Last week Charles Keyes, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology and International Studies at the University of Washington, penned a thought-provoking article on “how pervasive magic has become in Thai politics”. Keyes describes the use of ritual, “black magic” and astrological insights by many of the players in the current political crisis. He highlights the links between these practices and the colour-coded street mobs that have come to indicate deeply-felt divisions in Thai society. The lack of popular legitimacy accruing to the current constitution is, Keyes suggests, a big part of the problem. In his important conclusion, Keyes points out that “[w]ithout an agreed on set of new rules for politics in Thailand, magic, mob psychology and millennialist movements will continue to perpetuate the political crisis”.
In his article, Keyes points to Thaksin Shinawatra, General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, Sondhi Limthongkul, Newin Chidchob and other political leaders as practitioners of various forms of magic. The “Khmer voodoo” so beloved of old New Mandala commentator Vichai N. has regularly received an airing in this context. Readers looking for a taste of the way that issues at the intersection of politics and the supernatural played out during the dramatic period around the coup of 2006 will find these New Mandala posts (and comments) interesting: 13 September, 5 November and 9 November.
Searching for information on other matters, I was recently trawling through America’s National Archives and stumbled upon a 3 December 1973 dispatch from the United States Embassy in Bangkok to the Secretary of State in Washington, and the American Embassy in Canberra. Signed by the American Ambassador to Thailand, William R. Kintner (1973-1975), it reads:
1. A CONFIDANT OF THE KING TOLD THE DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] LATE DECEMBER 3 THAT THE KING HAD CANCELLED ALL HIS BIRTHDAY FESTIVITIES AND WAS DEPARTING PRECIIPITOUSLY FOR A REMOTE IMMIGRATION DEPARTMENT REST HOUSE IN KANCHANABURI PROVINCE. THE ROYAL DOMESTIC STAFF WAS SCRAMBLING TO SET THE PLACE IN ORDER. KANCHANABURI IS THE OUTBACK OF WEST THAILAND.
2. THE SAME INFORMANT MENTIONED THAT HIS MAJESTY’S PRINCIPAL PRIVATE SECRETARY HAD LEFT ABRUPTLY FOR AUSTRALIA. THE CROWN PRINCE IS STUDYING THERE, AND HAD PLANNED A TRIP TO THAILAND FOR HIS FATHER’S BIRTHDAY.
3. WE HAVE NO WAY OF KNOWING AT THIS JUNCTURE WHETHER THE KING’S ASTOLOGERS, IF HE CONSULTS THEM, HAVE ADVISED HIM TO GET OUT OF TOWN, OR WHETHER SOMETHING MORE SERIOUS IS BREWING. IF THE THAI MILITARY ARE PLANNING TO FIX SOME ORDER AMID THE CURRENT RASH OF LABOR STRIKES AND STUDENT STRIDENCY, THEY WOULD MOST LIKELY INFORM THE KING IN ADVANCE AND RECEIVE HIS BLESSING. ON THE OTHER HAND, HIS MAJESTY, GIVEN THE MIASMA OF RUMORS CURRENTLY FLOATING IN THE BANGKOK ATMOSPHERE, MAY JUST BE EXERCISING UNUSUAL PRUDENCE.
4. COME DAWN, WE’LL CONSULT MORE TRADITIONAL SOURCES THAN THE CRYSTAL BALL FOR A CLEARER READING, AND INFORM WASHINGTON.
Writing of the same general period, King Bhumibol’s unofficial biographer, Paul Handley, notes that “[t]hroughout the 1970s crisis [Bhumibol] unfailingly performed the religious rituals of the office, tweaking them to suit his views. He visited monks known for magic and supernatural powers and still followed a daily schedule advised by royal astrologers…he sometimes explained the world in terms of cosmic and astrological forces” (p. 353).
In his Bangkok Post article Keyes has provided a useful overview of the role of magic, of various sorts, as used by Thai politicians in their quests for power. But can we assume that astrologers and similar advisors continue to play a major role in the life of the palace? With all of the assumptions and assertions about the role of the palace in recent political events is it worth considering how ritual, magic and astrology inform decision-making at the highest levels?
Thoughts and comments from readers are very welcome here. As an aside, I also wonder whether the current American Ambassador in Bangkok would ever speculate on consultations with the “king’s astrologers” in his official communications. As somebody writing about his now archived predecessor put it, “[William R.] Kintner’s embassy in Thailand (1973-75) proved controversial…He was too bluntly honest, especially with his own government”.