The seemingly ridiculous and incomprehensible lese majeste dog case is anything but.
The latest and most seemingly ridiculous lese majeste case in Thailand concerning alleged insult to King Bhumibol’s dog, Thong Daeng (“copper”), is but a new twist in a long-running bit of political theatre between the King and his Heir Apparent — re-directed at one of His Majesty’s lesser subjects and as a warning to farang (foreigners) to create space for the interregnum.
Dogs are traditionally regarded as low-class animals in Thai culture. They “eat from anyone’s food,” meaning they have no loyalty, no taste or sense of distinction. Disappointed in his profligate, disobedient heir, whose bad behavior forced him to put off a long desired retirement, King Bhumibol in 1998 adopted the mongrel bitch Thong Daeng, who became the centre of his life.
In his best-selling book on the subject (2002), His Majesty praises the dog as an ideal, obedient subject “who would always sit lower than the King.” When pulled up to be embraced, enthuses the King, Thong Daeng would “lower herself down on the floor, her ears in a respectful drooping position.”
By way of retaliation, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, the much-discussed “black sheep” of the royal family, adopted a fluffy white miniature poodle named Foo Foo, fetched to him from Chatuchak market by his favoured daughter by exiled wife number two, former aspiring actress “Mom Benz.” Meticulously dressed for each occasion in the manner of royalty, Foo Foo (1998-2015) accompanied the Crown Prince on his own public engagements.
The prince’s response was not subtle, nor was it directed solely at the King or His Majesty’s Privy Council. In 2007 opponents of the Crown Prince leaked the infamous video of Foo Foo, Maha Vajiralongkorn, and the prince’s now-former third wife Srirasmi, recorded in 2001 on the occasion of Srirasmi’s 30th birthday party.
Waited on by stone-faced palace officials, Srirasmi, beautiful and of low birth, sinks matter-of-factly to the Crown Prince’s feet to share birthday cake with the dog. Foo Foo wore a dark (blue?) jacket. Srirasmi was apparently naked except for a G-string.
A few months later, American Ambassador Ralph “Skip” Boyce hosted a gala dinner party. Maha Vajiralongkorn may have been the guest of honour, but Foo Foo stole the show. The dog, dressed in formal evening attire and bestowed with the title Air Chief Marshal by the Crown Prince (a royal prerogative), jumped on the head table, sipping from guests’ water glasses, including that of Ambassador Boyce – a calculated royal insult.
The Royal Thai Police and the Royal Thai Army have long been at odds, competitors for profits from narcotics, gambling, smuggling and other lucrative aspects of the kingdom’s unofficial economy. The Royal Thai Police were regarded as a power base for the exiled, democratically-elected former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, as opposed to the Royal Thai Army, long under the influence of the aging senior statesman General Prem Tinsulanonda.
Besides insulting his father, Thaksin — a former police official turned billionaire business tycoon — paid off the Crown Prince’s immense gambling debts, built him a palace, and supported his ambitions to take the throne.
A detractor of the Crown Prince’s and suspected leaker of the naked princess video, General Prem is president of the Privy Council, the king’s advisory board in charge of all things “royal” (luang).
Thaksin accused Prem of masterminding the 2006 ouster of his government, which was followed by attacks on Thaksin’s Red Shirt supporters, many of whom are from Isan, the impoverished Northeast. Prem and military-democratic governments since are identified with “Yellow Shirt” royalists, yellow being the king’s astrological colour signifying Monday, the day of his birth. Red being the unlucky colour for that day.
Late in 2014 the Crown Prince divorced Srirasmi, mother of a single son, Prince Dipangkorn. The release of the purloined video destroyed any chance of Srirasmi ever being taken seriously as queen, in addition to which her son was once believed to have shown signs of autism. The prince’s initial request for a divorce, it was rumoured, was denied by the Privy Council to avoid upsetting the ailing (near comatose) king.
Srirasmi’s inevitable fall was heralded by the arrest of her close relatives on charges of lese majeste (exercising ordinary prerogatives of the royal in-laws, the family that would provide the throne with an heir) at the order of the Crown Prince, whereupon the former bar hostess gracefully requested permission to resign her status (Royal Consort) in the royal family, left Bangkok, and switched to a commoner name.
