– A debate on the hitherto taboo subject of the role of the monarchy in starts behind closed doors Wednesday at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, at a time of great political uncertainty and an outpouring of national devotion for the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The prestigious International Conference on Thai Studies, held every three years, has included several potentially explosive seminars that plainly deal with the role and future of the palace in Thai society – a discussion that normally only takes place privately in Thailand for fear of legal and social sanction.
The boldest – in Thai terms – discussion could take place when a panel of foreign and Thai professors debate the merits of a generally hostile and highly controversial recent biography of King Bhumibol, The King Never Smiles, that is banned in Thailand.
The book views the monarchy as an anachronism. The author, a former correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, trashes the king’s life to the extent of criticising his painting and saxophone playing.
The American author of the book, Paul Handley, who may never again be allowed into Thailand, will nevertheless present a paper about the powerful Privy Council at the conference, read in absentia by the chair.
The role of the Privy Council in Thailand is delicate because its chief, retired general and former prime minister Prem Tinsulanonda, is thought by many Thai analysts to be the main instigator behind a September 2006 coup that ousted controversial prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Another presentation will consider abolishing the century-old lese majeste laws that are used to squash debate about the role of monarchy and have frequently been used as weapons in political squabbles.
These debates will take place over three days during the mourning period of the king’s respected elder sister Princess Galayani, who died last week, reminding the nation that the late princess’s brother is also an increasingly frail 80 years old.
The king is widely seen in Thailand as having played a vital restraining, correcting role for most of the time since his coronation in 1950. His son and heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, is said by analysts to have little of his father’s popularity, experience or dedication in the eyes of ordinary Thais.
This extraordinary examination of the role of the monarchy comes after some foreign academics proposed last year a boycott of the conference if its organisers rejected any papers that grappled with Thailand’s contemporary political problems, alluding to a military and older elite contending for power with a ruthless and allegedly corrupt former telecommunications tycoon Thaksin.
This year’s conference is officially themed around transnationalism and the erosion of borders in the modern world. Chris Baker, a Thai-based historian, wrote recently of the conference ‘One border that may be swept away is the thick black line between what can be said inside the country, and what already is being said outside it.’
The boycott call appears to have fizzled out and popular Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn is scheduled to open the conference. All participants have been requested to wear black in memory of Princess Galayani.
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