Thailand's king and that democracy jazz

Jan McGirk
11 June 2006

A throng of exhilarated Thais – all clad in bright yellow shirts and wearing saffron silicone bands on their right wrists to salute the king – clogged the last two miles of broad avenues leading to Bangkok's Royal Plaza on Friday, 9 June 2006. Police counted close to a million people. Viewed from above, these bright crowds flowed like molten gold.

A preternatural hush swept through the vast grounds as everyone strained to hear the words of a greying figure wearing an elaborate gold brocade mantle. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 78, stood on the palace balcony, flanked by his Queen Sirikit, and addressed the nation:

"Unity is a basis for all Thais to help preserve and bring prosperity to the country in the long run. If Thais uphold these ethics, it will ensure that Thailand will stand firmly."

"Just hearing his voice gives me goosebumps", confessed Noppadol Lekrungruangkit, 27, a Bangkok fitness trainer, who took time off his treadmill for the four-day diamond jubilee extravaganza honouring Thailand's constitutional monarch, also known as Rama IX. After sixty years on the throne, Bhumibol ranks as the world's longest-reigning king.

Most of his 65 million Thai subjects revere their jazz-loving king – who has famously jammed with both clarinettist Benny Goodman and saxophone-player Wayne Shorter – and see him as a moral authority that can enforce harmony. Bhumibol's deft touch has prevented bloodshed and averted crisis more than once. The unassuming Boston-born monarch stepped in at the height of bloody student protests against a military dictatorship in October 1973, and caused the iron-handed generals to flee into exile. He intervened again in May 1992 when three days of street clashes after an attempted military coup had left scores dead.

Jan McGirk is southeast Asia correspondent for the Independent

Also by Jan McGirk in openDemocracy:

"Bambi vs Godzilla in Thailand" (April 2005)

"Bali's message of dialogue" (August 2005) – this article contains the full text of the interfaith "Bali Declaration" of July 2005

"Bali's agony, Thailand's turmoil" (October 2005)

"Kashmir: the politics of an earthquake"
(October 2005)

"Thailand's endemic insurgency"
(November 2005)

"Western NGOs and the tsunami test"
(December 2005)

"Thailand’s rising tide" (February 2006)

"Thaksin Shinawatra: the end of the affair" (April 2006)

A political monarch

When he was crowned in 1946, the same day his older brother died from a mysterious bullet wound, the new king was just 18 years old. As Siam evolved into modern Thailand, this accidental monarch has witnessed seventeen military coups, twenty different prime ministers, and fifteen constitutions. Bhumibol Adulyadej – which translates as "Strength of the Land, Incomparable Power" – rules through prestige, since his legally-defined role is largely ceremonial. The fact that his royal lineage links him to divine rulers makes it unsurprising that so many of his subjects continue to venerate him like a living Buddha: only in 1932 did Siam switch from an absolute monarchy. But in his most recent birthday speech, in December 2005, the king pointedly said that he should not be above criticism.

Bhumibol tends toward understatement and anecdote, and his cryptic homilies are inevitably interpreted by pundits. Many commentators assumed that his December speech alluded to the ugly political feuding that had broken out in Bangkok. The autocratic prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was incensed after a former business partner with political ambitions, Sondhi Limthongkul, ridiculed him for affecting royal pretensions; the police soon charged Sondhi for the crime of lèse majesté, or offending the dignity of a reigning sovereign, which carries a jail sentence.

The crisis around Thaksin developed in autumn 2005, and worsened during the first two months of 2006, as fractious party politics backed by mass protest gatherings in Bangkok's huge, verdant Saman Luang park brought his government to a standstill. The opposition accused the wily Thaksin of hijacking institutions meant to be independent and intimidating his critics through libel lawsuits.

As the country’s political crisis deepened in March, the king replayed his decisive royal act in a 1992 television appearance where he was seen castigating a kowtowing premier, General Suchinda Kraprayoon, and his street-fighting foe General Chamlong Srimuang. They had no answer to Bhumibol's rhetorical question: "What is the use of victory when the winner stands on wreckage?"

The message to Thaksin and his chief adversary Sondhi was plain: King Bhumibol retains all his baramee - royal charisma, power and moral authority - and is untainted by the corruption of workaday politics.

