King Bhumibhol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work
Edited by Anand Pancharayun, Nicholas Grossman, Dominic Faulder
Editions Didier Millet, 384 pp.
On the train hurtling through the center of the city, the crowd of people packed in tight and holding the hand straps, are all wearing nearly identical attire: yellow polo-style shirts with a royal crescent on them, yellow hats, and pins displaying the face of a slim, serious-looking older Asian man. Many wear wristbands with his face as well, and carry signs and flags covered in yellow and with more pictures of his face. Departing the train in the central business district, I pass giant billboards showing the man in a variety of poses: bending down low to speak with a villager prostrate on the ground before him; standing in fields handing out advice to farmers; pinning decorations on soldiers. Makeshift signs praising him hang out of store windows, and pictures of his face adorn nearly every shop, restaurant, and even the smallest street stalls selling cheap noodles or curries. Later in the day, when I head to one of the movie theaters to catch a showing of a subtitled American film, everyone in the theater stands erect and motionless before the showing, as music plays for several minutes and the screen shows a gauzy montage of the beneficent leader. No one dares sit for a second during the montage – people who have done so have been berated, attacked by other cinema-goers, and even arrested for daring to show disrespect to the leader.
North Korea? Uzbekistan? Chavez’s Venezuela? No, these scenes are of Thai King Bhumibhol Adulyadej , who has ruled his country for more than six decades. Thailand is a relatively open country with a free economy, and a society highly connected to the Internet, not the kind of place a Kim Jong-ilesque personality cult might exist. It held free national elections last July, and the Thai monarchy is a constitutional one. The king is only a ceremonial head of state and politicians really rule the country.
Thailand’s royal palace has helped foster popular devotion to the king by instilling pro-royalist sentiments through the education system and creating massive national propaganda campaigns to boost the king’s image. It should be noted that the reverence most Thais feel for Bhumibhol–for most the only monarch they have ever known–is real. It is based on the king’s many years of work on behalf of the country’s poor, his trips to rural areas where he has attempted to foster better agricultural methods, and the relatively modest, down-to-earth personal style he employs in dealing with commoners. But much of his people’s affection for the king stems from his successful mediation in several of Thailand’s bloodiest political crises of the last four decades–crises during which the public believed only the king could have saved Thailand from a political meltdown.
A savvy King Bhumibol has always portrayed himself as a figure above the fray of electoral politics, moreover one with incorruptible moral and liberal instincts who could promote Thai values in a way that no politician could. Moreover, his immense wealth insulated him against any financial inducements.
But now, the downside of a monarch involving himself in national politics – have become all too apparent. Thailand, like a number of other countries – Bhutan, Cambodia, Nepal, Morocco,- that made a transition to democracy but never completely removed the influence of their once all-powerful monarchs. This has been a quandary faced by some non-monarchies as well. Places like Turkey for years and Pakistan and Egypt today, where one powerful unelected figure is relied upon to bail the country out of crises. Like his peers in those countries, King Bhumibhol has failed to use his moral standing to create lasting change, hindering the development of institutions that could be called upon to solve political problems. And those problems are spiraling. This is particularly of concern as the king is clearly near the end of his life, he reportedly suffers from Parkinson’s and other ailments. His appointed successor, 59-year old army officer and playboy Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, enjoys little of the respect accorded his father. Thais fear that, without Bhumibhol, their society could quickly descend into chaos.
Chaos had also threatened in the spring of 1992 when Bangkok was boiling with unrest. A military junta had overthrown a civilian government the previous year, but unlike many previous coups in Thai history, this time the public came out in force in the capital to protest in the aftermath of the military takeover. Eventually, as protests swelled in the spring of 1992 to hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, the military cracked down, shooting into crowds in what came to be known as “Black May” and killing at least fifty people. Eventually, on the evening of May 20, 1992, the king called the junta leader, Suchinda Kraprayoon, and the main protest leader, Chamlong Srimuang, to his palace in Bangkok. As national television channels showed the scene, the two men crawled on the floor before King Bhumibol, showing – in the minds of many Thais – that even the powerful military bowed to the king. The monarch lectured both men on the need for unity, and to bring an end to the killing in Thailand,. The junta stepped down, paving the way for a return of civilian rule, ushering in the most democratic decade in Thailand’s history.
