Good rich king, bad rich king

25 10 2017

Are we the only ones who have detected a change in the way that critics of the monarchy are writing about it?

While we recently posted on the ninth reign as a bloody era where thousands of citizens were disappeared, jailed, tortured and killed by the state, usually operating in the name of the monarchy and, for the most part, supported by the king, other commentaries seem to be eulogizing that reign.

An example, and it is one of several, is a New York Time op-ed by Matthew Phillips, a historian in Wales.

Phillips repeats several of the lines from Bhumibol hagiographies and palace propaganda:

Thailand’s previous king … is credited with transforming Thailand into a modern nation-state and unifying the country during times of political turmoil.

The author might acknowledge that this is pure propaganda that ignores real history.

Then in 1946, Bhumibol ascended to the throne, and after a discreet first decade….

The author doesn’t seem to think it important to mention the death of King Ananda Mahidol or the royalist efforts to pin that on innocents and to send political opponents into exile. We would have thought that period was pivotal for the rise of a royalist military.

A military coup in 1958, pro-American and high on Thai pride, placed the (U.S.-born) king at its center, and the Thai public reacted enthusiastically.

We can’t help wondering about how public enthusiasm is measured? By the bodies that piled up under General Sarit Thanarat’s despotism?

King Bhumibol is often credited with foiling a Communist movement during the Cold War, liberalizing the Thai economy and keeping the country together despite its often-fractious politics.

Again, he is “credited” with these superhuman feats, but it is usually palace propagandists making these points.

The rest of Phillip’s article is quite good, so we are not sure why he repeats these lines of hagiography. In other stories, it seems the authors are pining for the past 70 years, comparing that era with what they think is going to be an awful reign under the erratic and narcissistic Vajiralongkorn.

The good bits seem to us to build on several insights from Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles. The previous king and his advisers came up with the propaganda device that made its wealth a sign of merit and allowed others to share in it.

On the funeral, he notes that “… there is little discussion over the expense of King Bhumibol’s cremation.” He adds that, “for the monarchy, has been to make royal wealth seem sacred, and any contribution to it appear virtuous.”

He notes the growth of royal wealth under the dead king.

The royal family, thanks in part to a raft of projects with business, academia, the arts and charities, has implanted itself at the center of Thailand’s cultural and social life — apparently far from the messy, brutal realities of capitalism and political gamesmanship. Giving money or labor to a royally endorsed project has come to be seen as a good deed, and so an opportunity to improve one’s chances of an auspicious rebirth in the Buddhist reincarnation cycle.

… Bhumibol’s material legacy also is great. The Crown Property Bureau, the agency that manages the royal finances, has vastly expanded its business portfolio. Neither the bureau’s assets nor its operations are entirely known, but the Thai monarchy is now thought to be the world’s richest, with an estimated fortune of at least $30 billion. Under … Bhumibol, the royal family of Thailand has become fabulously rich….

No debate there, although the figure is probably closer to $50 billion now. And the new king has control of it. The “fun” is about to begin.





More power to the king

19 01 2017

Reuters recently had a story about unconstitutional constitutional amendment made “constitutional.”

Oddly, the report makes the claim that the amendments demanded by King Vajiralongkorn were “requested.” Even more oddly, the authors of the report mistakenly believe that the draft constitution is “military-backed.” In truth, it is the military’s constitution. While it is true that this charter “is a vital part of the ruling junta’s plans to hold a general election” but it seems they are wrong in assuming that that sham election will be held “at the end of this year.” No one thinks that likely (not even the rest of the report).

The most bizarre notion in the report is that the “election” will “return Thailand to democratic rule following a 2014 coup.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The junta is determined to ensure that electoral democracy does not return and that it and future military leader retain control of the state.

The report states that this royal “intervention is rare for a sitting Thai monarch, who are granted limited formal powers but wield significant political influence.” Perhaps the Reuters writers need to read The King Never Smiles, even if it is banned in royalist Thailand.

The Economist is much better on what is actually going on.

