As Thailand mourns the passing of its late king and prepares to crown a new one, Christine Gray examines the impact of royal image and untold wealth on its prospects for democracy.
As should now be apparent to the entire world, Thailand is engaged in a full-blown ritual convulsion as the citizenry, shepherded by the junta with the delicately calibrated support of “micro-fascist” mobs, collectively mourns their late great king Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The Ninth Reign of the Chakri Dynasty, portrayed as a modern version of the ancient Siamese monarchy, was in large part a creation of US public relations monies and expertise together with massive flows of military aid in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Buddhist monarchy, master of the grand spectacle, reinvented itself as a bulwark against communism, real or imagined, with King Bhumibol as its head.
Based on such an incredible, virtually infallible Hollywood assist, royal “magic” was supported by the accumulated millions and then billions of dollars of the Crown Property Bureau, hidden for decades from public sight.
The accumulation of said funds – His Majesty’s personal wealth or perhaps the property of the Crown, “held in trust for the nation” – was aided by the fact that it was a taboo topic, at least for the press and others of the hoi polloi. Not so for the select royals, even more select military leaders, and Sino-Thai business tycoons who partnered with royal business deals and benefited from the royal favour (phraratchathan).
Thus an initial weakling king, a youthful aficionado of guns and fast cars, was propelled out of his 1950s “dilettante” stage into the acquisition and exercise of formidable moral influence (itthiphon) and carefully disguised power (amnat).
The King’s dilettante stage featured royal hobbies like “le jazz hot,” photography, painting (modern art), and short-wave radio, seemingly innocuous, apolitical activities that functioned as “Janus rituals”. Like all great royal performances of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, they were exquisite, doubled-edged cultural performances that appear to embody the ideals of vastly different societies with vastly different idioms of power, while doing the exact opposite.
By demonstrating the extraordinary range of His Majesty’s skill, the royal hobbies, for instance, indexed His Majesty’s extraordinary virtue (barami) to the native audience, while simultaneously presenting His Majesty’s warm and unassuming human side in terms relatable to Western audiences.
Such a carefully calibrated performance, in tandem with the King’s patent monogamy and heart-warming photographic glimpses into his private family life, mediated near insurmountable antinomies of Siamese “absolutism” and Western democracy, and dispelled popular stereotypes of Siamese kings ingrained in the Western colonial imagination.
The King, under American tutelage, began his rise to power through the creation and melding of hegemonic images that remain viable to the present day.
Royal activities attracted the attention of widespread, critical audiences and overshadowed and overwhelmed less fragrant political allies and business partners – army generals sprung from the narcotics-dealing lineages of the Army of the North. Structured around the Tenfold Virtues of the Buddhist king, these activities embodied His Majesty’s progression on the Path of Purification of the Buddha and Buddhist saints.
Casting an ironclad circle of silence around the business dealings of the Crown Property Bureau, these activities at the same time satisfied his American audiences as to his commitment to capitalist development cum democracy.
As the king’s health began to fail and insouciant Sino-Thai telecommunications billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra launched his challenge, the core of the sacred, official Thai state was reduced to a tottering regime of images supported by a flailing “network monarchy.” The so-called network monarchy was directed by senior statesman Prem Tinsulanonda, now 96 and President of the Privy Council, assisted by other of His Majesty’s ageing associates. It functioned with the seemingly stilted if not sullen participation of the Crown Prince, an occasional player who chose mainly to absent himself from the kingdom.
The crux of network monarchy was careful management of the King’s image, all else being subject to charges of lese-majeste.
The kingdom subsequently segued into a faux constitutional phase run by the invisible hand of the ‘deep state’: some hidden combination of alliances among the military, the police, politicians and select royals, operating via the faux Parliament, the courts and the equally faux justice system in the idiom of constitutionalism.
The Buddhist citizenry and most likely their non-Buddhist counterparts, however, understand the world in terms of vast cycles of cosmic expansion and decline, not some linear movement towards democracy or any other political form.
Perfectly embodying Buddhist truths of anicca or impermanence, King Bhumibol, as is natural, has been afflicted by sickness, old age and death, three of the four “sights” that inspired Prince Gautama in his quest for the great universal truths.
During the first intense 15 days of his funerary rites, close family members, led by the Crown Prince, made merit, propelling King Bhumibol into the lower-level Dusit/Tusita heaven of sensory delights, the abode of future buddhas.
The junta, for the year of mourning, decreed Thailand a “no politics” zone, instead flooding the nation with images, documentaries and photos of the king in his prime.
The Crown Prince, backed by the authority of his pure blood (leuat kasat), his considerable billions and his known propensity for authoritarianism, if not violence by proxy, made taboo any public mention of the royal succession.
