An ending acknowledged

6 12 2011

The king’s birthday events have unfolded in a predictable manner. All of the newspapers are full of (mostly dated) images of the king as paternalistic “father,” a musician, artist, photographer, monk, sportsman and ruler. There’s nothing new in any of this, although it is getting to breathtaking heights usually seen elsewhere.

Various royalists are paraded in the media to explain just how great the greatest is and why. On 5 December, the Bangkok Post had a bunch of advertisements form the usual companies that support the royals: Thai Beverage, Central, Toyota, Thai Airways, Boon Rawd Brewery, Charoen Pokphand (CP), Siam Motors and so on. As usual, it has a huge color supplement, this time extolling the king as the father of a new style of mural painting. Each Chakri king has tended to re-do murals in a form that extols his reign and the dynasty. We have only looked at the Post, but there is little variation on the king between any of the mainstream media.

At least Al Jazeera remembered lese majesty on the birthday, in this video report.

But back to the Bangkok Post and its adulation that included a range of stories, from one about the royal’s favourite singer Thongchai Macintyre, explaining his great love for the monarch, to a remarkable piece on the king as sportsman. Remarkable for this: “The King won a gold medal in sailing at the fourth Southeast Asian Peninsular (SEAP) Games … in 1967. His Majesty finished tied first with his daughter Princess Ubolratana in the OK Dinghy event in Pattaya and both were gold medallists…. The King received the gold medal from Her Majesty the Queen…”. What a run of great success and all of it royal! The palace PR machine trots it out each year, several times.

The centerpiece of the birthday was the king’s trip to the Grand Palace to give a brief speech. The intention was to have thousands of people line the streets and free bus and boat rides were provided. Based on what we saw on television, organizers may have been disappointed as the crowds were rather thin along the route from Sirirat Hospital to the palace, with the thickest crowds at the beginning and end points. We expect the media will trumpet hundreds of thousands. Indeed, the day before the event, the Bangkok Post claimed this: “Hundreds of thousands of well-wishers are expected to converge at Siriraj Hospital, Sanam Luang and the Grand Palace to show their love and respect for the King.”

The event at the palace saw the “common people” kept outside as officials and military filled the area inside. These officials were looking extremely uncomfortable as they were kept waiting, decked out in full regalia and standing in the hot sun. A few fainted and many were looking at watches as they were slow broiled. PPT lost count of the number of times the royal anthem was played.

The royal family seemed to be there as a whole and a pretty happy lot. In front and next to the wheelchair-bound king were Sirindhorn, Sirikit, Vajiralongkon and his son, as well as Chulabhorn. The latter, usually seen in a tricked-out wheelchair, stood throughout. The queen clasped Prince Vajiralongkorn’s hand as they came out and held it throughout while the prince also held his son and heir’s hand as well.

The king’s speaking voice was weak but he again appeared to be pretty healthy for an aged man who has been hospitalized for more than two years. It was no surprise that the king, as a political conservative, called for unity and stability; he does this almost every year.

The evening’s entertainment-cum-celebration at Sanam Luang appeared to be better attended, filling much of that space, not least because it was in the cool of the evening. But even there, a preponderance of the usual flunky organizations was noticeable from the military to the village scouts.

Apparently, the celebratory events continue for a few days, with a report that: “On Nov 29, the cabinet approved an additional budget of about 117 million baht to organise celebrations between Dec 3 and 9 to mark the King’s birthday…”. PPT doesn’t recall seeing a figure for the original budget, which we assume was substantially larger than this additional amount.

On 6 December, the Bangkok Post ran an editorial that pretty much sums up the appeal that paternalism has for royal acolytes. The king’s life is “one of the most remarkable lives.” Sounding just a little like the Pyongyang Times, the Post rewrites post-1932 history along palace propaganda lines, and comes up with the line that the king’s “advice and aid to citizens of all rank and every society is known and remembered…. Every Thai has a personal story of the commitment to every citizen that His Majesty has shown during his reign.” And so on and so forth.

The Post editorial concludes: “During the current celebrations, Thais can consider again the contribution and leadership His Majesty has displayed since that day in May, 1956, when he gave his promise of righteousness.” What a pity those writing this treacle can’t even get the date right! We guess they mean coronation day on 5 May 1950. By the time this is posted and read, presumably the Post will have fixed their error.

While all of the (royal) familial togetherness and media’s cringingly syrupy odes, along with the required pageantry, seems pretty standard, especially as the king has now reached a very ripe old age for Thai kings, we can’t help but feel that this was also a wake for the end of an era. The zenith of the reign has passed and the future is uncertain. Most especially the future is uncertain because royalists seem intent of demolishing the monarchy in the name of protecting it.

The family surely recognizes that the times have changed and their political position is now weakened, even if their economic fortunes, as the country’s largest and wealthiest Sino-Thai conglomerate, continue to grow. Rebuilding political clout before the succession is impossible with the king aged and hospitalized. A politically weakened monarchy will certainly be weaker still as this reign stretches out with a frail king on the throne. Succession cannot possibly hope to restore the late 20th century political power of this reign.

While the Bangkok Post can continue to produce and parrot fairy tales about the monarchy’s role in democratization and constitutionalism (as in a story on King Vajiravudh and his plaything Dusit Thani), the fact is that the future for the monarchy is bleak if it does not accept an electoral democracy that accedes to the will of the people. The palace can no longer be seen to manipulate political outcomes. Any further actions like those in 2006 (and since) risk the end of the dynasty itself. Reform and constitutionalism can save the monarchy, whereas guns and stubborn reactionary politics will doom it. Many royalists seem unable to comprehend that the era they crave has, in fact, already past.




2 responses

16 11 2013
Strange decisions I | Political Prisoners in Thailand

[…] endorsement of King Bhumibol. Part of the air of desperation in elite ranks reflects the calendar. December 5th will be the king’s 86th birthday. It is an occasion when royal pardons are issued, and one that the king used to mark with a speech. […]

16 11 2013
Strange decisions I | Political Prisoners of Thailand

[…] endorsement of King Bhumibol. Part of the air of desperation in elite ranks reflects the calendar. December 5th will be the king’s 86th birthday. It is an occasion when royal pardons are issued, and one that the king used to mark with a speech. […]

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