Earlier today we posted an extract from an article in The Australian which discusses some of the royal intrigues influencing the current showdown in Bangkok. Much of this, and similar, analysis is speculative. Nonetheless it has become increasingly clear that the international media, in an effort to explain events in Thailand to a bemused readership, is now forced into challenging the long-standing effort to curtail discussion of the royal family’s political role. The People’s Alliance for Democracy and its overt use of royal symbolism can take most of the blame for this turn of events. The old taboo is being slowly but surely whittled away.
In this post we have assembled various statements from the international media that show how the old taboo is being challenged. The sieges of Suvaranbhumi and Don Muang airports are truly exceptional events. It is unsurprising that they have generated some exceptional news coverage.
The heir to the throne, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn will not command the reverence enjoyed by his father. He is very unpopular and unacceptable to many Thais, who prefer his sister Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, though she has never married and has no immediate heir. None of this is openly discussed by the Thai media, which is shackled by strict lèse-majesté laws which make it a crime to offend the monarchy, but the future of the Chakri Dynasty goes to the heart of the current power struggle. (Ian Williams, “Thailand’s political maze: A beginners guide“, MSNBC, 26 November 2008.)
While the 80-year-old has lost none of his moral authority – many of Thailand’s 65 million people regard him as semi-divine – he has undergone several operations since 1992 and spent three weeks in hospital last year with a blood clot on the brain. At the cremation of his elder sister this month he walked with a pronounced shuffle and looked frail, raising questions about his ability to stage another dramatic political intervention. “My thinking is that the king is not part of the equation any more,” one Bangkok-based diplomat said. However, the king’s annual address to the nation on the eve of his Dec 5 birthday may provide an opportunity for him to comment on the crisis. There are also fears that the palace’s official political neutrality was badly compromised by Queen Sirikit’s alignment with the PAD, made explicit when she attended the funeral of a 28-year-old woman killed in clashes with riot police last month. (Reuters, “Thai power base useless in bridging social divide” ABC News, 28 November 2008.)
Queen Sirikit, the monarch’s outspoken spouse, has been more public in airing her views. She expressed sympathy for the protesters by offering financial assistance to those injured during clashes in October with the police. And in what was seen as an extraordinary move, she attended the funeral of a protester who died from wounds apparently inflicted by the explosion of a tear-gas canister in October. Protesters saw her attendance as a “green light” for their activities, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies. (Thomas Fuller, “Thai protesters gird for a crackdown“, International Herald Tribune, 28 November 2008.)
WHO IS BACKING PAD? The alliance of royalist businessmen, academics and activists says it gets 1 million baht ($28,000) a day from the public. Analysts suspect it is also bankrolled by anti-Thaksin business interests, parts of the army and palace figures, including Queen Sirikit, who attended the funeral of a PAD supporter killed in clashes with police. (“Q+A: Thailand’s intractable political crisis“, Reuters, 27 November 2008.)
Police forces dispersed with tear gas a similar mass protest at parliament on October 7, resulting in one death, hundreds of injuries and an unusually overt show of royal support for the protest movement, witnessed in Queen Sirikit’s attendance at the victim’s funeral and offer to pay injured protesters’ medical bills. By law the Thai royal family is above politics, but PAD leaders have claimed through their protests that former premier Thaksin Shinawatra threatened the monarchy’s role in Thai society. (Shawn W. Crispin, “More turmoil in beleaguered Bangkok“, Asia Times Online, 25 November 2008.)
Rather than a passport, those wishing to get through [to the PAD campat at Suvarnaphumi Airport] need only flash a plastic PAD handclapper or the yellow scarf of the royalist protest movement. Yellow is the “birthday colour” of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand’s revered monarch whom the PAD say they are protecting from a plot by ousted and exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to turn the country into a republic. (Ed Cropley, “Welcome to Bangkok airport – no passport needed“, Reuters, 29 November 2008.)
The genie is out of the bottle. It remains to be seen if the Thai media, emboldened by the reporting of their international colleagues, now begin to take on some of these same issues.