A Kingdom in Crisis reviewed VI

22 11 2014

Paul Handley, the author of the seminal The King Never Smiles, has reviewed A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century, by Andrew MacGregor Marshall at The Financial Times. We reproduce it here, with only a little emphasis added here and there:Kingdom in crisis

A journalist argues that the issue of royal succession lies behind Thailand’s political impasse

Sulak Sivaraksa has hovered for decades at the edges of Thai politics, never a real threat to anyone as he advocated a socially activist Buddhism, mainly to audiences of university students. Last month Sulak nevertheless was accused for the fourth time of lèse-majesté, which can bring 15 years in prison. His offence? To challenge the heroic battlefield story of Naresuan, who ruled the kingdom of Ayutthaya at the turn of the 17th century.

The Thai constitution holds it a crime to defame, insult or threaten the king, queen, heir or regent. It says nothing about others in the royal family, the monarchic institution or the current Chakri dynasty, much less an earlier realm full of bellicose royals. But that is where Thailand is now, as it endures the long twilight of the reign of Bhumibol Adulyadej. Applied sparingly during most of Bhumibol’s 68 years as king, the law of lèse-majesté has been invoked dozens of times over the past five years in a desperate effort to shore up respect for the throne.

This is just one of the symptoms, Andrew McGregor Marshall writes in A Kingdom in Crisis, of a country in existential panic over what happens when Bhumibol, almost 87 and in poor health, passes away. The overthrow and exile of popular prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the deadly street battles of pro-throne yellow shirts and pro-Thaksin red shirts, and the two military coups since 2006 are all manifestations of the same problem: who controls the succession and who succeeds.

Like this writer, Marshall, a former Reuters journalist, has given up a comfortable existence in Thailand, and any hope of returning, to tell the story of how the succession crisis has paralysed a country once seen as Asia’s democratic beacon. And it is a deep crisis: it is no secret that Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn is disliked and feared. But there are no great alternatives to his rule.

Readers of Marshall’s work will know him as a strident advocate against the royal family. With little direct information on the thinking of the king and palace elite, he mines the WikiLeaks files of US diplomatic cables, which show that succession is on everyone’s mind. One document, from early 2010, is especially devastating. Three top royal advisers, two of them former prime ministers and one a foreign minister, freely disparage the crown prince to the US ambassador. Yet what they also make clear is they have no idea what to do about him.

Marshall suggests that generals of the current junta, as well as other elements of the Thai elite, aim to sabotage the prince’s accession even at risk of a civil war. Here he is on weak ground, however, offering no evidence of a plot besides fear of Vajiralongkorn and a history of succession intrigue in ancient Siam. It is possible that the crown prince could be blocked but what then? For Marshall, popular revolution is nigh-inevitable: “The people of twenty-first-century Thailand will not allow democracy to be taken away without a fight.”

Never mind that the people are deeply divided themselves. Thailand’s history is also replete with pragmatic, last-minute deals done to pull back from the brink. Marshall at least owes it to readers to sketch out other possibilities – that the prince’s sister Sirindhorn could take the throne, or that it could skip a generation and fall to one of his daughters or even a once-estranged son. Indeed, the prince, 62, does not appear to exhibit a strong desire to don the crown.

But whether Marshall’s theory is right or not is secondary. The fact remains that Thailand’s elite have violently wrested control of the state from the elected government in order to manage succession, and yet have not convinced anyone that they have a viable plan. That is frightening for Thai people, red shirts and yellow shirts alike. And as Marshall makes clear, this ominous void has in turn made Thai people increasingly question the role of the monarchy itself – not exactly the outcome the elite wanted.


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