[Recently we featured a new book on Thailand’s monarchy: Saying the Unsayable: Monarchy and Democracy in Thailand, edited by Soren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager. Here is a review of the book by Ji Ungpakorn which I received via email today. AW]

Saying the Unsayable” sets out to help turn the Thai Monarchy into a legitimate subject of study. Its aims are thus very commendable. However, it is doubtful whether the book will legitimise the academic study of the Monarchy inside Thailand. This is not the fault of the book. The fault lies with the authoritarians who control political power in the country. If “Saying the Unsayable” is allowed to be sold openly in Thailand, it will mean that it has not achieved what its title advertises. If it is banned, it will merely confirm the problem of censorship in the country. Streckfuss has a useful chapter in this book about lese majeste. A vitally important lesson from this chapter, which compares Thailand and pre-First World War Germany, is that lese majeste can be beaten if there is significant opposition to its use from actors and movements in society. Sadly, the Human Rights Commission, the press, the NGOs and most academics in Thailand just want to keep their heads down.

Events have a habit of over-taking books. Millions of Red Shirts in Thailand are now saying in public the unsayable thing that they don’t love the King and that the King has manipulated politics through his powers. “Hia Sung Ka!!”, they shout in the streets. They also refer to “ATM card”, a term which is highly insulting to Pumipon. But in believing that Pumipon is an all-powerful monarch, are these millions of Red Shirts really getting at the truth?

The editors of “Saying the Unsayable” announce that they set out to “challenge the standard total view of the Thai Monarchy”. Unfortunately, the book only goes half way in achieving this. This is because the book tends to bask in a cosy atmosphere of mutual academic patronage where “those within the circle” quote each other and ignore difficult debates with outsiders. Many authors seem to have caught the academic equivalent of “Thai Style Democracy” ie. “Thai Style Academic Standards”, where one only reads and quotes the work of friends.

Most contributors believe that Pumipon, as head of “Net Work Monarchy”, is a powerful king and the major instigator of the 19th September military coup. The “elephant in the room” which no one talks about is therefore the Military. An honourable exception is the chapter by Han Krittian, who writes about how the Monarchy…”has been manipulated in order to legitimise attacks on opposition factions”… He states that the Military are out to fight a new Cold War in order to control the country. Yet Krittian’s chapter also has weaknesses. He quotes Ukrist, without any critical analysis or evidence, that Prem persuaded General Sonti to stage the coup. Worse still, he seems to be confused about the hundreds of thousands of yellow-shirted Thais who celebrated the 60th anniversary of the King’s reign, believing them all to be PAD supporters!! (p. 211). In fact Taksin was also celebrating the event in a yellow shirt and his government had decreed that everyone should wear yellow on Monday. The inability to understand why Taksin should be a royalist, like most big bosses in the West, is a serious weakness of this book because it fails to analyse the conservative reasoning why many countries still have monarchies as heads of state, including many Western democracies. Hewison and Kengkij use second rate political economy to try and claim that Taksin’s economic policies were “posing a challenge to the Crown Property Bureau! Nothing could be further from the truth. Taksin’s management of the Thai economy was bringing about a recovery from the 1996 crisis, which benefitted all large business groups, including the CPB. They also claim that Taksin was challenging Palace networks for control of the Military. In fact, I would argue, Taksin and the Military were vying with each other to claim legitimacy from a weak and unprincipled Palace. At one point, Hewison and Kengkij argue that support for the 2006 coup from the Palace was of “critical significance”, without giving any evidence. This ignores the significance of support for the coup from important sections of Civil Society: NGOs, academics and the PAD. They also state that the King chastised Taksin. Yet, when did this occur, if ever? And was it before or after significant movements had already turned against Taksin? In the War on Drugs, the King praised Taksin, but the Bangkok Post and the Nation both reported the opposite.

