Christine Gray examines the long-term legacies and paralysing effects of Thailand’s harsh lese majeste laws, particularly as one reign ends and another begins.
People ask what I think of the passing of King Bhumibol.
It’s hard to say.
I, like others, have been restrained in criticisms of the monarchy. Criticism, critical thought, just seems like it’s in bad taste, like criticising Queen Elizabeth, even though I/we knew that the lese majeste phenomenon was in essence an extremely effective, if not deadly, means of preventing ordinary journalistic standards from being applied to the analysis of Thai politics and economy.
This phenomenon likewise prevented scholars, Thai or foreign, from doing any type of sustained, in-depth analysis of well, anything, since all paths in Thailand ultimately lead back to the Palace and the monarchy.
When ordinary journalistic standards were not applied, EVERYONE got hurt.
Now it seems tacky to criticise the dead. Bad taste. Only not.
The first shot out of the cannon was Barbara Crossette’s obituary in The New York Times. In earlier days, Crossette was not so uncritical of the monarchy. She did try to do her job as a journalist. Now she’s totally lapsed into the narrative of official royal history, which does not do anyone any good.
If Paul Handley and Andrew MacGregor Marshall‘s bombshell work demonstrates anything, it is that monarchies, like dictatorships, are deserving of the same journalistic standards and critical thought as any other social domain. Conversely, failure to suspend disbelief carries too high a price.
For scholars and journalists, the fear becomes paralytic, particularly if one has Thai relatives.
Yet, when we fail in this basic duty, we fail everyone: the foreign audience, the Thai audience, ourselves as thinkers.
The primary reason the Thai monarchy was able to portray itself as successful is that it incorporates in-built systems of censorship, legal and personal. It shapes thought and history in ways that are subtle and not so subtle, perpetuating ingrained beliefs about connections between deity (or assumed deity) and the wielding of absolute power.
The monarchy is defined by taboos that extend to every area of Thai life: language and ritual, history and education, business and banking, politics and the military, journalism, the arts and social media — even architecture and the narcotics trade.
Anything that has experienced the royal touch or the royal glance or the royal gift — which is just about everything.
Thus we now encounter an enormous knowledge deficit. Every little thing requires re-writing and re-thinking.
Captured by the earnest, elegant misdirection of official Palace history, by the sheer magnitude of the royal rituals, the Thai people are held hostage against their own memories – particularly of divisive issues and horrific events like the Thammasat massacre.
Very little of Thai official history as it concerns the monarchy is true. Most of it is opposite. Not everyone was a fan of the king or the institution of the monarchy. This was particularly true of the Lao peoples of Isan, the rebellious Northeast, and Muslims in the equally rebellious South, of workers, scholars, university students, independent journalists and opposition politicians. If they spoke up, or competed with the royal business interests, they were silenced.
I truly believe that Thailand is entering a Dark Age. This is not to say that it was not in a Dark Age before — that stories of Bhumibol’s “enlightened reign,” mistaking length for moral probity, are true, even if they are widely believed. It is merely to say that Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn’s character and inclinations, some of which are quite deadly, have long been known, that his inclinations towards democracy, like those of the kingdom’s generals who rose to power under the aegis of his parents, are exactly nil.
While his father was presenting himself and was presented by his handlers as a convenient opposite, Righteous Father/Wild Son, it was another thing altogether, another easy trope of Thai history, like Good King/Evil Queen, or Angel Princess/Evil Prince.
Now those symbolic constraints are released. No one “knows for sure” what will happen, because, by design, we are all in the dark. Much of it has happened already through backroom deals, division of Crown Property spoils, and so on, and there is infinitely more to come.
We, like the Thai people, can only look for signs, including ritual and astrological signs. What’s the significance of the color pink, propelled into popularity by His Majesty (or his handlers) himself? First, it’s not yellow, the color of the Crown Prince as well as his father, both having been born on a Monday. Second, its unlucky astrological opposite is yellow and white, white signifying purity.
Who controls the disposition of the royal corpse? Who determines the period of mourning and the magical numbers, or not, therein?
The succession has been long determined by the king himself as signaled through the Royal Barge Procession – by means of ritual and sacred images, not words. Despite all the speculation and brouhaha, no one except a son, certainly not a girl, can succeed the Dhammaraja. No one but his son represents King Bhumibol on the barge Suphannahongsa, the Golden Swan of Buddhist mythology.
Political purges are the rule, not the exception, of Thai succession. Likewise the idea of an initial coronation before an actual, full-blown event — once the dynamics of purge and succession, along with suitable financial accommodations, have been worked out.
Before, the princely and military rivalries, military and police rivalries, and monarchy/ military rivalries were predicated in large part by the dynamics of the opium trade, with profits being necessary for any successful reign. Royal ritual, intricately thought out, is immensely expensive. Felicitous rituals, like royal largesse, must appear “out of the sky,” a spontaneous function of the king’s virtue.
Now, I’m not sure what the succession is predicated upon except control of the military and the police (a given), and control of the Crown Properties, which have gone global. A lot will depend upon the extent to which Sino-Thai multinational corporations of the type whose founders appear, albeit reluctantly, on Forbes’ list of Thailand’s billionaires, need validation from the Crown and retention of their “Thai-ness.”
Initially, these business tycoons of necessity had to partner with the Crown Property Bureau in order to survive and thrive. This was true because they were too obviously Chinese (cin), in part because the cloak of secrecy and anonymity, by definition, extended from the king to His Majesty’s business associates. Now?
All of these realms, one will note, are almost completely unknown to ordinary people, including journalists. They are known indirectly, through gossip and rumor, which by definition lack credibility. Or they are known through people who accidentally die (or “commit suicide”) while in prison, like Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn’s former royal astrologer and reported bagman, who apparently strong-armed the wrong people for donations to the Bike4Dad event, a saga that is unfolding still.
In fact, one might say that mysterious deaths of jailed persons is an essential component of modern Thai cultural and indexical systems.
But I digress.
My hope would be that the above would inspire a sincere interest in the study of Thai history, and its excavation. That journalists and others of their ilk would remain true to the investigative saying — follow the money. That ordinary spectators will pull out their copies of HG Quaritch Wales’ Siamese State Ceremonies (1931) as a guide to what follows, and the death of the King and the perambulations of the Crown Prince will be read in light of Frank and Mani Reynolds’ difficult and delightful Three Worlds According to King Ruang .
Unfortunately, if Crosette’s obituary cum hagiography is any example, and given the predilections of the Crown Prince, this is not so likely to occur. If anything, the political and social pressure not to tell the truth is magnified by the king’s death, or “passing into heaven” (sawannakhot).
It’s bad manners.
One thing the Crown Prince “knows for sure” is the real, not the spurious, history of the Ninth Reign. The essential legacy of King Bhumibol is silence borne of political repression and the accumulation of vast wealth — domains in which the Thai prince has lustily and openly played his part.
Thus, what we can “know for sure” is that one Dark Age, disguised as its opposite, will lead to the next. The number nine, which signifies the Buddha and the Dhammaraja, is auspicious; the number 10 is not.
Christine Gray, PhD, is a cultural anthropologist who writes about monarchy, ritual, gender and power.