Updated: King’s power

18 07 2017

For some time there have been rumors that King Vajiralongkorn was seeking to take full control of the Crown Property Bureau. A Royal Gazette announcement on the weekend and reports in the Thai and international media make that takeover official.

Interestingly, the takeover of the CPB by the king was discussed by Andrew MacGregor Marshall in his book A Kingdom in Crisis. He said:

The prospect of Thaksin [Shinawatra] and the crown prince using the vast wealth of the Crown Property Bureau to transform Thailand and elevate a new ruling class at the expense of the old terrifies the oligarchy that runs the country.

If the oligarchs were terrified, half of that prediction have now come about. The Thaksin part of the equation seems to have been nullified by the 2014 coup and the military dictatorship’s efforts to destroy Thaksin and other identified enemies of regime, crown and tycoons.

At least that’s what they must be hoping.

Khaosod reports that the puppet National Legislative Assembly has passed a new law on the control of the Crown Property Bureau. (We assume that the NLA again met in secret session to do this deal for the king. We assume this because the previous new laws made following demands from the king have been made secretly.)

This new legislation, passed on Sunday, gives the king “sole authority over royal assets.” This is claimed to be the first change made to the law since 1948.

Whereas previously the Ministry of Finance and its minister had nominal roles in managing the CPB and its board of directors, this is now gone. Now, “the power to appoint a board of directors to manage the crown property rests solely with King Vajiralongkorn, and not a government official as delineated in previous laws.”

As Khaosod notes, this is the “latest move by the military government to cement King Vajiralongkorn’s control over palace affairs.”

Yet it is far more than this. Allowing for the growth of property prices, the CPB probably controls assets of $40-60 billion. Arguably, it is the most powerful and wealthiest conglomerate in the country.

The king now controls this mammoth business empire. More importantly, the new law also “prohibits any effort to take away any part of the royal assets without the king’s approval.” This provision has potentially wide-ranging implications for the future of the monarchy and further reduces the state’s authority over the monarchy.

The king now controls all aspects of the monarchy’s wealth and power, and in legal terms, he is now the most powerful monarch since 1932 and, on paper, is more or less independent of the state’s control that was established in 1932 and the years after.

As an AFP report notes, this is the “latest move by an increasingly assertive monarch to consolidate his power.”

While the previous king relied on networks of influential alliances, the power of the military and a personal capacity to politically intervene when he deemed this necessary, the new king is acknowledging his unpopularity and has joined with the military junta to consolidate and expand the monarchy’s economic and political power.

Update: Reuters adds some further detail to this change. It notes that the changes to the law “places the management of crown property under the direct supervision of the king. It states that the bureau’s properties, in addition to the king’s private properties, will be managed ‘at His Majesty’s discretion’.” It allows the king to “assign the Crown Property Bureau, any individual or agency to manage the properties and assets.”

Clearly the old claim that the CPB was not exactly the monarch’s property is out the window. The king’s personal property is indistinguishable from that of the CPB.

Interestingly, “Crown property, but not the king’s private property, had previously been exempted from tax,” and the “amended law says both could now be subject to tax, though it did not elaborate,” suggesting that there’s plenty of wriggle room.

Reviews and reads

9 03 2016

Readers might be interested in two more reviews of Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis. We posted on earlier at least eight earlier reviews of the book, and these reviews can be found here.

The first is probably already widely known as it is by Andrew Walker at New Mandala. In a lengthy review, Walker states:

It certainly is a myth-busting tour-de-force showing how Thai kings, and the elites that surround them, have regularly generated political crises, which also reflect competition between narrow sectional interests.  However, whether or not the book will achieve its myth-busting objective is hard to tell. Most readers, I suspect, will already be converts to MacGregor Marshall’s position. By contrast, those who subscribe to the royal mythology will probably be confirmed in their view that unsympathetic Westerners like MacGregor Marshall are determined to slander the royal institution.Kingdom in crisis

Walker concludes:

… Marshall’s preoccupation with the succession points to a broader problem with this book.

Despite its provocations and iconoclasm this is very much a royalist account of Thai history. Like Thailand’s royalists, MacGregor Marshall places the king at the heart of the Thai polity. In A Kingdom in Crisis, contestation over royal power is the engine room of 21st century Thai politics, as it has been over the past millennium (p  213).

