King Bhumibol leaves behind a kingdom living in aura of a monarchy that has failed to drive the nation forward or deal with modern reality, writes Sam Michael.
The passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand on 13 October 2016 left many Thai people and much of the entire kingdom in shock and despair.
Newspapers and magazines faded into black and white. Thousands came out on the streets crying hysterically as they held the portraits of their king-god. Although the King’s frail health and prolonged hospitalisation should have provided time to prepare for the succession, the kingdom’s lèse majesté laws have prevented any open discussion about the transition.
The personality cult that has evolved around King Bhumibol also means that most Thais have long been in denial about his mortality. Indeed, while this King was truly a great father of contemporary Thailand, his demise should also serve as a wake-up call for a more objective analysis of the roles that the royal establishment plays, directly or indirectly, in shaping the Thai political culture that has led to the current authoritarian regime in a country once known for its blossoming democracy and vibrant society.
From outside looking in at the outpouring of grief and the display of intense love and reverence to this ‘royal father’ (or ‘por luang’, as he is referred to by most Thais), one wonders why this king is so immensely loved and ardently revered. Most Thais will testify for his good deeds and incomparable benevolence—his modest lifestyle without ostentatious display of wealth or extravagance also boosted his infallible popularity and blamelessness.
However, few Thais will bear to be reminded that this king also ruled over a country where any criticism about him or any family member, no matter how slight or rational, is absolutely forbidden and immediately punishable with a harsh prison sentence. Most Thais have grown up hearing and seeing only good things about him, as those are the only things they are allowed to hear and see.
And given that social sanction and pressure against those who refuse to show excessive outpouring of love and respect is so severe, the public imagination in Thailand has been abnormally limited and unnaturally constrained, not unlike the way propaganda is used in North Korea to ‘keep the country unified’ under the ‘dear, beloved leader’.
Also, given the length of his 70-year reign, most living Thais have never known or understood the history prior to his coronation, including the mysterious death of his elder brother, King Rama XIII, and the series of coups and rebellions that undermined the country’s nascent parliamentary democracy in 1940s.
Indeed, King Bhumibol was such a central and spiritual figure that Thailand has learned so little about its own history and how to strengthen political institutions to carry the nation forward without over-attachment to a mortal man. In school, Thai children are taught very little national history, let alone the political history of how and why prostration and kneeling when in royal audience has been reinstated, even though this medieval custom was abolished by King Rama V, who died in 1910.
Another little known fact that is never openly taught or discussed in this kingdom lost in medieval times is how and why Thailand’s national day was changed from 24 June, the day when, in 1932, the kingdom’s system of government changed from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy, to 5 December, which is the birthday of King Bhumibol. As history tells us, having a mortal man’s birthday as a national day is hardly a good idea; when the person dies, the whole nation plunges into an identity and existential crisis, like what Thailand is facing today.
Before the reign of King Rama VIII (Ananda Mahidol) and King Rama IX (Bhumibol Adulyadej), Thailand’s monarchy was at its weakest period due to dwindling finances resulting from the extravagances and the sprawling family trees in previous reigns. The People’s Party (Khana Radsadon), a group of reform-minded military and civilian figures inspired by Western liberal democracy and nationalist agenda, managed to weaken and contain the monarchy within constitutional confines in the 1932 Siamese Revolution, when Thailand could have become a republic.
Unfortunately, the People’s Party’s infighting and the threats of communism, combined with the surging royalism and right-wing movement, led to the declining influence of Western-minded liberal reformists. This gave rise to ultra-nationalist royalists that puppeteered and derived power from the royal institution they deliberately strengthened through mass psychological manipulation. From then, the King and his armies became Thailand’s indestructible pillars, cultivating public subjugation through a combination of fear and worship.
The result, as we see today, is a kingdom lost in time, where patronage culture chokes political development and ancient customs are stringently enforced. The late King of Thailand may have done many useful and good deeds and deserved respect, but he also sat atop the country’s patronage pyramid without changing it, despite being the only one who could have done so through his unparalleled clout.
By staying aloof and beyond politics, the Thai royal institution therefore did little to change the culture that perpetuates social inequality. Instead, it has accumulated wealth, power, prestige and divinity by projecting an image of charity and dedication to the poor and the underprivileged, while doing little to address the true causes of poverty and inequality—the patronage system, the culture of impunity, and the curbing of civil and political rights. Effectively, the Thai monarchy has, intentionally or not, colonised Thailand internally and kept the tacit repression intact.
King Bhumibol left behind a legacy not easily matched by other royalty. Yet, the fact that he did not modernise his court or abolish antiquated royal customs has also left Thailand largely unable to grapple with modern reality. The ubiquitous display of extreme reverence to King Bhumibol, fused with the nationalist narrative against any valid questioning or rational discussion about the monarchy in Thailand, should be seen as an unhealthy and worrying symptom of a nation brainwashed by decades of propaganda, rather than viewed lightly as citizens simply loving their king. Thai people must learn to see themselves and their society structurally through historical lens, not as subjects under one merciful, mortal god.
Now, the kingdom is in mourning and in fear of what the new reign will bring. With the 96-year-old former strongman prime minister appointed as regent pro tempore and the crown prince’s coronation still unannounced, Thailand’s limbo is prolonged and the mass anxiety may grow and exacerbate existing political tension along conservative and progressive lines. Only one thing is certain, the new reign is unlikely to bring the psyche of Thailand any closer to modernity.
Thailand may continue to develop economically, but its political evolution and democratic progress are likely to be arrested and lost in time unless the country’s lèse majesté laws are reformed. If internal pressure fails to achieve critical mass, external pressure needs to mount for Thailand to be saved from itself.
Sam Michael writes from New York.