If the contributors to this book wish to give their beliefs in the King’s power more weight, they should take on and destroy the arguments in my books “A Coup for the Rich” and “Thailand’s Crisis and the fight for Democracy”. However, they seem to have chosen not to concern themselves with such awkward arguments which are widely available and known to them. Were it to come about that “Saying the Unsayable” was not banned in Thailand, like my two books, one might pose the following question. Is it more dangerous to the Thai ruling class to say that the King is all powerful and was behind the coup (as “Saying” states), or to say that the Military are the real power and use the Monarchy to legitimise their actions (as I state in my books)? This question is interesting to me because the Thai ruling class continually tell the population that we live under an Absolute Monarchy with “Thai Style Democracy”. The King is therefore to be feared, obeyed and loved and the Army are “just following orders”. Leaked secret minutes of a meeting in August 2010 of the committee to protect the King, made up mainly of military officers, singled out “Thailand’s Crisis and the fight for Democracy” as an important threat to the Monarchy. Yet, the website Nor Por Chor USA (USA UDD) and Ajarn Chupong, who continually attack the King and claim his power over the Military, were not mentioned. These guys have distributed hundreds of CDs and sound bites in Thai on this theme. What does this mean? Is it that the Military is happy for people to believe that the King is all powerful so they can hide behind him?

For those who claim that the Palace is in charge, when did Pumipon take power back from the Military after 1932? Nattapoll’s chapter argues that the “royalists” took power during the Sarit coups in the 1950s. But are the “royalists” the King and Queen or are they the royalist generals? The royalists were not the only ones to back Sarit either. The Communist Party of Thailand also backed him and communists worked in his newspaper. If Sarit’s coup was not a “communist coup” it was also not a “coup by the King”. In fact the nature of the Military’s involvement in Thai politics has been shaped by factionalism and the struggle against the military by social movements, not by Palace decrees. If the King controls Thai politics, how come Prem was kicked out of premiership in the mid 1980s? How come the people didn’t listen to the King and support the dictator Suchinda in 1992? Pumipon “intervened” in 1973 and 1992 only after blood-shed had taken place and it was clear who had won. He never “quelled violent confrontations between the Military and pro-democracy civilian movements”, as Jackson claims in his chapter. He remained silent in April and May 2010.

“Saying the Unsayable” suffers from a real weakness in political economy. The general theme is to argue that the Palace, the coup makers and other royalists, are against neoliberal globalisation and the free market and that is why they promote the King’s Sufficiency Economy. Jackson claims that “the Monarchy provides a counterpoint to the devastations of the market….” Isager and Ivarsson write that …”the King’s ideas may endorse a critique of globalisation and global capitalism…” and that “Taksin embodied unbridled capitalism”…The editors and contributors should have sought advice from Andrew Walker. In his excellent chapter in the same book, Walker shows that the conservative elites seriously misrepresent the way of life in rural areas. He says: “the mismatch between Sufficiency Economy rhetoric and local economic practice suggests that (the royalists)… may not really (have) a concern with rural development at all”…. “The primary objective of the Sufficiency Economy campaign was to publicly construct a moral connection between royal virtue, the Sufficiency Economy philosophy and the new political regime in which electoral power was to be constrained”. In my books I have argued that Sufficiency Economy was a conservative ideology designed to prevent redistribution of wealth. This makes it a hand maiden of neo-liberalism. In fact the Military and their Constitution, the Democrat Party and all the other royalists, all criticised Taksin’s “dual tracked” economic policies because they believe that the use of state budgets to raise living standards of the poor was against free-market principles and “fiscal discipline”. The junta, which was in power immediately after the coup, privatised the universities. The Democrats earlier tried unsuccessfully to privatise electricity generation. Taksin also tried and failed. King Pumipon is head of a Thai multi-national conglomerate. The royalists are more free-market and pro-neo-liberal globalisation than Taksin. Taksin is obviously in favour of neo-liberal globalisation, but he argued that Thai society should be developed through government spending programmes which made the majority of poor citizens into stake-holders.

The present Thai crisis is not about the King vs Taksin or about conservative inward-looking economic policies vs neo-liberal capitalism and you won’t find a credible explanation of what is going on in most pages of this book.