With the end of this reign upon it the Royal Thai Army – to give it the moniker it prefers – has a problem.
In an article at The Straits Times, academic Pitch Pongsawat is quoted as saying: “the King is still the living soul of the army. Protecting the King is protecting the nation.”
The modern Army, used to killing those civilians considered a threat to nation and monarchy (and military), will now have to “protect” an idea rather than an individual.
With the great stock of military and palace propaganda expended on promoting the current ailing and infirm monarch since about 1957 having been a backstop for the military’s political interventions and a keystone for the social, political and economic order, most of the barami has been personalized. What to do now to keep all that together with an unpopular successor who is unlikely to generate the same level of propaganda value for the Army and elite?
The successionist view is that the only obvious answer is to get rid of the prince and put a more popular princess on the throne. However, the military dictatorship seems pretty determined to continue with the crown prince and to focus more attention on the “institution.”
General Prayuth Chan-ocha has facilitated the prince’s nasty “divorce” from Srirasmi, jailing her relatives and associates and accepting her seeming house arrest for several months already. Prayuth has even replaced the prince in a rehearsal in the Bike for Mom propaganda exercise. The article asserts:
It is the first time the Crown Prince – who was in the news late last year for the purging of his then wife Srirasmi and her family – will be involved in such a mass public event that appears to be his personal project.
Perhaps the most significant symbol of this move to unpopular prince and to supporting the monarchy as institution is a park of giant bronze statues of seven of the country’s past kings in Hua Hin, reported at The Straits Times.
Hua Hin is interesting as a site as it was where the seventh king was engaged in his favorite activities, holidaying and golfing, when the absolute monarchy was kicked out.
That only seven are chosen may be symbolic of something else. Presumably the kings not chosen for this site are not considered worthy of such adulation.
The article explains that the “site of the pantheon of kings is built by the army on land allocated by King Bhumibol Adulyadej.” It is “an army initiative,” and is reported to cost $27 million, which is certainly an under-estimate of the land, statues and buildings involved.
Royalist and military ideologue Panitan Wattanayagorn is described as an “analyst” in this report. (At least, this time, PPT doesn’t have to correct the notion that he is an “academic.”) He comes up with the vacant but appropriately royalist statement that “In the past, there have always been activities to honour the monarchy, but this is a very particular, a very special gesture…”. He adds this adulation park “can be seen as an attempt to be more systematic in uniting people at a critical time…”.
Like his military sponsors, Panitan sees the current epoch as a dangerous one and seems to believe that the monarchy can “unite” people. He may be wrong, although we imagine the death of the king will achieve that for a period.
As was the case when the absolute monarchy was under threat and again when the present king came to the throne, the palace propaganda is about continuity over several centuries of disparate kingdoms from Sukhothai through Ayudhya to Bangkok:
The kings depicted are from different periods, in effect linking them to suggest a continuous, ancient history of Thai kings. The first statue to reach the site last week was of the 13th-century king Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai.
The military regime and the existing ruling class needs the monarchy for they have rejected more modern means of achieving legitimacy.
As a footnote, PPT wonders what the superstitious military leadership makes of the damage done to one of the statues as it was transported to the park. Surely it must be viewed as a dark omen?