The mass of people sometimes do feature, but they are peripheral to MacGregor Marshall’s central purpose. When they do enter into the narrative, it is as an undifferentiated mass of “ordinary  people” who are struggling against the elite in pursuit of “greater freedom and a fairer society” (p 109).

This two-dimensional and a-historical model — a cut-throat elite ruling over a repressed population — is classic orientalism and contributes little to an understanding of the complex and cross-cutting social and economic forces that have brought Thailand to its contemporary political impasse.

The other review is by Jim Glassman in the journal Pacific Affairs. The review can be freely viewed. The review begins:

The publication of Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis has been a much-awaited event among Thai scholars. Marshall, a Scottish journalist who used to work for Reuters, has been releasing large pieces of this study for a number of years now, at his “#thaistory” blog. The book adds something to this material but will not be a huge surprise to those who have read his work at the blog site.

Glassman adds that the book is really rather thin:

Given the relative paucity of accessible and critical English-language writing about the Thai monarchy, and the risks that such writing entails, A Kingdom in Crisis should be considered a significant accomplishment, and Zed Books should be given credit for being willing to publish it….

For many scholars and people fairly familiar with Thai politics, some of Marshall’s analysis will nonetheless prove fairly thin gruel. It is not only that there has actually been a string of books in recent history that raise telling issues about the monarchy and challenges of succession—for example, the works by Benedict Anderson, Paul Handley, Soren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager, William Stevenson, David Streckfuss and Thongchai Winichakul, which the author cites, as well as works by Kevin Hewison, Rayne Kruger and Somsak Jeamteerasakul, which he doesn’t cite—but Marshall’s explanation of the current crisis is somewhat one-sided.

Acknowledging shortcomings in the book, Glassman concludes:

A Kingdom in Crisis is a useful read, particularly for those unfamiliar with the roles of royalist-military elites (and their international allies) in shaping Thailand’s ongoing struggles for democracy. It will certainly find its place on the bookshelves of Thai democracy activists—provided they do not live in Thailand.

In the same issue of Pacific Affairs there is an article which is of interest because it is based on a survey of serving military officers. The authors of “Professionals and Soldiers: Measuring Professionalism in the Thai Military” are Punchada Sirivunnabood of Mahidol University and Jacob Isaac Ricks of Singapore Management University. The abstract states:

Thailand’s military has recently reclaimed its role as the central pillar of Thai politics. This raises an enduring question in civil-military relations: why do people with guns choose to obey those without guns? One of the most prominent theories in both academic and policy circles is Samuel Huntington’s argument that professional militaries do not become involved in politics. We engage this premise in the Thai context. Utilizing data from a new and unique survey of 569 Thai military officers as well as results from focus groups and interviews with military officers, we evaluate the attitudes of Thai servicemen and develop a test of Huntington’s hypothesis. We demonstrate that increasing levels of professionalism are generally poor predictors as to whether or not a Thai military officer prefers an apolitical military. Indeed, our research suggests that higher levels of professionalism as described by Huntington may run counter to civilian control of the military. These findings provide a number of contributions. First, the survey allows us to operationalize and measure professionalism at the individual level. Second, using these measures we are able to empirically test Huntington’s hypothesis that more professional soldiers should prefer to remain apolitical. Finally, we provide an uncommon glimpse at the opinions of Thai military officers regarding military interventions, adding to the relatively sparse body of literature on factors internal to the Thai military which push officers toward politics.

Meanwhile, at the Journal of Contemporary Asia, a third paper from the forthcoming Special Issue, Military, Monarchy and Repression: Assessing Thailand’s Authoritarian Turn, has been published. “Inequality, Wealth and Thailand’s Politics” is by well-known political economist Professor Pasuk Phongpaichit of Chulalongkorn University.

