Commentary on the recent and next monarchy I

15 10 2016

Assuming that the monarchy continues in one form or another, there’s some interesting commentary sparked by the king’s death. (The end of the monarchy following the 9th reign has been a prophesy heard previously – clicking the link downloads a PDF considered illegal in Thailand.)

Of course, there’s lots of hagiography too, reporting much that has been said about the king previously. A quick look at any news source in Thailand shows only this kind of reporting. Claims that the king was above politics and a force for stability were criticized years ago, as can be seen in the PDF linked above.

Here is some of the more interesting material currently available:

France 24 has an AFP story that “follows the money,” with a story on “one of the world’s richest monarchies, with a multi-billion-dollar empire spanning property, construction and banks.” One estimate is that the Crown Property Bureau is worth almost $60 billion. PPT would add that each of the royals is individually wealthy and each of them sponges off the taxpayer as well, so this is a fabulously wealthy capitalist conglomerate. If there is a competition for the top spot, then there are plenty of spoils for the winner/s.

The king’s unauthorized biographer Paul Handley has an op-ed at The New York Times. His conclusion is:

This is a bleak backdrop for the end of King Bhumibol’s reign. He was the model of a great king — modest, earnest and selfless, with his attention focused on the neediest. But he has left Thailand, as well as his heir, in the same situation he inherited all those years ago: in the hands of corrupt and shortsighted generals who rule however they want. And those King Bhumibol cared about the most — the Thai people — must suffer the consequences.

We are great fans of The King Never Smiles, but we are not convinced that the modest, earnest, selfless stuff isn’t buying palace propaganda (see the story above). We do agree that Thailand is currently in the “hands of corrupt and shortsighted generals,” we’d just point out that that was not the situation when the late king came to the throne. It was the Democrat Party’s founders, the old princes and other diehard royalists who used the death of the new king’s brother to overthrow a civilian regime. This was the first successful royalist coup.

Over at New Mandala, academic Lee Jones has an article called “The myth of King Bhumibol,” writing of his “weakness” of the king and identifies him as “a divisive and negative force for Thailand’s politics and democracy…”. We agree on the latter points but are not sure about the “weakness.” We think it better to view the monarchy and military as partners in anti-democratic rule.

Also at New Mandala, Nicholas Farrelly has an assessment of the king’s legacy. His view is of the king as a product of palace propaganda and image-making. He concludes: “But in late moments of reflection he [the king] may have regretted that his country became so ill prepared for mature leadership transitions and that his own charisma had been so regularly mobilised against the political wishes of the Thai people.” We doubt he regretted this. He considered Thais as children requiring discipline and direction and he provided it, for a while.

And, in another New Mandala piece, anthropologist Christine Gray writes about talking about monarchy. She writes about the past failures to challenge reporting and scholarship that was too accepting of palace propaganda. She makes an interesting point when she says “it seems tacky to criticise the dead” and then says it is necessary. She’s anticipated a ever stronger line on social media that argues that “now is not the right time for criticism.” It seems it is never the right time to be critical of the monarchy.

Along the same lines, Peter Symonds at WSWS has some useful observations. On not being truthful, he observes:

The king’s death was greeted with a wave of nauseating accolades from heads of state and political leaders around the world. US President Barack Obama issued a statement declaring that Bhumibol was “a tireless champion” for economic development and improved living standards. The UN General Assembly and Security Council stood in silent tribute. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon praised Bhumibol’s “legacy of commitment to universal values and respect for human rights.”

The international media followed suit, focussing on the outpouring of grief among the king’s supporters. The phrase “revered by the Thai people” appears in article after article, which either gloss over or completely ignore the Thai monarchy’s staggering wealth and its support for the country’s long succession of military coups and abuse of democratic rights.

The tabloids are also at work. The Mirror has been at it and so has the Daily Mail. The New York Post has a story titled “Thailand’s new king is a kooky crop top-wearing playboy.” It reproduces some of the lurid stories about the crown prince – the Post might say clown prince. Srirasmi is mentioned. There’s other critical commentary, including by a former Australian ambassador to Thailand.

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.

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