It begins by noting that the “ruling junta … has been cooking up a constitution which it hopes will keep military men in control even after elections take place.” It notes that the charter went to a “referendum made farcical by a law which forbade campaigners from criticising the text.”

The report explains the changes demanded by the king:

The generals say the palace has asked them to amend a rule which requires the monarch to nominate a regent when he leaves the kingdom (probably because King Vajiralongkorn plans to spend much of the year reigning from his residences in Germany). They also say they will revise an article which makes the constitutional court the final arbiter at times of political crisis—a role which had traditionally fallen to the king—as well as an article which introduced a requirement for some royal proclamations to be countersigned by a minister.

The notion of “tradition” is false – in fact, it is the military that has usually been the “final arbiter.” These amendments are likely to cede far greater power to the new king.

On his intervention, the report states:

Under King Vajiralongkorn’s father the palace preferred to maintain the fiction that Thailand’s monarchy holds a symbolic role which is “above politics”, even while it meddled energetically behind the scenes. The bluntness of King Vajiralongkorn’s intervention—and the determination it reveals to resist relatively small checks on royal power—is both a snub to the junta and a worry for democrats, some of whom had dared hope that the new king might be happy to take a back seat in public life.

The report raises constitutional questions about the intervention. It says the interim constitution “allowed for the king to reject the draft constitution in its entirety but appeared not to provide for the possibility that he might ask to strike out lines he did not like.”

Interesting times, again, and a developing story that will further define some of the relationship between the junta and the king. As he showed as a prince, the king is likely to continue his erratic behavior as king. It is likely that getting his way now will encourage increased interventionism.





Updated: New king and palace propaganda

30 12 2016

A new king means that the palace’s propaganda needs to be realigned. It has a network of tame authors and journalists who are prepared to continue their work of mythologizing the monarchy.

These lackeys are being mobilized to produce saccharin stories that seek to “correct” the negative stories that appeared around the time of accession. This palace propaganda goes hand-in-hand with the efforts of the military junta to suppress the negative accounts – and there are a lot of them – about the king and his foibles and faults. That includes the use of the draconian lese majeste law.

One of the trusted palace-connected journalists is Dominic Faulder, perhaps best known for his work as “senior editor” of the palace’s “semi-official” King Bhumibol Adulyadej. A Life’s Work. That was a lengthy, expensive and faulty response to Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles. In the palace handbook, Faulder is listed as having been a correspondent for the defunct Asiaweek magazine, a former president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand and an editor of another piece of royalist puff, The King of Thailand in World Focus.

Now listed as an associate editor of the Nikkei Asian Review. where he has authored a series of monarchist articles that reproduce much of the palace propaganda about the deceased king.

pattyThe most recent contribution to appear at Nikkei Asian Review is a puff piece that is the first that begins the reorientation of international “journalism” to the new king. In a series called “Agents of Change 2017,” Faulder fawns over Princess Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol.

Who? Yes, plucked from relative obscurity (except for the royal news broadcast each day in Thailand), she “qualifies” because she is the new king’s first daughter.

Faulder describes her as holding “a unique position in Thailand, both by birth and from her life experience,” and trawls for something to say, quoting an unnamed diplomat from 2009 as saying  she had “an increasingly high profile and a reputation for being perhaps the sharpest of the royal family members.” That diplomat, if he or she really existed, was disingenuous.

Part of the reason for highlighting “Patty” is to do a bit of royal laundry. She “is the daughter of Princess Soamsawali, the first of three wives [we count 4] of then Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. Her mother, a niece of Queen Sirikit, remains one of the most active and visible members of the royal family, despite being divorced in 1991.”

That refers to the queen’s desire to promote her “line” by having her son marry a first cousin. The deal on the messy divorce was that, unlike more recent women booted out by the prince, with noble blood and the queen a relative, she kept royal position and profile.

At 38, her life is said to involve “a lively social life among high society friends with a more serious side that sees her mixing with soldiers, officials, academics and diplomats.” Her hi-so lifestyle is “normalized” by the claim that she “likes to drive herself around in a red Mini Cooper S or a vivid green Volkswagen Beetle.” For those not in the know, driving oneself is considered “radical” for royals.

