[This is the text of my presentation to Thailand on the Verge held at ANU on 21 April 2010.]

In the village where I work in northern Thailand there is a carpenter who became a fan of the September 2006 military coup. In the wake of the coup, numerous photos of the king were distributed in the village. The carpenter’s positive feelings about the coup did not result from royalist sentiment, but from the windfall income he earned from making wooden frames for the royal portraits. Duly framed, the pictures were hung in village living rooms along other images of the king and his family, fading photos of long deceased grandparents, posters of famous Buddhist monks, out of date calendars featuring Thaksin and local politicians, images of Chulalongkorn, the Buddha, and other deities, university degrees, and elaborate clocks mounted on posters of waterfalls and flower gardens.

These mini-galleries of power and auspiciousness are very revealing of a common political world view in Thailand. This is a world view in which power comes in many forms. The king is one source of power and sacred potency but he does not necessarily occupy a pre-eminent position. The popular Thai cosmos is full of all sorts of power and influence and Thais are adept at hedging their bets in maintaining a diverse network of relationships with potential sources of prosperity and protection. This is not a zero sum game. Thailand’s masses readily accept that two, or more, styles of leadership and charity can exist side by side.

But some members of Thailand’s elite have a much more rigid view about power and they are much less adept in grasping the nuances of Thai culture. Whereas the villagers in northern Thailand pursue human security through cultivating connections with power in many different forms, the official Thai position is that the king’s symbolic potency lies at the centre of national security. This selective and elite narrative of security asserts that the king is the pre-eminent site of virtuous and disinterested power rather than accepting that he represents just one of the many ways in which leadership can be expressed. As the Thai Embassy wrote in their recent protest to the Australian government about the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent report “We consider this an issue of national security… because the royal family, the monarchy, in our constitution is above politics.” The monarch, in other words, is not located in the crowded sphere of popular power, but floats above it, defined as sacred by constitutional fiat, backed by draconian law.Of course it has not always been like that, and when Bhumibol first came to the throne there were figures in the government that welcomed his weakness and malleability. Hard line princes fumed about the impotence of a young, inexperienced and, in many respects, un-Thai king. It was an inauspicious start to a long reign. But powerful military men and politicians found it useful to cultivate the royal charisma. The current assertions of Bhumibol’s central role in national security are the product of a 60 year process of political manipulation.

But attempts to maintain the position of the king at the symbolic apex of Thailand’s power have come badly unstuck in recent years. When soldiers staging the 2006 coup tied royal yellow ribbons around barrels of their guns, they were very publicly drawing the king back into a very messy political realm. Their actions were no different to those of the many other Thais who will adorn themselves with various forms of supernatural protection before undertaking hazardous enterprises, such as driving a car. But the soldier’s public performance of this aspect of Thai popular culture highlighted that, far from being a neutral force for stability, the king was a source of quite specific power that could be called upon to support partial and pragmatic objectives. This became all the more evident in the months and years that followed the coup, climaxing when the yellow shirts campaigned under the king’s banner, and with the queen’s explicit support, for the overthrow of the elected post-coup government. Nobody knows how the king himself felt about this squandering of his carefully cultivated symbolic capital. But it is clear that neither he nor his advisors did anything about it, seemingly willing to stake all on a high risk and zero-sum campaign to destroy Thaksin’s political influence.

For a robust monarchy, these may be short term symbolic setbacks that could be addressed by a sustained public relations campaign. But this is no longer possible for the current king. The succession looms large. Thailand is now faced with the prospect of King Vajiralongkorn.

Vajaralongkorn has not had a good press. In the Thai media it seems to be a matter of the less said the better. The international press–which is widely translated and read in Thailand–has been less restrained. Issues have come to a head recently with The Economist writing about, and the ABC actually broadcasting, the notorious birthday party video in which the Prince appears with his favourite poodle and his virtually naked wife.

I am sure that some observers of Thailand are concerned about the extent to which some public discussion of the Thai monarchy has descended into what they see as childish irreverence. But I think there is something much more significant going. Irreverence has a place in the contestation and evaluation of sacred power.

Gossip about the royal family is ubiquitous in Thailand, and it is part of a popular political culture that is fundamentally personalised and profane. There is a rich tradition of gossip, rumour and slander about the Crown Prince himself, complete with irreverent nicknames and unlikely tales of underworld connections. The birthday party video fell on fertile cultural ground. Internet discussion boards show little restraint in speculating about the Crown Prince. This cultural preoccupation with salaciousness is part of an ongoing cultural discussion about power and sacred authority. In a cosmos where there are numerous sources of power it is not necessary to place one particular source on a pedestal and stick with it through thick and thin. In the absence of open public debate about the role of the monarchy, rumour, gossip and irreverence becomes a central resource in popular evaluations of power.

Some of you may recall that there was a flurry of outrage when Thaksin spoke favourably about the Crown Prince’s shining royal future in an interview last year. As I noted on New Mandala, Thaksin was breaching one of Thailand’s most delicate taboos. Everyone knows that it is culturally inappropriate, and extremely insensitive, to discuss the Crown Prince in favourable terms. Thaksin’s comments highlighted anxiety that a symbolically weak king will open up spaces in Thai political life where alternative forms of political authority can be asserted.

For this reason I think that King Vajiralongkorn will be good for Thai democracy. Given his very limited stock of symbolic power he will be incapable of occupying a dominant position at the centre of the Thai polity. If he was younger, there may be potential for another long round of royal myth-making, but there are real questions about Vajiralongkorn’s physical, intellectual or political capacity for that enterprise. This weakness is a virtue. Under Vajiralongkorn there is the prospect of a more culturally open orientation to power in Thailand. As the Thai embassy in Canberra has argued, this is a matter of national security because the current vulnerability of the monarchy raises the prospect of a nation in which security is defined in more diverse and inclusive terms.

The defence of the monarchy as a pre-eminent national institution is going through its death throes in Thailand. I fear that these may be very violent death throes indeed. But whatever happens, the royal institution has been fundamentally changed, not by red republicanism but by the royalists undermining their own carefully constructed imagery. With Vajiralongkorn as king, their chances of rebuilding it are slim.