Her relatives – at the vortex of a police purge centered around her maternal uncle, the former renowned “crime buster” head of the CIB (Central Investigation Bureau), the Thai equivalent of the FBI — were stripped of their royally bestowed surname.
The “amazing haul” from the police arrests totaled assets worth up to 10 billion baht in cash, gold and Buddhist amulets and antiques — the latter endowed with qualities saksit or sacred. Confessing all, one of Police Lieutenant General Pongpat’s associates committed suicide, leaping from a building while in police custody.
The Crown Prince, it was said, had jettisoned his loyalty to Thaksin – with whom he was reported by Ambassador Boyce to have had a spectacular falling out — in favor of liaison with less-than-charismatic junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha, endorsed by the (absent) king some months prior.
Air Chief Marshal Foo Foo died in 2015, title intact. His death was marked by four days of Buddhist funerary rites followed by cremation. The picture featured on the funerary alter appears to be that of Foo Foo in his Chief Air Marshal uniform (minus the hat).
The Crown Prince was reportedly absent in Germany with his anticipated fourth wife, a former air hostess, and new baby son. Meanwhile, as his reign draws to a close, King Bhumibol — pale, silent and near motionless – is gingerly paraded in public in his wheel chair, arrayed in a variety of outfits proper to the occasion: King, Head of the Royal Family, Head of the Royal Thai Government, Commander-in Chief of the Royal Thai Armed Forces, invalid, etc.
Thai kings have long been adept at “managing farang” and subordinating their subjects through state ritual cum political theatre. Given the deep-seated resentment towards farang masters — the French, the British, and then the Americans — satire and sarcasm have been distinguishing features of the royal court since at least the Chinese Opium Wars and the reign of King Mongkut (1851-1868). These theatrical efforts, semi-sacred in design, directed at multiple audiences, are necessarily ambiguous, replete with double and triple meanings.
This latest twist to lese majeste laws is a double warning: to the kingdom’s subjects to abstain from commentary on the succession, to farang to keep their distance.
Having long used Thailand for military purposes, including rumored black ops operations in its “war on terror,” the United States is in a particularly awkward position in this regard. In November, the Thai police announced that newly arrived American ambassador Glyn Davies was under investigation for lese majeste for a speech made at the FCCT (Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand): expressing concern over civilians being tried by military courts and the unprecedented prison sentences now attached to lese majeste laws.
Furious Yellow Shirt protesters marched on the United States embassy in defense of their beloved king, calling for Davies’ removal. “Don’t be ill mannered,” chanted the protesters, led by ultra-royalist Buddhist monk Buddha Issara. “Thailand is not your slave.”
The ambassador’s sins appear to have been washed away shortly thereafter, however. Davies, in a bright yellow “Bike for Dad” Lycra shirt, trailed enthusiastically in the wake of the Crown Prince at the latter’s massive 11 December bike rally and charity event, which brought Bangkok traffic to a standstill.
Replicated in 66 cities around the world, organised by Prime Minister Prayuth and reportedly attracting some 700,000 subscriptions, the rally was a show of support for reduction of environmental pollution, and respect for the ailing monarch.
These are the subtle messages. Not only did the factory worker insult the king by improper reference to the king’s dog – or use of the dog’s image – on Facebook, no less, he used sarcasm, tapping into linguistic and symbolic registers reserved for royalty. (His Majesty’s subjects are humbled and sincere in support of the king, whose behavior perfectly embodies the Ten Virtues of the Buddhist Righteous Ruler.)
While Ambassador Davies was warned against direct speech – simple observation or “seeing” of excessive prison sentences – His Majesty’s subjects are being warned against allusion or indirect speech, to abstain from symbolic expressions and figures of speech that are beyond their proper place.
Thus the seemingly ridiculous and incomprehensible lese dog case is anything but. The message to His Majesty’s subjects is “We can subjugate you and the foreign community,” announcing a new era free of US domination.
While many Thai citizens may not like the Thong Daeng message to the populace at large, they may very well like the message to the US.
The Crown Prince is on the playing field.
Christine E. Gray is a cultural anthropologist and scholar of the Thai monarchy.