With Thailand’s political standoff rapidly approaching a point of no return, some are speculating that King Bhumibol Adulyadej may intervene to ease the tension. A royal intervention to resolve a seemingly intractable crisis could add much to the authority and mystique of the monarchy. One of the most powerful and enduring images of the king’s reign dates from 1992 when he publically chastised army commander Suchinda Kraprayoon and protest leader Chamlong Srimuang following the death of scores of protesters on the streets of Bangkok. As Paul Handley wrote in The King Never Smiles, “Bhumipol’s regal intervention, shown on television screens and newspaper pages around the world, quickly became a landmark act of great kingship” (375).
But the imagery of a royal intervention in the current escalating conflict may be very different. Since the earliest days of the campaign to unseat the Samak/Somchai government, the People’s Alliance for Democracy has campaigned in the king’s name. Last month Queen Sirikit offered open public support to the protesters in their campaign to provoke a coup. In the international press, at least, there has been increasingly frank comment on royal support for the protest movement. And now dramatic photos of protesters in royal yellow invading Bangkok’s show-piece Suvarnabhumi Airport are being flashed around the world.
The royal brand has been thoroughly caught up in the PAD’s provocative campaign against an elected government. It is possible that a royal call for restraint may prompt private and public questioning about why it had not come much earlier. Why no word when Government House was invaded? Why no public concern when the PAD’s ultra-nationalist campaign over Phra Viharn bought Cambodia and Thailand close to war? Why no condemnation of the blockade of Parliament? Why no royal advice to the PAD to protest lawfully? Some may see a royal intervention at this stage as too little too late. A great deal of damage has already been done and there is now a real risk that the PAD, who have a strong sniff of victory, may find some face-saving way of deflecting any royal advice.
Of course, the king may focus his attention less on the PAD and more on the government. He may, perhaps very subtly, increase the pressure on the government to dissolve parliament. This would also be risky as it would add fuel to the speculation that the palace has some sympathies towards the PAD’s campaign against the government.
The crisis of 1992 produced a powerful image of the king as an apolitical and independent force stepping in to resolve a political crisis. In 2008 this may be much harder to achieve. The royal brand has been thoroughly caught up in the political turmoil and it may prove very difficult to extract it.