The abstract for the paper states:

Acemoglu and associates argue that resistance to democratisation will be stronger where inequality is high. Piketty shows that shifts at the upper end of the distribution may be historically more significant than overall measures of inequality. In Thailand, the high level of income inequality has eased slightly since 2000, but there is a ‘1% problem’ as peak incomes are growing faster than the average. Newly available data show that inequality of wealth is very high. At the top of the wealth pyramid, family holdings of commercial capital are growing. A significant proportion of top entrepreneurs have emerged within the past generation. A second tier of the wealth elite has developed over the past generation from rising property values, financial investments and professional incomes. Although their individual wealth is much less than the corporate elite, their numbers are much greater. The existence of the prospering ‘1%’ and the emergence of the second-tier wealthy may corroborate Acemoglu’s proposition, but there are tensions within the wealth elite which may favour democracy.

Prince’s purge?

6 11 2015

As readers will know, the most recent palace-associated lese majeste purge has been murky and baffling for many, PPT included. Because there is so much censorship on the one hand and social media speculation on the other, it has been a guessing game.

Trying to make sense of this, a story at Asia Sentinel – Thailand’s Crown Prince Starts Another Purge – is likely to be big news for several claims it makes. Because of the powerful interests involved, the deaths of several caught up in the events and the lese majeste law, the article is written anonymously, simply tagged “Our Correspondent.” Asia Sentinel

Because Asia Sentinel is often blocked in Thailand, the story will circulate clandestinely and the military junta will try to prevent it getting out.

Some of the claims and points made deserve consideration. First, a bit like Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s widely read A Kingdom in Crisis, succession is cast in terms of ancient battles, with this opener:

As Thailand’s royal interregnum approaches, the country’s ruling class has been seized by what amounts almost to a reign of terror, with Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn apparently clearing out his enemies in a fashion that goes back to the installation of a long line of Rama kings.

This is scenario one. The article is undoubtedly correct in assessing that The Dictator, “Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha … appears to have accepted Vajiralongkorn as the next king and is seeking to manage the situation the best way he can.” Yet another scenario, not mentioned in the article, is that the military junta and perhaps even some Privy Council members are conducting the purge, cutting the prince off from his networks of support and loot, thus making him dependent on the junta, military and Privy Council (scenario two).

The article does lend some credence to second scenario when it observes that “Vajiralongkorn is so thoroughly detested in royal circles that efforts have been vainly made to sideline him for his associations with Chinese gangsters, his womanizing and his refusal to adhere to royal rules.” However as an unnamed source declares in the Asia Sentinel story, “There is no longer any doubt that the prince will become the king.” If that is so, then controlling his funds and advisers might make sense.

The widespread fear that surrounds the most recent purge is also noted. With the king not having been seen for some time, and rumors that he may have already passed, no one dares speculate for fear of jail or worse.

Describing the “four-times-married” 63 year-old prince as a “wastrel,” he “spends most of his time in Germany although he has made recent periodic trips back to Thailand to seek to rehabilitate his image, most principally through a series of bicycle rides in honor of his ailing parents.”

It is these bike rides that seem to be at the center of the current purge, with “a source in Bangkok” revealing that “the prince has become enraged over allegations that people in his entourage have apparently been profiting from the sale of ‘Bike for Mom’ and ‘Bike for Dad’ souvenir and promotional items.”

While other reports have mentioned CP tycoon Dhanin Chearavanont, this article claims that the purge follows complaints about “Suriyan Sucharitpolwong, better known as Mor Yong, the prince’s soothsayer, allegedly because he went to spirits [and Chang beer] tycoon Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, Thailand’s second-richest man, to ask for funds for the Bike for Dad event.” Such “asks” have been common and accepted in the past, so it isn’t clear what has gone on in this case, but “Charoen is said to have complained to Princess Sirindhorn, who told her brother in Germany.  That has blown up into a major incident with the arrest of the fortune teller and others.  Dozens of army and police officials are believed to be under fire.”

There’s a couple of things here. First, the link between the prince and his sister has sometimes been seen as distant and competitive, and this claim would not support that. Second, the scenario one claim made in the article seems difficult to fit with the terror and vengeance of the arrests and investigations. Sure, the “Prince is said to be trying to whitewash his image ahead of  the succession,” but skimming is the norm for those close to the palace. Why get flustered about it now? The story says: “He [the prince] is also said to be outraged that most of the people who have helped run his networks over recent decades have been skimming money from them too.” A source is quoted: “I have no idea why the prince would be so angry about this, because it’s standard for everybody to take their cut. But anyway, the prince is sending a message to everybody — don’t fuck with me ahead of the succession.”