While she’s still single, Faulder lets on that there’s the “possibility of royal weddings after her grandfather’s elaborate cremation…”. Why is this relevant? Faulder doesn’t make the point, but as she’s the only offspring of the current crop of royals issued from the late king’s children who has royal blood on both sides of the family, Patty “is expected to play a leading role in support of her father, and in buffing the image of the House of Chakri, the Siamese dynasty founded in 1782.”

Like her royal aunts, she’s claimed to be well educated, having a law doctorate from Cornell University. (Has anyone seen her thesis?) That led to some promotion by the palace propaganda machine, with Faulder pointing out that “briefly joined the Thai permanent mission to the United Nations in New York as a first secretary,” before returning to Thailand to “work” as “a prosecutor in the office of the attorney general.” That seemed brief as well:

After returning to the Thai foreign ministry, she chaired the U.N. Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in 2011. She remained for two more years in Vienna as ambassador to Austria, a post she took up at the unusually young age of 34. She was concurrently Thailand’s permanent representative to the U.N. at Vienna, one of the organization’s four global headquarters.

Of course it is “unusually young.” Such things only happen to Thailand’s royals, who are all polymaths and where positions are created for them. No one dares complain that they are dull or unqualified.

Faulder loyally repeats much of the fawning that has already gone on about this princess. She “founded the Princess Pa Foundation with her mother in 1995 to help victims of flooding and natural disasters.” That is, when she was 17. She then “founded and personally funded with 300,000 baht ($8,600) the Kamlangjai (Inspire) Project for women imprisoned with their children…”. Recall that she’s now an heir to a fortune of about $50 billion and she gave this paltry amount. But that investment allows lackey journalists to claim this “gift” is meaningful.

odd-nationalismNothing much has changed in Thailand for the “work” of the foundations and women prisoners are abused and prison conditions in Thailand remain horrendous.

Faulder explains that one of her roles “is putting an engaged and contemporary face on Thailand’s time-honored institution.” This seems to include sharing the media space with her father as she did in the Bike for Mom event earlier in 2015. True to palace propaganda, Faulder adds that the event “showed a resilient, more youthful side to the royal institution, and revealed the future king in evidently robust health…”.

Like her father, she’s portrayed as fit and well exercised. We are told that in “September, she led a mixed party up Fansipan, in northern Vietnam — the highest mountain in the Indochina region.” She took the cable car and then, quite oddly, planted a Thai flag at the concreted summit.

Now that the old king has gone, the queen is sick and senile and the new king is her dad, get used to the idea that she will be promoted and that the propaganda machine will whitewash the new king’s past.

Update: Readers may be interested in Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s take on this story about Patty.





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.





What happens after the king’s death?

27 02 2016

As far as we know, the king has not passed. Yet an op-ed at the Nikkei Asian Review, by Tim Johnston of the International Crisis Group reads very much like a “pre-obituary,” assessing what happens next.

It will surely anger the regime and the royalists in Bangkok, even if it does repeat some of their propaganda about the ailing monarch. It is an interpretation that includes much that is debatable. That said, it is useful to look forward at a time that will be politically fragile.

Johnson seems to have read some of the academic papers that have claimed that it is “middle class” that has driven opposition to what he calls the “traditionalist elite.”  We’d point out that several of these papers actually confuse low-income supporters of red shirts and allies with the middle class.

That aside, let’s continue with his story, where he observes that the “contradictions inherent in this modern, middle-class country ruled by a traditionalist elite are becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile.” He addresses this issue in the context of monarchy.

Johnston is wrong that “[t]he media were full of daily reports on his condition as the palace took the unprecedented step of inviting the public into its ceremonial hall to sign a book for well-wishers.” The signing of well wishes has been in place for years and the reports in the media were mainly limited to Royal Household Bureau announcements. Yet, he is right that “it is clear his [king’s] health remains in decline.”

