of revolt. The nine essays and the deft summary in the introduction present analyses of the meaning of the Thai monarchy in the present and the recent past. Although this book claims its subject is “the Thai monarchy”, in fact it’s focus is rather narrower. The words “queen”, “prince” “princess”, “crown” and “succession” do not appear in the index. Only two of the essays stray into history. This book is a study of one reign.

The first section focuses on the current image of the monarchy, and the contrast between the two essays highlights how complex the topic is. Peter Jackson argues that the monarch is seen as magical and semi-divine. The palace entourage have promoted an old idea that the monarch is a sammuti devaraja, a “virtual god-king”, not an actual god-king but capable of being imagined as one. Yet, Jackson argues, over the course of the reign the word “virtual” in this formula has tended to fade. The adulation of the monarch is one of many cults promising prosperity and security which have flourished all over the world in the context of globalisation and its insecurities. People started to worship the Fifth King as an ancestor spirit capable of granting prosperity, and the Ninth has become associated with the cult.

By contrast, Sarun Krittikarn argues that the distinguishing feature of the present reign is the accessibility and evident humanity of the royals. Rather than being cloaked in mystery and ritual, they appear every day on television doing very human things. From this inspection, “it is obvious that the family has gradually adopted middle-class values and lifestyles”. The people gaze at them constantly, and the monarch gazes back from pictures, banners, statues and banners which seem to be everywhere. He watches over his subjects constantly. “Under his gaze, we are turned into a child in need of security.” Of course, the sheer multiplication of images runs the risk that the image overwhelms the reality behind it. Moreover, Sarun suggests, while the royal image is supposed to serve as the focus of nationalist loyalty, viewing the image has rather become a form of entertainment which arouses feelings of comfort.

In the official version of history, King Prajadhipok welcomed the transition from absolutism to democracy, thus ensuring that democracy and monarchy could comfortably coexist, and earning for himself the title as “father of Thai democracy”. Two essays attack this history head-on. Nattapoll Chaiching marshals all the evidence showing that Prajadhipok fought bitterly to reverse the 1932 revolution, and that after his abdication committed royalists took up the same cause until they succeeded with Field-Marshal Sarit’s coup in 1957. Kevin Hewison and Kengkij Kitirianglarp take up the story from there, tracing the idea of “Thai-style democracy” from Sarit to the present. Since 1932, royalists had argued that the Thai people were not ready for democracy or not suited to it at all. Sarit claimed that strong leaders who responded to popular needs were a better form of “democracy” than that contrived by elections. Kukrit Pramoj imagined that there was a virtual bond between king and subjects which meant that kingship was a perfect form of representation, somehow “natural” for Thailand, and indispensable for peace and prosperity. Since then “Thai-style democracy” in which the monarch acts as a moral balance against wicked politicians has been a cornerstone of royalist thinking. Hewison and Kengkij argue that Thaksin was found so frightful because he was beginning to show that democracy could work, an elected leader could deliver prosperity to the people and be rewarded with unprecedented popularity.

The 2006 coup hangs heavily over the book. Almost every essay refers to it. David Streckfuss notes the epidemic of lese-majesty cases since the coup. He draws a comparison with the last epidemic of comparable scale – in Germany in the late nineteenth century. In one six-year period, 248 people were convicted. Yet the result was only to make more people more defiant. Eventually in 1904, the Emperor himself told the judiciary to desist, and issued pardons to those still undergoing punishment.

The last two essays focus on the sufficiency economy. Soren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager put the idea in the context of a worldwide enthusiasm for “etho-politics”, theories in which greater self-discipline by the individual does away with the need for such a great political superstructure. The ideal is a community which can exist without conflict. But in truth, they argue, this is always a dream. Andrew Walker adds that the image of a self-sufficient local rural economy may never have existed in Thailand and is certainly far removed from present-day realities. One large portion of the rural population does not have enough land or other assets to be sufficient, and survives by migrating away from the village in search of work. Another large portion finds that the best way to deal with the risks and insecurities of small-scale agriculture is to invest more, play the market, and diversify risks rather than retreating into a shell of sufficiency.

As the editors note in the Introduction, a monarchy like any other institution is constantly being made and remade. The immense changes over the present reign make that abundantly clear. This book is a valuable contribution to a growing literature that helps to make this institution and its complex dynamics more understandable.



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