Unless it is scenario two.

The story also directly refers to another social media event that has terrified local media:

In the latest purge, two top police officials have died mysteriously and a third has disappeared. Major General Phisitsak Seniwong Na Ayutthaya, the prince’s main bodyguard, died in mid-October.  Local media have been so terrified by the situation that they have hesitated to name Phisitsak in print. His family was told he had committed suicide by hanging himself with his shirt.

As is well-known, Police Major Prakrom Warunprapha, caught up in this latest purge also died while in military custody, with the military junta claiming he committed suicide by hanging himself. In the purge late last year, another police officer died when he fell, committed suicide or was pushed from a hospital window. Another senior police officer associated with the organizing of the biking events has “disappeared” and an army officer has gone into hiding across the border.

These deaths have been the subject of considerable conjecture, with some saying that the two most recent “suicides” are suspicious, not least because:

Sources in Bangkok say both were beaten and tortured. Instead of releasing the bodies to their families, as is the case for most Buddhist deaths to give time for making merit and preparing the bodies for the afterlife, the two were rushed to crematoriums and immediately burned.  The gossip in Bangkok is that officials wanted to hide the evidence of torture.

In a final nod to the rumors and speculation, the article states:

“What is interesting [and worrying] is that it’s not just the major players who are being caught up in the purge, even peripheral figures, such as former police spokesman Prawuth [Thawornsiri], are being targeted,”  a source said. “The prince is being egged on by his latest wife, who is encouraging this behavior. Presumably, this was a way of saving face and pretending he was not involved in the corruption. In fact, he was fully involved in it, just as he was with Srirasmi’s family’s shenanigans.”

Scenario one or two? Whatever is going on, it is murky, dirty, dangerous and, ultimately, threatening to the regime.

Ünaldi review available for free download

13 06 2015

A reader has told us that Serhat Ünaldi’s review of Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis is now available for free download at the Journal of Contemporary Asia. We looked, and it is.

A Kingdom in Crisis reviewed VIII

26 05 2015

It is some time since we posted on the initial reviews of Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s book A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century. Earlier reviews can be found here.

At the Journal of Contemporary Asia, there is a new and longer review, by academic Serhat Ünaldi. Unfortunately, the review is currently behind a pay wall, so we try to give a feeling for it here.Kingdom in crisis

The review draws comparisons between the excitement surrounding the publication of the acclaimed book by Paul Handley, The King Never Smiles in 2006 and the reaction to the publication of A Kingdom in Crisis. Ünaldi argues that Marshall’s book is an “important contribution.” He states that “it informs a wide audience about the damaging political role of the monarchy…”. The reviewer is less happy, however, with what he says is the author’s failure to adequately acknowledge “an already existing corpus of literature that deals critically with Thailand’s monarchy.”

Handley was also criticized for failing to acknowledge a wider literature, yet that criticism was less significant in 2006 than it is now, 10 years after and with far more critical work being readily available.

Ünaldi is also critical of the “focus on the succession as the key factor in the ongoing political crisis…”. The reviewer argues that this focus “is unnecessarily narrow and should have been complemented by an analysis of structural forces as drivers of change.”

A Kingdom in Crisis reviewed VII

19 12 2014

As we often do, below we re-post Ji Ungpakorn’s latest post:

Book Review: “A Kingdom in Crisis” by Andrew MacGregor Marshall

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s book “A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century” is misnamed because it has nothing to do with Thailand’s struggle for democracy. The reason for this is that Marshall is of the “elite-gazing school” and mass movements from below do not feature in his book.

The book is a tabloid account of gossip about the dysfunctional and parasitic Thai royal family, with the aim of trying to prove that the political crisis is all about the “succession question” after King Pumipon dies.  It will be a book which offers much entertainment to those who enjoy reading “Hello!” magazine.

Even in terms of analysing the Thai monarchy, Marshall fails to grasp the fluidity of support for the king throughout his reign. Popular support for any national leaders, anywhere in the world, rises and falls with circumstances. Support for the Thai king is no exception to this phenomenon, unless one believes that the majority of Thais are too brainwashed and stupid to think for themselves. Marshall is often in danger of sounding patronising towards ordinary people due to his tone throughout the book.