Most Thais have had little opportunity to find non-hagiographic accounts of King Bhumibol’s life and rule. It was not until 2006, when American journalist Paul Handley, who had lived for two decades in Thailand, produced the first truly critical biography of the monarch in The King Never Smiles. Though officially banned in Thailand, it was quickly snapped up by many educated Thais overseas. When I visited one of the finest independent bookstores in Singapore, after the book was released, the owner told me that Handley’s book was almost always sold out, with most of the copies going to visiting Thais. The book, along with new online forums hosted abroad or hidden through remote servers, offered greater opportunity for discussion of and criticism of the monarchy, as did a series of cables recently released by Wikileaks in which U.S. ambassadors discuss Thai monarchy with great frankness.
Probably recognizing that these critical accounts were blossoming, the palace, in collaboration with several pro-royalist politicians and opinion leaders, decided to release a history of the Thai monarchy and biography of the current king that, in theory, would not just be a hagiography. For this new book, King Bhumibhol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work, they recruited some of the best-known, independent, foreign scholars of Thailand, to contribute to the work, which was produced by a kind of committee headed up by Anand Pancharayun, a respected former prime minister. Several of the foreign scholars had been critical of the monarchy, and indeed parts of the well-written and detailed book do make an attempt to analyze aspects of Thailand’s monarchy, its history, and its long-term effect on Thailand in a balanced way. One section, for instance, admits that, contrary to a national myth, Thailand has been an extremely hierarchical society, and royal succession in the past was often a brutal and bloody affair, with various sons of the king trying to claim the throne by essentially butchering one another. The book reflects thoughtfully on how ossified the politics of Thailand has become, and how the all-encompassing the Bhumibhol cult has developed. But it basically fails to deal with the major problem of his long reign: that he has left Thailand without effective instructions for its difficult future, with himself as the only stable institution.
When Bhumibhol was crowned in 1950, at only twenty-three years old, it was hardly predestined that the slight, Swiss-educated schoolboy would become the central figure in modern Thailand, or that the monarchy would even survive. A group of Thai activists had overthrown the absolute monarchy in 1932, and during the 1930s and 1940s, when Bhumibhol’s older brother Amanda reigned as constitutional monarch, there was open discussion of whether the country even needed a king. The old practices of commoners prostrating themselves before royalty, and speaking of the king in a special, obsequious language, had been abolished or gone out of use. The communists fighting for an end to colonial rule in neighboring countries, which also had had monarchies, eventually would rid their countries of royal heads of state. Many of the Thai military leaders who ruled the country in the 1940s and early 1950s had little use for the young king, who took over after his brother died. As Bhumibhol himself later told New York Times reporter Barbara Crossette, ‘When I’d open my mouth and suggest something, they [the army leaders] would say: ‘Your Majesty, you don’t know anything.’ So I shut my mouth. I know things, but I shut my mouth.” Meanwhile, as Thailand began to modernize in the 1960s, eventually turning into one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and an export powerhouse, some Thais assumed it naturally would become a full democracy and a technologically advanced country, and one where royalty would be left as a colorful vestige of the past, as in many European nations. And yet the monarch did not go away. In fact, over time Bhumibhol grew steadily more powerful, gaining influence over the military, elected politicians, and businesspeople. The Crown Property Bureau, the palace’s holdings, would come to own billions worth of property in the country, making Bhumibhol, according to Forbes, one of the richest men in the world. The old practices of obsequious language, abject prostration and magical powers supposedly imbued to the king were restored, to the point that last year one Thai television host, lying on the ground, excitedly ate part of a cupcake because it was being fed to a princess’s dog. And many of the technological tools that became widely used in Thailand as the country indeed grew wealthier, like the Internet, were put to use in service of glorifying the monarch and crushing the kind of critical discussions of royalty that had been common in Thailand after World War II.
