Assessing the king after the funeral

11 11 2017

In an article we should have commented on earlier, authors at Foreign Policy look at the monarchy’s future.

Like many of the accounts following the dead king’s funeral, there’s a ridiculous glorification of the deceased king in order to show the new king in a poor light. This devise is unnecessary and devoid of any serious analysis of the past reign.

Yet this report does gently point at some of the “missing” details in the official discourse of the “good” and “great” king:

The king’s good deeds abounded: talking to the poor, directing countryside renewals, instructing students. Not pictured were his political interventions, occasionally on behalf of the military, sometimes keeping a fragile democracy afloat. By the time of the 2014 seizure of power by the current ruling junta, he had been far too frail to act.

While this position on the king’s interventions is common, it is not necessarily true. The two events usually said to reflect “keeping a fragile democracy afloat” are October 1973 and May 1992. Neither fits the bill.

In 1973, there was no democracy to keep afloat and with the military splitting and with murderous attacks on students, the king moved to restore “stability.” His support for the new democracy drained away quickly when he couldn’t get his way. The October 1976 massacre followed, perpetrated by enraged royalists and the military, a part of a coup.

In 1992, there was no democracy to protect or sustain. That’s why there was an uprising. People rose against the military junta’s efforts to maintain their power following the 1991 coup and appointing the junta leader premier. Is The Dictator listening? The king’s intervention was late, after it was clear the military could not restore “stability” and had murdered scores of protesters.

It is interesting to read this:

Along the urn’s procession route, a row of truncheon-wielding police blocked the way to the 1932 Democracy Monument. Their presence was noticeably heavier than at any point along the route, perhaps cautious of the possibility for protest gestures at a site that had been a locus for political uprisings since the 1970s.

That area was central to both the events of 1973 and 1992 and the military knows that history of anti-military dictatorship and seeks to suppress those memories.

Interesting too is the response of devout royalists to questions:

But when we asked about what, exactly, the king had done for them, there was a moment of puzzlement, and then the same answers every time: “Well, there were the visits to the countryside and the ‘sufficiency economy.’”

The authors are right to note that:

The king’s countryside trips were part of a 1960s and 1970s anti-communist campaign, dating from well before these kids were born, the concept of the “sufficiency economy” another 1970s buzzword dragged back up in 1997 to remind Thais to be happy with their lot, even amid the financial crisis.

The sufficiency stuff was recycled from E.F. Schumacher and stripped of any progressive content.

Yet, as the authors note, these events and notions have been made royal lore and have been so nauseatingly repeated that they become “truisms.”

The report is also commended for noting that there were many Thais who tried to ignore the funeral, its militarization and all of its repetitions of propaganda.

Turning to Vajiralongkorn, the story notes that on the evening of the cremation:

… the mood soured. Following the symbolic cremation at 6 p.m., the real event was supposed to take place at 10 p.m. — broadcast live as everything else had been. Just beforehand, though, the feed was suddenly cut, and journalists were ushered out of the press center. The crowd was disappointed and unhappy; rumors spread that the decision had been made by the current king, the 65-year-old Maha Vajiralongkorn, who had attended the cremation accompanied by both his ex-wife and his mistress. The cremation remained unbroadcast, with the palace putting out the story that it had been decided it was a “private event.”

Privately, however, some saw it as an act of spite by the new king against his father….

The story then runs through the usual bad and odd deed associated with Vajiralongkorn, well known to all readers of PPT, and his protection under the lese majeste law.

In concluding, the article muses on the future:

The role of the new king is still uncertain. His coronation has been delayed until an unspecified future date, although he has already taken on monarchical duties.

The king is indeed still defining his role, scheming, sacking, disgracing and having the junta do his bidding. In fact, though, delaying coronation is not at all unusual, in Thailand or elsewhere. The article continues:

Although he backed the authoritarian new constitution imposed by the generals, his relationship with the military reportedly is not that close. With most of his time in recent decades spent out of the country, he hasn’t built up the close rapport with particular units that older royals did, despite his own air force training. Practical power will remain in the junta — and the symbolic power of the monarchy may have drained away with the old king.

While we agree with the view that “practical power” will remain with the military, we are not convinced by the idea that the king and military are not close, whatever that might mean. The claim that he has not built a “rapport” might be true, but he has built a relationship and he has allies. After all, as prince, he was associated with, first, the Army, and then with the Air Force. That relationship has been consistent over five decades.

The story then wonders about image:

Looking at the image of Vajiralongkorn, with his mouth seemingly always open in a mildly idiotic gawp, it seems hard to imagine a new [public] faith taking hold.

We are not so sure that the image will matter all that much. Coming to the throne when there’s a military dictatorship means the new king has the kind of “stability” his father always promoted. He seems content not to fill his father’s shoes and seems to favor repression and fear as much as he craves power and wealth.


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