New Mandala readers with good memories may have woken today with an awareness that 17 May 1992 and the days that came after are still called “Black May”. This is a period of infamy in Thailand’s recent political history. Back in May 1992 a protest in central Bangkok demanding the end of what many considered an illegitimate government was crushed with the combat boots and lethal weapons of the Royal Thai Army.

It is often repeated that King Bhumibol “intervened” to end the bloodshed.

Unfortunately, many protesters had died by 20 May 1992 when his televised audience with Generals Suchinda and Chamlong brought some resolution to the immediate crisis. The broadcast of that royal intervention is often proclaimed as a defining moment in Thailand’s democratic culture.

But as Paul Handley writes in his unofficial biography of the king:

May 1992 was a manifestation of the faults in Bhumibol’s ideal of a royal government, of his unrelenting prejudice against politicians, and his miscomprehension of the social changes that had occurred during his long reign…Bhumibol’s skill in saving the day after the bloody convulsion of May 18-20 helped to hide his consistent bias against protesters and popular movements…there is the problem that Bhumibol acted only three days after the first demonstrators were killed.

Handley’s appraisal of King Bhumibol’s handling of May 1992 should give us cause to consider what is happening in May 2010. In Handley’s description, King Bhumibol’s 63-year reign has been marked by profound ambivalence about democratic institutions and some of the protesters who seek to defend them. Now, as the clock ticks down to the end of his reign, the king has left his kingdom without a strong democratic culture and with few good mechanisms for solving its conflicts. Right now even the notional “silver bullet” of a royal intervention could fail. At this time of crisis, some are even suggesting that the monarchy itself is part of the problem rather than part of any future resolution.

So 18 years later, once again on 17 May, a Thai government has issued what looks like its final ultimatum.