The monarch of Malaysia probably has even less political power than the bike-riding sovereigns of Scandinavia. But the installation this week of a new Yang di-Pertuan Agong (king) in Kuala Lumpur the Sultan of Terengganu — is a reminder of the number of actual and would-be monarchies in East Asia, and their varying roles.
Malaysia's unique system of rotating the crown every five years among nine hereditary state sultans ensures that the institution remains almost entirely symbolic. Most Malaysians have trouble remembering who is king. Such political influence as the sultans once enjoyed was largely stripped away when some atrocious personal behavior by certain royals provided then Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad with the occasion to downgrade their role, which nominally still includes being head of Islam as well as head of state.
Looking a little nervously at Malaysia, however, is the Sultan of Brunei, the last absolute monarch in Asia east of the Gulf. Once a vast sultanate encompassing large parts of what are now Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia, Brunei may have to reinvent itself if it is to survive the exhaustion of its oil wealth.
If the Malaysian monarchies are harmless if costly luxuries opposed by almost nobody, that of Nepal must surely be closest to the brink. The attempt of the inept King Gyanendra to rule directly, confronting democrats and Maoists alike, ended in failure. It now seems likely that the monarchy will be voted out of existence. Few would have thought that possible just a few years ago when the popular King Birendra, assassinated in 2001, was on the throne and endeavoring to be democratic.
The Nepal experience could be relevant to Thailand. After 60 years on the throne, King Bhumibol Adulyadej's prestige has never been higher, nor his political influence greater (the palace overtly supported the recent coup makers). Yet the Thai monarchy has come close to extinction before, whether at the hands of democrats or generals, so Bhumipol's successor, whoever that may be, will need to understand that a monarch's political power in a modern state is more earned than inherited.
But if Thailand has a succession problem, it may well be the envy of the Burmese. Might a restoration of their monarchy, in abeyance since the British sent King Thibaw into exile in 1885, be one way of bridging the divide between the generals and Aung San Suu Kyi's democrats?
Descendants of Thibaw are still around, as are descendants of the last emperor of South Korea. The Korean monarchy was tainted by Japan's attempt at absorbing it. Nonetheless, throne claimants exist and may yet attract support from Koreans looking for symbols to bridge the divide between a fiercely republican and democratic South and the Communist dynasty in the North. And if the Japanese can hang on to their monarchy, will not Koreans want one too?
Small countries at least may benefit from the sense of identity provided by monarchs. It is debatable whether the volatile King Sihanouk was a net plus for Cambodia but he has at least succeeded in passing the crown — if not any power — to his son King Sihamoni. Might the Lao decide to revive their monarch as a way of reinforcing their identity vis-à-vis much bigger neighbors? As the revolutionary generation that killed off the monarchy in 1975 dies away, maybe a royal personage will return to reign from the royal capital (and UN heritage site) Luang Prabang.
Few Vietnamese harbor sentimental attachments to their last emperor, Bao Dai, who had the misfortune to be squeezed between the Communists, the French and the ambitions of U.S.-backed Ngo Dinh Diem, who deposed him in 1955. But the time will surely come one day for a revision of Vietnamese history and the presentation of Bao Dai as no less a patriot than Ho Chi Minh. A monarchy would even be useful in reminding their giant neighbor, China, that its last emperors were Manchu- speaking barbarians.