The relevance of the Thai monarchy has increasingly been questioned, if not so loudly, in the country’s current discourse. Over the past several years, the institution has been weathering social and political storms. At issue is not whether or not the institution should be abolished but, rather, how it can maintain its popularity. In fact, without popularity, the institution may be further challenged and, as the result, risk expiring.
The Diamond Jubilee recently celebrated in the UK demonstrated how much Queen Elizabeth II and the British monarchy remain at the top of their game. National polls have suggested concretely that they will not be overshadowed by the republican movement anytime soon.
This has prompted some Thais to reflect on the current role and future of their most supreme and privileged institution. Thai PBS, for example, made a special report on the British monarchy, inevitably exposing the Thai audience to questions and discussion about their own monarchy. With rapid economic growth, improved livelihoods, and stronger demand for political participation, the Thai monarchy has struggled to find a real and sustainable place in the society. Attempts to glorify the golden age of the monarch being a strong force for national security and well-being may have proved to be adequate up to the present, yet a growing fear is its failure to capture the attention of the new generation of Thais.
Change is both global and inevitable. The British monarchy appears to have allowed for more room to accommodate this reality. ‘Adapt to conquer’ is the strategy in essence, and it has proved a successful and relatively easy task. BBC News home editor Mark Easton wrote of the unyielding popularity of the monarchy in the UK that it was the product of existing anxieties about global and social change. The role of the British monarchy has been, for the most part, to continue the tradition or, to quote social critic Sulak Sivalaksa, the fairy tale underpinning national identity.
The Thai monarchy has served a greater role in national development. It can be argued that King Bhumibol Adulyadej had been offered a golden opportunity from poverty caused by widespread corruption and incompetent public agencies, as well as the threat posed by communism in 1960s for political maneuvering. With the state of healthcare, natural resources, agriculture and education which had left much to be desired, the king’s development initiatives began to take root and continued to gain momentum over the following decades.
The royal development work has expedited national development although its impact has not often been measured. Nonetheless, the king’s attempts deserve praise. Undoubtedly, his moral authority has been rendered through implementation of development projects nationwide. He has won the hearts and minds of his subjects in all regions, and his development work has become an integral part of his reign. Intrinsically, it has served to legitimize it, and maintain the status quo.
To reassert itself, the Thai monarchy needs to rethink this important pillar.
Critical thinking and genuine assessment are sorely lacking in this pillar. Predominantly associated with the king’s initiatives, royal development projects are viewed and promoted as his charity work which can escape criticism. Transparency has not been prioritized due to the relentless trust Thais have for the king. But a lack of transparency is inevitably a key source of corruption. While working to improve livelihoods of the rural people, local capacity-building and empowerment have not been made the central element of implementation. Organizationally, implementation has been planned and carried out by very hierarchical semi-governmental agencies with top-down decision making. Human resource management is highly influenced by nepotism. Generally speaking, the resulting workplace is full of people who unquestionably love the king, but are not necessarily results-driven.
In other words, key royal development foundations are not run by those with critical thinking and a forward-looking mindset. Most are too rigid with their key task to preserve the status quo. Most are trapped in their orthodox way of promoting the institution which does not seem to be working very successfully. Many Thais, especially the young ones, lack basic understanding about what they do. The young generation has yet to become a driving force of the work.
It is not wrong to take advantage of the royal privilege. As all men are in fact not created equal, the royal privilege can serve to help get things done, especially in the country where the king and his entourage have been given more influence than most elected governments.
So the question is not whether this hereditary influence should be utilized as a tool to achieve development goals, but rather how successfully it can be.
The restructuring of the royal development work in Thailand would inevitably expose the institution to criticism. Transparency as well as results-orientation would be greatly needed. Any components of the work hiding under the royal shadow would need to come out and prove their relevance.
To commit to the restructuring, the executives may find themselves in a dilemma. A call for redefining royal development work would be high on the agenda. First and foremost, how the work should be projected may need to be clarified. So far its image has focused on one dimension which is the usual attribution of the work to the king’s immeasurable benevolence, feeding the notion of it as work for charity, rather development. The projected impact has predominantly focused on the people’s utter gratefulness for the royal kindness, helping to raise the public’s consciousness of indebtedness to the king. While this is believed to help maintain his popularity, the work cannot transcend the politics of monarchy to become a bona fide force for national development. In turn, this will increasingly prove to be a dysfunctional pillar of his reign.
What should be highlighted is that, while the institution and development have a symbiotic relationship, the more the latter depends on the former, the less successful it will be, and this will in turn gradually jeopardize the popularity of the former.
To establish itself as a driving force of national development is what the institution needs to strive for. Just like the institution itself, its development work is in dire need of an overhaul. All areas of focus will need to be able to respond to newly emerging issues of the day. The royal concepts of development may also need to shift to a different tone that will catch the young generation’s attention as well as be in tune with the global discourse.
Mark Easton said the British Monarchy had its unique reason to exist as an integral part of the British society. This is also true for the Thai Monarchy. The institution has been the important part of Thai history and will always have a place in Thai society. But the place today may not necessarily look like that of yesterday. The institution has increasingly been challenged to rationalize its current place in society. In this process, royal development work will be a vital tool used to help it find new, more solid and sustainable ground.