A Kingdom in Crisis reviewed IV

26 10 2014

For earlier PPT posts about reviews of Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century, go here, here and here.

The latest review of this book is at Asia Sentinel and by John Berthelsen. The review begins largely where the book begins:

… according to Kingdom in Crisis, an authoritative new book on the eight-year-old Thai political crisis by former Reuters journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall,” ít became clear that everything had changed for Thailand’s monarchy.”  To that point the king had arguably been the most venerated monarch in Thai history. But now [19 September 2010] “hundreds of people were shouting a crude insult and inflammatory accusations at an unthinkable target.  The ‘bastard’ was King Bhumibol Adulyadej.”Kingdom in crisis

How Thailand got to that point is a sad and dispiriting tale and one that is unlikely to end soon despite the May 22 coup perpetrated by Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, which has put tight screws on society – so tight that the government is pursuing dissidents far overseas, running a communications lockdown of the country itself, and seeking to institute Orwellian rules of order today.

PPT isn’t at all sure that the king was venerated as much as propagandized and we are not convinced that the “tale” is entirely dispiriting. Indeed, the review suggests why a crisis is not always dispiriting:

What has occurred in Bangkok is a war for the country’s very soul between the centuries-old web of interests centered in the capital city, made up of the courtiers in the palace and the business community and others who support them. They are arrayed against millions of formerly poverty-stricken rural dwellers in the northeast of the country who were awakened starting in 2001 by telecommunications billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, who instituted a series of strong populist measures in the northeast to better their welfare and into the process becoming by far the most popular monarch Thailand had ever seen.

That Thailand’s “most popular monarch” was faced off by some who supported Thailand’s most popular elected politician is at least some cause for optimism that the purported “centuries-old web of interests” that makes up the ruling class was and remains challenged by rising popular forces. As an aside, PPT would point out that the “centuries-old web of interests” is not that at all. The web of interests that revolve around the current monarch are a creation of the past 50 or so years. What troubled this class, according to the review’s account, and as:

Marshall relates in painful detail, Vajiralongkorn horrified the vast palace machinery and the aristocrats who were connected to it. The thought of seeing him become the monarch upon the failing king’s death, especially as a tool of the wily Thaksin, was more than they could deal with. The palace itself split, with Queen Sirikit backing her son’s succession and others attempting to replace him with the vastly more popular Princess, Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. When Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party won its second election in 2005 and raising further Vajiralongkorn’s prospects, that was pretty much enough. A combination of the elites, the military and the royalty combined to foment the 2006 coup that drove Thaksin from power.

… The elites, over the eight years of turmoil that appear to have ended Thaksin’s government aspirations for a considerable amount of time, but also managed to destroy the credibility of virtually all of Thailand’s government institutions including the courts, the police, the government and the political parties that stood in Thaksin’s way. And, according to Marshall, they have largely managed to destroy the credibility of the one institution they were trying to save, the monarchy itself.

For the reviewer, Marshall account is of a king who “was never either particularly wise or particularly benevolent, or democratic.” Berthelsen describes the book as an “invaluable adjunct, a continuation to Paul Handley’s pathbreaking history of Thailand, The King Never Smiles, published in 2006.” Handley’s book has undoubtedly been truly seminal for Thailand, and Marshall’s book may have an impact, but it will always be Handley who shattered the myths (for an Asia Sentinel review of Handley’s book, click here).

PPT notes that Berthelsen seems to think that “Marshall is overly critical of Bhumibol,” and laments that “the 86-year-old king sought to do what he believed was right for his subjects, clearly unlike his son, who continues to split the elites, running the danger of destroying the institution.” We doubt Marshall would agree with the assessment of the king. After all, to do so would mean accepting the violent and murderous attacks on political opponents, often in his name, often with his approval, a massive looting of the country by the royalist elites, many military putsches and the trashing of numerous constitutions.

Handley concluded his book with a claim that the king “has sealed his own reputation, and it is unlikely to be undone.” Marshall’s book is more likely to be seen as correcting that claim, showing the failures of the king and undoing that reputation.

Karma doesn’t get a mention, but maybe it should have. Berthelsen concludes:

It tells a depressing story of the end to the world’s longest royal reign. The king and queen themselves have apparently had debilitating strokes that have reduced them to the status of department store dummies, but continue to be trotted out at ceremonial occasions to stare blindly into space by palace factions determined to use them for their own ends.


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