Military and monarchy, together in perfect harmony?

18 05 2011

Jon Ungphakorn’s column in the Bangkok Post is well worth a thorough read. He comments on a recent post at New Mandala that has caught attention in the blogosphere for the unstated comparison it draws between allegedly reformist monarchs and the current conservative royalist regime.

There are some controversial interpretations as well. Jon says: “It has always been the military that has been keen to enforce absolute reverence towards the monarchy, and all military coups in recent history have cited alleged threats to the monarchy as justification for military rule.” He adds: “It is the kings themselves who, from time to time, have made attempts to reform the monarchy to be more in line with democratic society.”

PPT was scratching its collective head on this. Yes, the military has often played the royal card in maintaining and reinforcing its role in Thailand’s political system. But what are the reforms that enlightened kings have brought. We assume that Jon is referring to the post-1957 period. This means that there has been not “kings” but one king; the present one. What great democratic reforms has he fostered?

Jon refers to “the maximum prison sentence for lese majeste was increased from SEVEN to 15 years after the military coup of 1976; while on the other hand our present king is on record in his birthday speech of 2005 as requesting that lese majeste be used judiciously and that criticism of the king should be allowed.”

Well, yes, but wasn’t that 1976 government headed by Privy Councilor and a king’s favourite in Thanin Kraivixien? Wasn’t it this monarchy that was involved in supporting the coup. Wasn’t it the king and queen who welcomed a former dictator back and set off the events of massacre and coup? Wasn’t it the current price and princesses who provided moral support for the perpetrators of the massacre? And hasn’t lese majeste gone through the roof since a coup that was clearly implemented with palace connivance in 2005 and 2006? Need we go on?

Jon is right when he observes that the “present actions of the military [on lese majeste] are clearly intended to influence the results of the elections by once again implying that a threat to the monarchy is involved. In their actions, they have moved the boundaries of lese majeste accusations to an extreme never reached before at a time when demands for reform of lese majeste law are reaching a peak.” He adds: “This is a very tense and explosive situation which, as history clearly tells us, cannot possibly be beneficial to the monarchy.”

PPT agrees, but doubts many of the old duffers in the palace see it this way. We doubt that those responsible for royalist political ideology and propaganda see it this way. We think that those who protect and “ancient institution” that is also the country’s largest and most conservative capitalist conglomerate believe that reform is in their interests. Rather, they have shown a capacity for support to the most reactionary elements and an incapacity for making historically significant compromises with the subaltern masses.

Commenting on the lese majeste charge against Somsak Jeamteerasakul, Jon argues that “critical comments among academics and intellectuals on the monarchy as an institution have been tolerated. This is why Sulak Sivaraksa has never gone to prison for his consistently outspoken observations. Now, there seems to be no refuge left.”

PPT has a vague memory of Sulak being arrested and in jail. Sulak’s website says this: “In 1984 he was arrested in Bangkok on charges of criticising the King, but international protest led to his eventual release.” That international protest was led by international academics and Buddhist organizations, amongst others. Sulak has been charged several times and currently has charges pending. That said, it is true that Sulak has never been convicted. But he is also not the only academic to have been threatened. Think of Giles Ji Ungpakorn who now lives in exile.

Jon goes on to refer to the “unfairness of the lese majeste law,” commenting, as many reformers do, that a problem is that “anyone can file a complaint and there are no guidelines as to the interpretation of the law.” He then makes this observation: “The only peaceful solution to the political explosion that is building up as more and more people are charged and sentenced under Article 112 of the Criminal Code, is to reform the lese majeste law and the monarchy as an institution in line with democratic principles.”

That’s not the only solution: abolishing the law and allowing the monarchy to use existing defamation laws, just like anyone else is also a peaceful solution.

Jon argues that the reason there is not reform is that politicians “don’t dare to do anything [because] … they are afraid of reprisals from the royalist movements such as the People’s Alliance for Democracy, the multi-coloured shirt activists and, in particular, the military establishment.”

He concludes with these observations: “It is the avowed protectors of the monarchy who are actually destabilising the monarchy and preventing the reforms badly needed to sustain the monarchy. Will the military establishment recognise this fact in time and learn to stop meddling in Thailand’s political affairs?”

PPT can agree with the first point. No doubt about it. They are bringing themselves undone. But the protectors are necessarily blind to this. The second point is one that can also be agreed. At the same time, it is not the monarchy that binds the military to intervention. After all, when its commanders were pretty much anti-monarchy the military also took a prime political position.

It seems to PPT that in the current period there is probably a pretty good alignment between the ideas of the military leadership – General Prayuth Chan-ocha is known to have excellent links to the queen – and the palace and monarchy. Chulabhorn’s recent comments on the threats being akin to the Burmese sacking of Ayudhya attest to the kind of thinking and discussions that must be going on in both military and palace circles. We see considerable harmony of interests.

And, just as a footnote, this post began with the New Mandala story on prostration and the reforms Chulalongkorn made. For all of those who are touting him as the great reformer, add to this the fact that his regime was probably the most absolute of the Chakkri dynasty….


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