If in 1950 Bhumibhol had seemed a dilettante young royal, more interested in playing jazz on his beloved saxophone than in politics, he learned quickly. By the late 1950s, he had built a close alliance with Thailand’s then-military leader, Sarit Thanarat, and soon made himself invaluable to Thailand’s most important foreign patron, the United States, which would base the Vietnam War out of Thailand and saw the monarchy as a critical tool to stemming the growth of communism in Thailand. Bhumibhol and his queen, Sirikit, made a grand tour of the U.S., getting a ticker-tape parade in New York City, and were featured again and again in Time magazine as staunch advocates of fighting communism in Asia. Bhumibhol also began to develop a retinue of skillful advisors, who would come to wield influence behind the scenes through indirect nudges and hints to politicians and the military, and the king slowly started restoring many of the old rituals of the absolute monarchy, such as elaborate royal ceremonies that harkened back to pre-Buddhist traditions. He learned to use the radio, films of his tours of the countryside, and even the jazz compositions he wrote to portray himself as humble and caring. His savvy publicity aides increasingly incorporated the king’s personal stories, and wisdom, into school curricula, agricultural projects, economic theories, and much more. They organized lavish birthday celebrations for him, and encouraged all Thais to wear yellow, the king’s color. “From the lowliest office to mega-ministries, images of the King and royal family appear … The King’s aphorisms circulate in memos reminding [bureaucrats] of their duties … This king’s apparent omnipresence has intensified … all state agencies have complied in propagating [him],” writes Thailand scholar Michael K. Connors.
At its best, this model of a figure who is seen as above the political fray, can help see a country in transition through rocky times. In post-Franco Spain, for instance, the young King Juan Carlos helped open up the country’s politics to a new generation of elected leaders. When a coup threatened that emerging democracy in 1982, Juan Carlos publicly stood up against the military plotters, and rallied troops loyal to him personally to help put down the putsch and keep democracy viable. As Spain’s democracy has become stronger and less threatened by the army, the Spanish monarch stepped back, easing into a completely ceremonial role.
But sometimes, in places, like Thailand and Pakistan, the lure of such a leader is hard to resist, particularly as citizens tire of the tough work of democracy. During the 1980s, as Thailand’s democracy began to blossom, Bhumibhol and the rest of the royal family made a series of alliances with some of the most conservative members of the armed forces, who were attempting to take Thailand back in time, according to an article then by the Far Eastern Economic Review. As another Bhumibhol biographer, Andrew Marshall noted, in so doing the palace alienated many progressive Thais, infuriated and saddened by the king’s continuing closeness to the military. As Thailand’s democracy continued to develop, with regular elections and a budding two-party system emerging in the 1990s, the king failed to shed his conservatism, his skepticism of democracy, and his belief that the country would always need a king to handle crises. He played little role in the passing of the 1997 constitution, and then, in the 2000s, continued to warn against the evils of elected politicians while using a series of veiled speeches to Thailand’s judges to issue rulings that weakened the power of elected men and women.
In so doing, he fostered distrust of elected politicians, harming the country’s democratic culture – how could people trust parliament to resolve crises on its own if the king has such a low opinion of politicians? Bhumibol also took little interest in helping enshrine civilian rule over the military, or fostering the independence of Thailand’s highest courts, which in other societies function as a crisis-mediator of last resort. In Thailand it is a function the king had long provided. Ultimately, in 2006, the armed forces launched another coup; though it was increasingly anachronistic in a post-Cold War world, the king rushed to bless the coup-makers as legitimate, essentially meaning that another generation of Thai officers would come of age believing that the military had the royal stamp of approval to play politics.
The king was not alone in standing against the tide. Those groups in Thailand who have gained the most from their ties to and protection of Bhumibhol – the elite, middle class businesspeople, the army, wealthy pro-royalist politicians – also are desperately trying to avoid discussions of his mortality, or a possible transition to real constitutional monarchy, and the democratic opening and creation of other institutions that could allow. The fear has led Bhumibhol’s allies to begin using the harshest lese majeste laws in the world to jail ordinary Thais – including one Thai-American U.S. citizen — who simply try to discuss the institution of monarchy. In one notable case illustrating the intensity and absurdity of this crackdown, a Thai court recently jailed an elderly man, suffering from cancer, for sending four text messages that allegedly criticized the monarchy. The man said he had not sent the messages and had no idea how to text; the court admitted it could not prove he had sent them, but jailed him anyway. At the same time, educated, tech-savvy Bangkokians have only upped the Bhumibhol cult, using Facebook pages, viral videos, and other tools to make obsequious paeans to the king, and to menace anyone who does not show what they view as proper respect to his majesty.