Marshall’s concentration on the “secrets” and cosmology of the royal family means that he also fails to grasp the changes to the monarchy throughout history and the Bourgeois Revolution against feudalism staged by King Chulalongkorn. He merely quotes Duncan McCargo who mistakenly believes that Chulalongkorn’s “reforms” were designed to “prevent change”.

By claiming that the anti-monarchy sentiment observed on the streets of Bangkok in September 2010 was a novel and momentous event, Marshall sweeps away the fighting history of the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) in the 1960s and 1970s and ignores the fact that in that era millions of Thais opposed the monarchy. The only academic references to the CPT that he quotes come from out of date right-wing academics.

Marshall ignores progressive Thai writers, failing to engage in any argument with them. He does not have the courage to admit that the king’s power is a matter for debate. He relies almost entirely on mainstream writers, writing in English. So for him the 1932 revolution is merely a coup by a small group of bureaucrats and soldiers. This has been the conservative line for decades. Marshall has clearly not read Nakarin Mektrairat’s research into this period of history.

Readers hoping for a better understanding of Thai politics will gain nothing from this book. Marshall totally ignores what I regard as the real cause of the crisis; Taksin’s unbeatable electoral alliance with the majority of the electorate through his concrete pro-poor policies, introduced immediately after the 1996 economic crisis. Universal health care is obviously not one of Marshall’s interests.

Marshall’s tabloid account of royal gossip is one thing. But the worst part of the book is when he absolves Abhisit and Prayut of any wrong-doing in killing 90 redshirt protesters. He allows himself to get carried away with the myth about “Taksin’s armed Men in Black”, but fails to offer a single shred of evidence, including photographs or reliable eye-witness accounts. Yet we know that no soldiers were killed or wounded by these Ghosts in Black throughout May 2010. This is an important issue today since the junta leader Prayut, who was in charge of the soldiers at that time, denies that soldiers killed anyone. Marshall is myopic in looking at the big picture of a military coup eventually installing an unelected Abhisit government, which then proceeded to use heavily armed soldiers and “free fire zones” against un-armed pro-democracy protesters.

Marshall seems to show little interest in the struggle for democracy and the necessary strategies and tactics we need to use. He seems to be only interested in selling royal gossip and Z Books seems to go along with this commercial enterprise. Marshall’s easy success in getting Z Books to publish his work speaks volumes about his publishing connections and the deteriorating standards of this so-called “radical” publishing house.

Andrew Marshall gets his lese majeste charge

10 12 2014

As we are sure many readers will already know, ultra-royalist Wanthongchai Chamnankiton has filed a lese majeste complaint against Andrew McGregor Marshall “for writing books and articles allegedly defaming the King.”

Wanthongchai has accused Marshall of “writing a book and running nine websites whose content violated Article 112 (the lèse majesté law), Article 116 (on instigating an uprising) of the Criminal Code, and Article 14 of the Computer Crime Act (for publishing illegal content on a computer system)” and more. Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis had already been banned not long after it came out.Marshall

PPT would be interested to know which nine websites. We only know Marshall’s Zen Journalist site, which is not very active, without a post this year. It has been blocked for a long time in Thailand. Have we missed eight others?

Wanthongchai wants the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) to immediately block any site which publishes Marshall’s works.

Banning a book

13 11 2014

Yet another book about the monarchy has been banned in Thailand.

Prachatai reports that “police on Wednesday banned A Kingdom in Crisis, written by embattled former Reuters journalists Andrew McGregor Marshall due to lese majeste.” We are not sure how Marshall is “embattled,” but this book was always going to be banned.Kingdom in crisis

It is banned because it comments on the role of the monarchy in the political crisis, arguing that the crisis must be understood in terms of succession.

The ban “was published on the Royal Gazette on Wednesday.” It si added that “police claimed that based on the book reviews published on the South China Morning Post, published on 4 October and the Independent, published on 8 October, the book contains content defaming the Thai monarchy.” Reading the book itself probably is too difficult.

Police are now empowered to ban the book and it means that “those who distribute or carry the book can received up to three years jail term and a fine of 60,000 baht (1,827 USD).”

