International Herald Tribune
Philip Bowring: The crowd and the crown
Monday, December 1, 2008

HONG KONG: Could the monarchy in Thailand go the way of Nepal's, the latest crown to fall to republicanism?

The idea may seem ridiculous considering that Thailand's monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej, almost invariably has the prefix "revered" attached to his name by the foreign press, and is constantly glorified by the local media.

But as Nepal showed, monarchies can self-destruct when royal families have internal squabbles or when incompetent monarchs overreach themselves and set off a republican reaction.

It is worth recalling that the late King Birendra of Nepal was a revered figure during a 30-year reign. But after his assassination in 2001 by a crazed son he was succeeded by King Gyanendra, who in 2005 dissolved Parliament and attempted direct monarchical rule. This was a total failure. Republicanism and a Maoist insurgency paved the way for elections and the monarchy was abolished in March.

Could it be that the monarchist demonstrators now paralyzing Bangkok's airports and bringing chaos to Thailand's economy are actually sowing the seeds of distrust of monarchies among the Thai masses who voted the current government into power only 11 months ago? Could harsh lèse-majesté laws be hiding a rising tide of resentment?

King Bhumibol is usually presented as a figure who stands above domestic politics, intervening only to end conflicts and restore balance between contending military and political forces.

In fact, the history is not quite so simple. For the most part, he has given his implied blessing to coups staged in the name of stability and clean government.

On this occasion, however, the king's silence in the face of months of rising mayhem brought about by the "People's Alliance for Democracy" (PAD) has been instructive. It can be seen either as a sign of tacit support for the demonstrators, or an indication that at his age (81 on Wednesday), ailing and mourning the death of his sister Princess Galyani, he does not wish to involve himself in a dispute that is linked - albeit indirectly - to his own succession.

Either way, let there be no doubt that the PAD is given plenty of support by establishment interests within the bureaucracy, judiciary and army with links to the Privy Council, headed by an 88-year-old former prime minister, General Prem Tinsulanond. Royal backing was evident in the unprecedented attendance by the queen at the funeral of a PAD demonstrator killed by an exploding tear gas canister.

The army itself will neither help restore order nor, as yet, cut the Gordian knot by staging another coup. Its 2006 coup was a failure and it still lacks a coherent post-coup agenda.

The PAD itself is a misnomer. It is largely an assemblage of elite or elite-financed groups that loathes and fears former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in the 2006 coup. It is distrustful of democracy and claims - despite the records of some members - to represent clean government.

Thaksin certainly abused his office for political gain, and allegedly for financial gain. He deserved to be cut down to size. But what his opponents most resent is his centralization of power and his reliance on a rural voting mass resentful of the huge income gap between themselves and the Bangkok middle class.

The monarchists are especially desperate to keep Thaksin out of power during the succession. The crown prince attracts significantly less respect than his father, and the future role of other members of the royal family, including the queen, is uncertain.

Thaksin is no republican. But like strong Thai leaders in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Pibul Songgram and Sarit Thanarat, he would prefer it to be largely ceremonial, and not a power center. The elite would like to use the monarchy to bolster its own position, as it is now doing via PAD.

But this could end up threatening rather than helping the monarchy. If the Thaksin populists eventually come out ahead in this power struggle, they will harbor resentments against royals who may no longer attract the respect given to King Bhumibol. And a win for the elite would have to be endorsed by the army, so a strong military figure could well emerge to overshadow a new king.

Thais who value the role of constitutional monarchs might do well to ponder other recent royal histories - and the dangers of using a mob against an elected government.