Elites and middle class Thais now live in fear that change, and more democracy, will lead to a country controlled by the votes of the poor, whom they see as uneducated fools incapable of using the franchise wisely, says Pavin Chavalongporn, a leading Thai scholar at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. Indeed, said one pro-democracy advocate, “The elite, middle class, they are addicted to the palace now.” In the early 2000s, Thaksin Shinawatra, a charismatic, populist politician, brought together poor voters for the first time in Thailand, uniting them to back one party – his party, which soon came to dominate Thai politics, since the rural poor still comprised a majority of the population. The king clearly disdains Thaksin, and while many liberal elite and middle class Thais indeed worried about Thaksin’s autocratic tendencies – he launched a “war on drugs” that soon turned into killings of alleged opponents, and he paid little heed to opposition parties – the elite and middle class also feared that their economic and political privilege, long protected by the palace, also would be hurt by Thaksin and his poor supporters. In fact, in 2006, middle class Bangkokians launched street protests against Thaksin, and those demonstrations, in which many protestors called for military intervention, ultimately provided the spark for the royally endorsed coup that year, and five years of increasingly bloody clashes in Bangkok between supporters and opponents of Thaksin.
This attachment to a figure who seems to hover above politics, and to someone who can keep democracy away from the rabble — is not unique to Thailand. In Egypt today, many of the secular, liberal urbanites who were at the forefront of the protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak a year ago now have supported a continued role in politics for the army, supposedly as a bulwark against Islamism. But, by continuing to meddle, the Egyptian armed forces, like Bhumibhol, likely will make it harder for other institutions, like the elected president or the Egyptian courts, to earn the public respect and establish themselves as crisis solvers. So too, in Pakistan, many liberal elites curse the rule of venal elected politicians and hope for the army chief of staff to again command government, and as a result few elected governments ever serve out their full terms, or are able to make the kind of lasting impact on Pakistani society that would bolster support for democracy. In Cambodia, Thailand’s next-door neighbor, many urban liberals, tired of the thuggish and corrupt rule of longtime prime minister Hun Sen, yearn for a restoration of greater power vested in that country’s monarchy, which has now shrunk to mostly constitutional status.
In fact, even in many developing countries that had been counted as democratic success stories and had little recent tradition of an unelected man above politics, politicians’ increasing failure to govern effectively has led to growing popular fondness for an unelected savior, even if that means undermining democratic institutions. The global economic meltdown of the past four years, which has exposed weaknesses in governing everywhere from Greece to Singapore, as governments struggle to respond effectively, has only heightened disillusionment with electoral politics and boosted hopes for another alternative. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2011 Democracy Survey, released in December, which analyzes democracy in every nation using a range of criteria, similarly found that “democracy has been under intense pressure in many parts of the world,” and that the quality of democracy had regressed on nearly every continent in 2011. In India, where the Congress party governs in an unwieldy coalition and even the supposedly incorruptible prime minister Manmohan Singh has seen his party enmeshed in graft scandals. Middle class Indians recently have rallied around Anna Hazare, an unelected anti-corruption campaigner who holds rallies and goes on hunger strikes to pressure the government. But he too seems to disdain India’s electoral politics. “We elect the people’s representatives so they can solve our problems,” one supporter of Hazare told the New York Times. “But that is not actually happening.” In the Philippines, the original home of “People Power,” middle class urbanites have twice in the past decade, used street protests to try and topple an elected president, with some of the protestors openly hoping for the military to step in. In Indonesia, once considered the ultimate democratic success story of the 2000s – the Obama administration reportedly has studied its transition closely, as a potential model for the Middle East – citizens have grown so disillusioned with democratic politics, increasingly dominated by wealthy businessmen, that in one recent poll a majority of them said that things were better under the rule of longtime dictator Suharto. Indeed, as researchers Yu-tzung Chang, Yun-han Chu, and Chong-Min note, after studying surveys called the Asia Barometer, many countries in Asia, including even vibrant democracies like Taiwan and South Korea, still have a high degree of “authoritarian nostalgia” among the public
As President Barack Obama visits the country there is evidence of this nostalgia. Groups of middle and upper-class Thais are gathering, part of a group called Pitak Siam, to call for the current, democratically elected government to step down. Many of the group’s followers are openly agitating for a new military coup. King Bhumibol , who will meet with the American president has said almost nothing to condemn Pitak Siam.