The enigma of a shrewd survivor
SCMP June 12 2006
by Philip Bowring
Amid the celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the accession of
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, there is cause to worry about the future of
both democracy and the monarchy in Thailand. The greater the adulation
for King Bhumibol, the greater becomes the problem for when he is no
longer there. Royal power now derives more from the high standing of
the king than from the monarchy itself. At the same time, he has become
a crutch - the last resort who enables parliamentarians and generals
to avoid having to find their own constitutional solutions.
The advance of Thai democracy over the past two decades reflects the
growth of the economy, and of the urban middle class demanding a role
in government. Despite that, Thailand may be no nearer to resolving
the issue of the king's role than it was in 1932. That was the year
when the absolute monarchy was overthrown in a revolution that included
left-leaning democrats and military figures such as Pibul Songkram.
He went on to run the country for most of the period between 1935 and
Resolving the future of the monarchy is made more difficult by the
lese majeste laws, which have increasingly been used to stifle discussion
of its role by locals and foreigners alike. Indeed, it is shocking
to contemplate the behaviour of the western media. Not for them the
open coverage that enabled foreigners to discuss the roles of Ayatollah
Khomeini, Mao Zedong or Kim Il-sung at a time when locals were required
to treat them as demigods - and to cover controversies surrounding
the Japanese and British monarchs.
The King and I set a tone of insulting fantasy about an earlier monarch,
and it has taken a long time even for serious foreigners, let alone
Thais, to break through this barrier.
So anyone genuinely interested in the modern history of the monarchy
and King Bhumibol's political role over the past 60 years would do
well to read the forthcoming account, The King Never Smiles, to be
published by Yale University Press. The author, Paul Handley, is an
American journalist long resident in Bangkok.
King Bhumibol has been extraordinarily successful in rebuilding the
Thai monarchy from a low point in 1946. His success has been due in
large part to his own attributes - hard work, concern for the poor,
correct personal behaviour and longevity.
But it has also been due to his political skills. The monarch is,
in theory, above politics. But the reality of Thailand during a period
of rapid social change dictated otherwise. More often than not he was,
as Handley reminds readers, to be found on the side of the authoritarians.
He supported the generals between 1957 and 1973, and gave the green
light to anti-democratic coups in 1976 and again in 1991.
Most recently, his political skills were evident when he stepped into
the conflict between the elected, but increasingly authoritarian, Thaksin
Shinawatra and opposition forces intent on defending constitutional
institutions. Some saw this as a defence of constitutional democracy.
Others, however, saw it as intended to assert the royal role at a time
when it was in danger of being overshadowed by Mr Thaksin's populism.
Time, genuine affection and the lese majeste laws have combined to
give the king huge power and prestige. But that prestige would be hard
for even the most enlightened and intelligent successor to live up
to. But few regard his son in that light, and the succession is not
yet a done deal.
Will the role of the next monarch evolve into a constitutional one,
similar to that of the Japanese emperor? Will he become a captive of
some populist politicians or generals? Or will the monarchy go the
way of that in Nepal?
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