Updated: Returning a missing monarchy article

30 08 2020

PPT is not sure why, last week, the Nikkei Asian Review removed an article on the monarchy.

It is a mildly critical article, but says nothing much that is new. In the interests of transparency, we have decided to reproduce it here, only removing the author’s name and details and the pictures:

Opinion

Has Thailand’s monarchy got what it takes to endure?
What was present in the father is lacking in the son, critics say

August 24, 2020 17:00 JST

When more than 20,000 people gathered in central Bangkok to demand political reforms and the drafting of a new constitution on August 16, it was Thailand’s largest pro-democracy protest since the 2014 military coup. It also featured something almost unprecedented in recent memory: open criticism of the monarchy and its central role in Thai politics.

During the wave of recent public demonstrations, participants have called for a military subordinate to an elected civilian government and a monarchy shackled by a new constitution. They also want an end to the harassment of political dissidents, who have recently been dragged into court, abducted, and murdered.

The protests are a direct response to Thailand’s political climate. Already strained by the repressive instincts of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who scraped through last year’s deeply flawed national election, the economic depression set off by the COVID-19 pandemic has made things worse.

At a deeper level, the protests are also a manifestation of a nearly century-long political struggle dating back to the overthrow of Thailand’s absolute monarchy in 1932. This struggle has pit Thais advocating a greater degree of popular sovereignty against a traditional elite claiming a moral right to rule. And at its heart sits the vexed question of the political role of Thailand’s monarchy.

This is not a question that Thais can safely debate in public. Under Thailand’s harsh lese-majeste law, criticisms of the monarchy are punishable by prison terms of up to 15 years. This gives what would otherwise be routine calls for reform a revolutionary edge.

Thailand’s unspoken question has been whispered ever more audibly since the death of the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 2016, and the accession to the throne of his son Vajiralongkorn. To a great extent, the cult of Thailand’s monarchy, fashioned since the 1950s by the country’s military-royalist elite, was built on the person of its longest-reigning king. After taking the throne in 1946, Bhumibol reigned for more than 70 years, during which time he commanded great popular respect and projected a moral authority, strengthening official propaganda that placed the king “above” the realm of politics.

What was present in the father is altogether lacking in the son. As Crown Prince, Vajiralongkorn developed a reputation as a gambler and womanizer; one recent book described him as “volatile and belligerent.” In 1996, he divorced his second wife and disowned the four sons he had by her; in 2014, he stripped his third wife of her royal title, after which nine of her relatives were imprisoned on lese-majeste charges.

Since taking the throne, Vajiralongkorn’s reign has been attended by an air of menace. The exiled scholar Pavin Chachavalpongpun, who describes the 68-year-old as the “mirror image” of his father, argues that the king has ruled through fear, which he uses to keep subordinates “compliant and docile.” On his watch, court officials have been dismissed on petty pretexts and charged with criminal offenses. These reports have been shadowed by darker allegations of mysterious deaths and torture in a private prison built on palace grounds.

At the same time Vajiralongkorn has moved to concentrate power in his own hand. He has taken direct control of the royal family’s vast assets and strengthened his grip on key military commands. He has presided over the removal of monuments and statues commemorating the 1932 revolution that overthrew Thailand’s absolute monarchy — physical reminders of the time when royal prestige was at its lowest.

As king he is widely disliked, even if few Thais dare to say so openly. Photographs of Bhumibol are ubiquitous in Thai homes and businesses, but Vajiralongkorn’s visage is less commonly seen. While the public’s discontent at monarchical privilege predates Vajiralongkorn’s succession, the new king’s unpopularity is undoubtedly an important factor in activists’ willingness to criticize a once-unassailable institution.

Indeed, by exposing the extent to which Thai royalist ideology relied upon his father’s personal stature, Vajiralongkorn’s accession has exposed the limits of its reach. The reputation of the Thai monarchy, and its associated agglomeration of wealth and privilege, teeters on the shoulders of a vain and self-destructive monarch.

The nature of Vajiralongkorn’s four-year reign raises serious questions about how well equipped he is to handle the challenge posed by the current surge of public dissent. Spending most of his time at his sprawling estate in southern Germany, Vajiralongkorn has little contact with the people over whom he nominally reigns. He similarly lacks the moral authority to still the waves of discontent or intercede and forge a new national consensus. In fact, an important spur to open criticism of the monarchy was the revelation that Vajiralongkorn was waiting out the COVID-19 pandemic at a luxurious German hotel while his people suffered at home.

Absent the force of personality there is force. The Thai authorities have already begun arresting those protest leaders who have called for the reform of the monarchy. Prayuth’s government has made it clear that it has no intention of allowing continued violations of the royal taboo.

How the situation proceeds from here is unclear, but Vajiralongkorn’s reign has opened up a yawning divide between royalist propaganda, which depicts the king as a devoted figure striving for the people’s betterment, and the unsavory reality. Past precedent suggests that Thailand’s king will meet calls for real political reform not with¬†compromise, but with coercion.

Update: This story has now been made available at The Diplomat. This makes it pretty clear that the Nikkei Asian Review is spineless, seemingly having buckled under to royalists and regime.


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