Thaksin continued to manoeuvre in search of political survival and advantage, and called a snap parliamentary election on 2 April. The three main opposition parties boycotted the vote, guaranteeing that Thaksin's decisive win lacked political legitimacy. Again, the king quietly attempted to nudge his country back onto a democratic path by summoning judges to his seaside palace and demanding that the courts "solve the mess" and break the political deadlock.

King Bhumibol is reluctant to issue edicts to end partisan political brinkmanship because he, perhaps more than the kingdom's politicians, values democracy. "You cannot think in haste and pass the buck to the king", Bhumipol reprimanded Thailand's top constitutional jurists. Yet his public appearances and elliptical statements were clearly a consideration that influenced Thailand's constitutional court to rule on 8 May that the April election was invalid.

The popular mobilisation against Thaksin's government coupled with the king's subtle interventions hardly constitute the "silk revolution" that some glib analysts thought they were seeing. Indeed, it all seems rather anachronistic for 2006: hundreds of thousands of Thai citizens on Bangkok's peaceful street marches were – in the polar opposite of the violent, contemporaneous pro-democracy demonstrations in Kathmandu – calling on their king to point the way forward, rather than casting ballots for political reform (far less demanding a republic).

Moreover, after the abortive April election, Thailand's caretaker government is toothless and Thaksin is back at the back at the helm. The country has had no functioning parliament for several months, and the economy is lagging because political uncertainty will continue until new elections are held in mid-October. It is possible that Thaksin may use the ruling populist party he founded, Thai Rak Thai (Thai Loves Thai), as a vehicle to reconsolidate his power by October.

Thus, the regal pomp of Thailand's diamond jubilee can only distract and delay for so long. After the firework displays subside, the king's 2,500 oarsmen will stow their exotic barge paddles and royal guests from twenty-five kingdoms will retreat home from the Chao Praya river with their elaborate goodie bags on 13 June.

That's when the political bickering will resume in Bangkok. A report in the International Herald Tribune quoted political scientist Surat Horachaikul: "The political problems we are facing will resume with full force when the royal celebrations end. It will be like uncorking a soda bottle that has been shaken."

A leading Thai language newspaper, Matichon, predicts that the brief jubilee truce will only serve to recharge all sides of the political spectrum. "A break doesn't mean an end, but a return of fight", the leading commentary said. Less joyous street demonstrations are bound to resume once the festivities close. Military intervention looms as a deciding force in this coup-prone kingdom unless the politicians are able to hammer out some kind of compromise.

The mere prospect presents Thailand's currently marginalised politicians with a heavy responsibility. They must put their heads together and devise political reforms if they expect to counteract Thaksin's powerful personality cult. More broadly, what Thailand needs for a vibrant civil society to evolve are renewed checks and balances, truly competitive elections, and stronger and more representative political parties to contest them.

Amid the uncertainty and the fear, the Thais may come to depend again on their democratic king.

Thailand's King Bhumipol Adulyadej, Rama IX, 1946-present: landmark events

1927: he is born in Boston, Massachusetts, while his royal father was studying medicine at Harvard
1932: bloodless revolution ends centuries of absolute monarchy in Siam
1946: Prince Bhumibol is named king after his older brother is found dead in the palace, though he returns to continue his studies in Switzerland
1950: marries Queen Sirikit and is crowned a constitutional monarch
1951: his first child (of four) is born
1955: he is the first Thai monarch to visit the poverty-stricken northeastern region, beginning decades of development work in rural areas
1960: he makes state visits to seventeen countries (including United States, Germany and France); the saxophone-playing king jams with jazz great Benny Goodman in New York
1964: king's musical compositions performed at Vienna concert
1967: he wins sailing gold medal at Southeast Asian Games
1973: he intervenes to end bloodshed during pro-democracy uprising against military dictatorship
1992: he stops bloody street protests against the military, ushering in a period of democracy
2004: he advocates a "gentle approach" in dealing with violent Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand
2005 (December): he criticises prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a birthday speech
2006 (April): orders country's top courts to resolve the political crisis, saying country is in a mess
2006 (June): he celebrates sixty years on the throne, and defuses the political crisis

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