Friday, October 13, 2006

King and students

Uncle has written another piece on Thailand. Happy reading!

Last week I commented on Thailand’s recent military coup without mentioning the most important reason why the coup has succeeded, at least so far --- the seeming endorsement of the coup by the country’s revered demi-god King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose very name means "strength of the land, incomparable power".

The fact that the king said nothing against the coup was indication enough that it met with his approval.

The fact is that nearly every Thai sees the hand of the King behind the recent dramatic events. And everyone knows that the coup leader General Sonthi is an avid royalist, whose mother was a lady-in-waiting at the royal palace.

This explains the paradox that such a popular Prime Minister as Thaksin could be so easily turned out of his office. When it comes to adulation, the people have more affection for their king than for any politician.

When King Bhumibol ascended the throne in 1946, aged 18, the Thai monarchy was in a very weakened state, and his elder brother had just been mysteriously murdered. Through hard work, visits to the rural poor, and his personal virtue, the young king accumulated great public goodwill.

Today he is the world’s longest serving monarch and such is his authority that his words are taken as royal commands.

He often communicates with the people through parables, stories and signs and adheres to deeply religious rituals with himself as a Buddhist dhammaraja or selfless king following a complex code of morality.

Unlike the British royal family, whose life is open to tabloid newspaper inspection, the Thai king’s private life is little known. Thai royalty has had no equivalent of Princess Diana, and no exposure of adulterous affairs.

This is partly because of Thailand strict lese-majeste laws which make it an offence punishable by up to 15 years imprisonment to offend the dignity of the king.

Therefore, it has come as a pleasant surprise that this year two books have been published (in English) about the king. One book, by the head of the royal court police is particularly interesting and describes the king’s close ties with the military establishment.

The book, In His Majesty’s Footsteps – A Personal Memoir, relates in respectful detail some strange personal matters about the king. For example, it describes the addiction of the royal family to jogging and comments that "His Majesty had a way of jogging that appeared as though he was floating in the air, with his long steps and each foot touching the ground ever so lightly."

What caught my attention especially is the book’s account (albeit very brief) of the political crisis of 1973. It was almost precisely 23 years ago, in October 1973, that over 250,000 people, many of them agitated students, massed on the streets of Bangkok to demand democracy. The Thai army opened fire on the massive crowd, leaving some 75 to 80 people dead.

It was the darkest chapter in modern Thai history.

But according to In His Majesty’s Footsteps, before that infamous October 1973 incident, the king took the initiative to invite the student leaders to talk to him and at that meeting he personally promised that a new constitution would be in place within eighteen months.

After the army had gunned down the demonstrators, the king intervened and appointed a new prime minister and within two months the king had personally appointed 2,346 people to a National Convention which in turn appointed 293 representatives to a new National Legislative Assembly.

Therefore, even back in 1973 when Thailand took its first steps toward democracy, it was accepted that the king played a pivotal role in politics. No important appointment could be made without his consent.

Which brings me back to the present crisis and what role the king may have played. The historical record clearly suggests that when the chips are down, no-one in Thailand can reject political appointments made, suggested or even hinted at by the King.

The absolute power of the Thai monarchy in a supposedly democratic nation is extraordinary and perhaps unique in our 21st century world.

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