The Wall Street Journal has a take on the end of the monarchy in Thailand. We are sure the journalist involved wouldn’t say it that way, but that’s what it is.
It begins rather shakily:
For decades, Thais have looked to King Bhumibol Adulyadej to referee political disputes. But with the king now 86 years old, some people here say it’s time to sort out their own problems.
Of course, this is incorrect. Some Thais have looked to the king.And this is a recent longing, mainly associated with 1973, canceled by the involvement in the 1976 massacre, and then in 1992, canceled by the 2006 coup. The Thais who seem to look to the king most are those who have gained much from a royal connection: the military, wealthy Sino-Thais and the culturally rudderless Bangkok middle class.
It is still a bit lost when it says:
Elevated to almost divine status with the help of the military during the Cold War, King Bhumibol has interceded during flashpoints over the years. Sometimes he has sided with street protesters demanding more democracy and accountability; at others, he has endorsed autocratic military rulers.
In fact, the king has always been on the side of autocrats. They are the ones who elevated him. His occasional comments on democracy have been conservative and reactionary, and mainly associated with notions of Thai-style democracy. When he has supported civilians against the military, it has been when a crisis threatened the roots of autocracy and his ruling class.
It is then stated that:
Unlike some other Asian royal houses that have faded into the background or, in Nepal’s case, been abolished, Thailand’s monarchy is still part and parcel of everyday life here, despite not having any formal power.
This is a common enough statement about the king’s constitutional power. In fact, though, it isn’t correct. Since 1932, and especially since 1958, constitutions have gradually returned real powers to the monarchy. Yes, the current constitution states: “The King as Head of State shall exercise such power through the National Assembly, the Council of Ministers and the Courts in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.” However, many sections give real power to the king:
Section 7. Whenever no provision under this Constitution is applicable to any case, it shall be decided in accordance with the constitutional convention in the democratic regime of government with the King as Head of State.
The king has been encouraged by anti-democrats to use this provision.
Section 90. An organic law bill and a bill may be enacted as law only by and with the advice and consent of the National Assembly and when the King’s signature has been given or deemed to be given thereto; it shall come into force upon its publication in the Government Gazette.
The king has withheld his signature. This effectively kills such bills. There are many other provisions which refer to the king’s “prerogative” and it remains unclear if this is on the advice of the premier.
There are several provisions which relate to the so-called independent agencies, where the king and Senate act in concert to make appointments. Given that the Senate is only half-elected, this is a most powerful weapon used by the king against perceived opponents. So it is that the judges, appointed senators and other “independent” agencies are able to depose governments.
It is true that “Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws penalize criticism of the royal family with prison terms of up to 15 years.”
The interesting bits follow this:
But as King Bhumibol enters the twilight of his long reign, the political divides here in Southeast Asia’s linchpin economy are widening as protesters, many of them invoking the name of the king, try to check the growing power of the country’s elected leaders. And some supporters of the populist government say it is time to stop using the king’s name for political leverage.
Of course it is, but wander about the hawker stands at the anti-democracy protests and you see a lot of paraphernalia that is of the “We love the king” variety common at People’s Alliance for Democracy events in the past. Listen to the speeches and you hear calls for lese majeste to be more vigorously used. As the article states:
The protesters aren’t coy about invoking the name of King Bhumibol. During frequent parades around Bangkok’s busy business district, many wear yellow head bands declaring “I Love the King.” Some of their placards accuse Mr. Thaksin, who was overthrown as prime minister in 2006 and now lives abroad, of plotting to usurp the king’s powers—a charge Mr. Thaksin has consistently denied, and which the king hasn’t publicly commented on.
Red shirts know they are attacked as anti-monarchy and stymied by calls to monarchical loyalty:
“We’re not really supposed to talk about these things in Thailand,” says Wutthipong Kotchathammakhun, a leader of a pro-government “Red Shirt” splinter group here, just north of Bangkok. “But we want people to understand how the establishment is using ‘the sky’ to grab power for itself,” he says, using a common term to refer to the royal family.
While it might be true that the “king himself has remained silent on the months-long standoff playing out on the streets of Bangkok,” his youngest daughter has been vociferous. We don’t know what the king himself is capable of saying as he is often incoherent as dementia takes its toll.
And here’s the real point of the article:
The clash represents an almost existential struggle to determine what kind of country Thailand should be in the 21st century. On one side are Thailand’s traditional power bases in the military and technocratic political parties, and in the rival camp are supporters of populist politicians backed by billionaire businessman Thaksin Shinawatra.
Actually the struggle is bigger than Thaksin. The army “has a strong and visible attachment to the monarchy,” but that will fade over time and with succession as the connection between the two has been highly personalized via the aged and infirm Prem Tinsulanonda as the royalist wheeler-dealer premier and then privy councilor. That era is at an end:
… the more the demonstrators play the royal card—by making lèse-majesté allegations or simply waving royalist placards—the more they risk undermining the institution in the eyes of millions of Thais who have repeatedly voted for the Shinawatras.
“Everything the royalists do is working against the long-term interests of the monarchy,” says David Streckfuss, a Thailand-based scholar and author. “The lèse-majesté laws, trying to secure the positions: any of it, really, is bad for the monarchy.”
It might be the end, but the real end is a struggle, a battle. And, as was seen post-1932, the monarchy is nothing if not tenacious and resilient and was able to rebuild. This time?