A Kingdom in Crisis reviewed V

29 10 2014

Lee Jones has published what seems to be the first academic review of Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis. Some clips from its top and tail. Read all of it:

Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis has been eagerly and long awaited by many Thailand watchers. Having resigned from a senior Reuters post in 2011 to publish a series of articles on Thailand’s political crisis based on leaked US diplomatic documents, “AMM” has become a vociferous critic of Thai elites and especially the monarchy, developing a wide following on social media. A Kingdom in Crisis was anticipated as the definitive statement of AMM’s most controversial thesis: that “an unacknowledged conflict over royal succession is at the heart of Thailand’s twenty-first political crisis” (page 3). However, despite its many merits, the book does not quite clinch this argument.

A Kingdom in Crisis is a bold, uncompromising and highly critical survey of Thailand’s ongoing political crisis. The focus, however, is squarely on the monarchy, rather than on its place within Thailand’s broader polity and political economy. The first nine chapters all relate to the period before 2000, delving into ancient history to underscore the brutality of the absolutist monarchy and the normality of power struggles over the succession. Only three chapters then deal with the current conjuncture and make AMM’s central argument. The background is, of course, interesting and useful, and although it may contain little new for Thailand specialists….Kingdom in crisis

… Fundamentally at stake here is the basic explanation of the last ten years of Thai history. Was an extant concern with the royal succession merely “catalys[ed]” by Thaksin’s rise (page 155)? Would it have caused political conflict whenever Bhumibol died? Or is the concern of the Yellow Shirt faction primarily with Thaksin’s mobilisation of the masses into Thai politics and his growing monopolisation of political and economic power? From the latter perspective, the king’s looming death is problematic not because traditional elites fear radical personal retribution from Vajiralongkorn as a powerful individual, but because, as Thaksin increasingly colonised the state apparatus, they came to fear losing direct control of yet another institution – an extremely important one – that they had long manipulated for their benefit. Crucially, this concern would have been minimal in the absence of the political movement headed by Thaksin. He was, as AMM notes, seeking to “flush out the ghosts” (page 219), to thrust aside rival networks and colonise the state apparatus with his own cronies. Elites have always done this. What made Thaksin uniquely dangerous was his colossal popular support and unprecedented parliamentary majorities. Power no longer alternated among rival factions, with venal elites horse-trading in parliamentary coalitions to carve up the spoils of office between them. Thaksin’s faction appeared to have found a winning formula for permanent control of state power. Unable to defeat him at the polls, anti-Thaksin elites were forced to rely upon institutions that they manipulated or controlled: the courts, the election commission, the army and, of course, the monarchy – both to whip up the Yellow Shirt protests and to legitimise judicial and military coups. In other words, it is Thailand’s violent and bitter social conflict that has lent such importance to the succession, not the other way around.

This perspective explains why, even in private discussions, anti-Thaksin elites are primarily concerned not with Vajiralongkorn, but with Thaksin. It also explains why their primary efforts have not been directed at altering the succession – despite having an opportunity to do so under the 2006-2007 military regime when, as AMM notes, Prem indirectly controlled the state, yet mysteriously made no “arrangements with Bhumibol to keep Vajiralongkorn off the throne” (page 167). Instead, they have overwhelmingly concentrated on rigging the Thai constitution and state apparatus to prevent Thaksin-aligned parties from regaining their popular majorities. That is, after all, the clear goal of the current military regime. If the elite clustered around the palace are really so fearful of Vajiralongkorn, why, since they have twice been able to use the king to endorse their armed seizure of power, do they not also use him to install their allegedly preferred heir, Princess Sirindhorn, at least as regent? According to AMM, precedents and legal procedures enable a female succession, and Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit are now physically and mentally incapacitated (page 199) – so they could not resist. The only reasons can be that these elites are not sufficiently concerned or that they fear a split within the security forces, since several army units are technically commanded by Vajiralongkorn. Even if the latter were true – and I have seen no compelling evidence for it – it would again be a case of potential social conflict – a possible civil war –shaping the succession crisis, not vice versa.

So is the monarchy an important element in Thailand’s political crisis? Undoubtedly, and we are indebted to Andrew MacGregor Marshall for revealing the sordid soap opera of the succession. But is the succession really “the heart” of Thailand’s crisis? I, for one, remain to be convinced.

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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