Johnston is also wrong to declare that “Thailand has been a sheet anchor of stability in an otherwise turbulent region. The disputes were occasionally bloody, but tended to be tightly focused in Bangkok; although the shock waves often spread out across the country, the unrest had little material effect on ordinary people or investors outside the epicenter.” He’s wrong because it downgrades the impact of years of military dictatorship and American alliance and he’s wrong to ignore the long war in the south and the two decades of countrywide political struggle that revolved around communist insurgency.

He is right that the past 15 years of political conflict “has created the conditions for the sort of class warfare that could suck the nation and the economy even deeper into the mire.”

Johnston is wrong to declare, as if a palace propagandist, that “[f]or years, the king was the bridge that spanned the divisions that emerged. He has not personally intervened in recent disputes beyond giving formal approval to successive governments as they were thrown up by elections or coups, but that has not stopped a variety of players, mostly notably the military, from invoking his name to justify their policies.” This is errant nonsense. Has he not read The King Never Smiles? Has he not read any of the academic literature on the current monarch?

Armed king

He’s also wrong to confuse fact and propaganda about the king’s alleged work and service while ignoring his wealth and power and the impact of palace propaganda, usually taxpayer funded, over many decades.

He is right that “the king and the monarchy are not interchangeable: the man is much more powerful than the institution, and such power is not heritable.”

Johnston may be right that there “will be a vacuum at the heart of a deeply unstable social and political system.” But he can’t have it both ways and say the king isn’t a political player but then have him at the very center of the political system.King and junta

He declares that the “self-appointed defenders of the monarchy, … have an over-riding interest in ensuring that the succession is to their liking, if necessary through the use of force.”

That’s probably true, especially if the draft charter is any guide. Clearly, in that document, the military and the “traditionalist elite” are seeking to establish “independent agencies” to assume the political role played by the king in maintaining an exploitative and conservative social order.

He’s wrong that the junta is a self-appointed defender of the monarchy. These generals have been very close to the palace for many years. That loyalty is what got them to the top.

Johnston is on target when he observes that:

The opposition, cowed but not defeated by the draconian emergency powers the generals have granted themselves, knows it cannot take on the palace, the army and the bureaucracy while that triumvirate can invoke the moral and personal authority of King Bhumibol. Without his mystique, the elite’s forceful defense of a status quo that has repeatedly disenfranchised large swathes of the population risks appearing as naked self-interest.

On the middle class, Johnston notes that the current reign “has seen Thailand become a middle-income nation, with all the implied middle class aspirations for progress. The government’s attempts to force the country to retreat into a sclerotic theme-park version of Thai tradition looks quixotic and baffles those whom it does not anger.”

Yes and no. Much of the middle class is opposed to democratic reform and is supportive of “good people” defined in conservative terms that are as sclerotic as the junta’s view of “real” Thailand.

We also think he’s right to say that:

The king’s death will be followed by a substantial period of mourning, but political tensions will continue to seethe under the surface. How the generals and the bureaucracy handle the inevitable challenges to their power will determine whether Thailand’s post-Bhumibol social contract will be settled by confrontation or negotiation.

He may be right to speculate that the king’s death will trigger a “damaging identity crisis.” For the military,

which is among various institutions to have fetishized the concept of “Thainess,” such an identity crisis could easily look like an existential crisis, inviting an overreaction to criticism that risks ripping the fabric of Thai society in ways that would take years to repair.

We also think he’s right that “millions of ordinary Thais” have “outgrown the political and economic paternalism” of the past. Johnston’s view that “[f]or Thailand to continue to grow socially and economically, the elite needs to relinquish its hold on power and trust ordinary Thais to play an equal role in determining their future as a shared enterprise.”

The question is whether the elite can do that without being pushed and shoved off its trajectory. To be honest, we doubt it. The International Crisis Group should probably expect more crises in Thailand.





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.”





Handley on Coronation Day 1996

7 05 2015

We posted on the sighting of the king at his 65th Coronation Day. A reader sent us this PDF of Paul Handley’s assessment of the monarchy from July 96, long before The King Never Smiles. We felt readers might be interested in his commentary back then, including on succession.