One of the interesting features of the London seminar by Sondhi Limthongkul and Kraisak Choonhavan was their comments on the role of the monarchy in contemporary Thai politics. (The following is based on my handwritten notes, a full recording of the seminar is available online.)

Sondhi, accepting that some might regard him as an “old romantic fool”, made it clear that he strongly supports “the role of this king” (his emphasis). He proposed that the king holds a “very, very, special place” in Thai democracy and that only the king can get people “the things they deserve”. The king is working to improve society and working with the masses on various development projects (“teaching people to fish, not giving them fish”).

While he acknowledged that there may be some specific problems with some aspects of royal operation (such as some of the activities of the Crown Property Bureau and the Royal Project Foundation) Sondhi suggested that these should be regarded as small matters for the crown to deal with rather than problems of general concern. Sondhi stated that in his long reign the king has done some things wrong but many things right. Ultimately the king is a father figure – “The king is your dad. Though shalt not criticise dad.” There is no comparison, Sondhi argued, between Thaksin and the king. The king has ruled for 60 years, Thaksin only for 6.

Kraisak argued that it is ridiculous to suggest that the monarchy is on the rise in Thailand and said that any suggestions that the king was behind the coup are “absolutely false”. He suggested that the idea of a god-king (deva-raja) is contrary to democratic ideology. Like Sondhi he emphasised the positive role of this king. He referred to the role of the king in protecting people in the violent crises of both 1973 and 1992. He applauded the king for speaking out against Thaksin’s bloodthirsty war on drugs. Like Sondhi, Kraisak also emphased the role of the king in welfare provision: many of the minorities in the north of Thailand would still be very poor if it wasn’t for the king’s projects (whereas Thaksin, he claimed, had annulled the citizenship of many uplanders and, through the free trade agreement with China, destroyed the opium substitution initiatives of the Royal Project Foundation). And, Kraisak argued, prior to the Thaksin era, the “network monarchy” had played an important role in easing tensions in the south.

Many interesting comments. Perhaps most interesting of all was Sondhi’s suggestion that the king himself wants to reform the monarchy. What might this mean?