Securing the transmission of lineage via meticulous performance of ancient funerary rites in the days immediately following his father’s “passing into heaven” (sawankhot), the prince neatly eliminated any potential rivals to the throne along with any doubts as to the succession. As intended, he made a joke of his supposed proxy, General Prayuth, who stepped all over himself trying to please. More important, he rendered his arch-enemy Prem impotent, “regent” of a kingless state.
Renouncing the lowly interim Parliament’s “naming” of him as king in order to mourn alongside his people, the prince, who resides in Germany, is capable of irony. Coming and going as he pleases, he is also a master of ambiguity.
The king will be cremated next year, his ashes stored at Wat Bowonniwet, the Thammayut temple of the royal family and anywhere else the Crown Prince decides. The royal bones or relics (that) will be raked and collected, distributed by the Crown Prince to a select few.
Over time, His Majesty’s relics, like those of the Buddha, will become ever more saksit (sacred) acquiring magical powers, one assumes, in proportion to the late king’s boundless wisdom and kindness as demonstrated in the vast hail of images flooding the nation and the world, courtesy of the international press.
The government has decreed such displays, along with a newly-invented national dress code evoking mourning customs in the United States, if not Victorian England, as the proper mode of remembrance and thought, the proper way to mourn.
A month after the King’s death, junta chairman Prayuth Chan-o-cha, veering dangerously close to usurping the prerogatives of royalty, provisionally declared the era of King Bhumibol the Great.
After decades awaiting the throne in eye-popping decadence, exercising the absolute powers of “ancient” Siamese kings to the max, Maha Vajiralongkorn, should he survive his own infirmities, will segue into the kingship in its fullest expression. He will use the year of mourning and beyond to “latch on to ” or “borrow” (pheung) the “virtue” (barami) of his father in much the same way that Rama IX and his handlers, over time, systematically conflated his own reign with that of King Rama V, Chulalongkorn the Great, jettisoning inconvenient forebears along the way.
The possibilities are near limitless, constrained only by the prince’s health, his ability to produce heirs, his temperament, and his willingness to cover up his tattoos and maintain a modicum of discretion in his sex life.
The prince will use his royal authority, backed by his billions (or his authority over such), to order compliance among top royals, re-ordering the Royal Family at will and terrifying its members into submission. He will likewise create or cement alliances with the military and police, building a personal security force from the inside out, in the manner of Ramas V and IX.
Even as untold millions in “donations” (borichak) stream into the Palace – the price of participation in the Thai kingdom’s greatest ritual feat to date – the prince now known as Rama X will presumably be the recipient of an invisible stream of contributions from Thailand’s amazing Sino-Thai billionaires, whose empires, under his father’s steadfast rule, rose to the same unimaginable heights as the Crown Properties, in the identical, somewhat mysterious way. That is, if the billionaires wish to remain “Thai” and patriotic as currently defined by the junta.
Far less visibly, the prince will secure the cooperation of influential Buddhist monks, purification of the Sangha, the organisation of Buddhist monks, being a primary duty and prerogative of the Dhammaraja. Should the abbots of the kingdom’s foremost temples somehow offend the new king, they, like recalcitrant royals, uncooperative generals, or too-stingy businessmen, could find themselves without an invitation to the nation’s most auspicious funerary rites, or seated off in a corner.
Thai citizenship in its fullest is a function of ritual participation.
And as the Crown Prince learned from his father, there is only one of him, while greedy military generals like Prayuth, near comic in their efforts to secure royal favour, come and go.
Spectacles require an audience.
Performing as he does the rituals of the Buddhist state, the prince remains at its sacred (soteriological) centre.
He improves his subjects’ rebirth chances by magnanimously allowing them to participate in the kingdom’s great merit ceremonies, mourning alongside him (as audience), performing activities that demonstrate, in the manner of his father, detachment, steadfastness, renunciation and almsgiving.
No mean feat for such a supposed loser and womaniser.
Should the situation displease him, he can always walk off, destroying the kingdom’s ritual centre and taking a substantial chunk of the royal billions with him.
Royalist democracy under King Bhumibol, soon to be proclaimed the Great, is exposed for the great farce it was – a “show” for farang (foreigners) in order to secure military aid in the great Fight Against Communism that defined the early to mid-Ninth Reign. It was a carefully constructed mirror and performance supporting the United States’ own farcical beliefs about itself and its foreign policy.
For the foreseeable future, at least, Thai democracy is dead, strangled by the massive fortune accumulated by King Bhumibol in tandem with Thailand’s ever-shifting military elite, or vice versa
We should have followed the money all along.
Christine Gray, PhD, is a cultural anthropologist who writes about monarchy, ritual, gender and power.