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 1957.

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?





E-mail me 
IHT Articles 
Other Articles