Thai king a source of continuity in the midst of political chaos

Monday, October 13, 2008

THAILAND: King Bhumibol attracts cultish devotion from his subjects, writes David McNeill in Bangkok

A YEAR ago Chutima Penpak was just one more face in the crowd in Thailand’s choking capital city. Then, on a visit to watch a Lindsay Lohan movie at a Bangkok cinema, the young political science student made a decision that may change her life: she and her boyfriend remained sitting before the opening credits.

The decision, during a song played in honour of Thailand’s King Bhumibol, was greeted by catcalls, verbal abuse and showers of popcorn.

“One guy started screaming at us in English, like he couldn’t imagine a Thai doing this,” she recalls. “He told the staff: ‘I don’t want these people to watch this movie because they don’t respect the king.’ The crowd applauded him.”

In a nation where the king and his family are treated with almost cult-like reverence, Penpak and her boyfriend, Chotisak Onsoong, are part of a very rare breed: anti-monarchists. Their protest may cost them dearly. Thailand has some of the planet’s harshest lese-majesty laws, a feudal hangover that punishes disrespect toward aristocratic authority with jail sentences of up to 15 years.

Although few are punished that severely, the laws are regularly invoked, increasingly against foreigners. Australian author Harry Nicolaides was arrested at Bangkok airport last month for defaming the king in a 2003 book. Last year, Swiss national Oliver Jufer was sentenced to 10 years in jail after he drunkenly defaced portraits of the king with spray paint. The king later pardoned him.

The BBC’s Southeast Asia correspondent, Jonathan Head, has also been singled out by a Thai police boss, who accused the reporter of being part of an “anti-monarchy conspiracy”. Police complained that an image of the king on the broadcaster’s website ran below a picture of exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra. Thai rules demand that images of the king must always be on top.

King Bhumibol has been on the throne since 1946, making him the world’s longest-reigning monarch, and the richest. According to Forbes magazine, his family sits on a $35 billion fortune, with interests in banking, insurance, property and one of Asia’s largest concrete companies. His signature yellow Rolls Royce, which is festooned with images of him and his wife, Queen Sirikit, often stops traffic in Bangkok.

The monarchs are among the first sights that greet visitors to Thailand: their giant portraits are draped across the exit of the capital’s gleaming new international airport. Thais celebrate their national day on the king’s birthday, December 5th, which, tellingly, is known as Father’s Day. Queen Sirikit also has a national holiday named after her: Mother’s Day on August 12th.

Criticism of the king, and discussion about his health or his eventual demise (he is now almost 81) are muted in the media. Talk of who will succeed him, or if the most likely choice, his unpopular only son Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, is up to the job, is rarely aired. “Even discussing his death can be interpreted as lese-majesty,” says Kengkij Kitirianglarp, a doctoral candidate at city’s Chulalongkorn University.

The biggest taboo of all, however, may be the king’s involvement in politics. Although officially reigning over a constitutional monarchy, he is believed to have been an adviser – at the very least – in the 2006 bloodless coup that ousted Thaksin. Without his involvement, the coup would have been impossible,” Thai social critic Sulak Siwalak recently told the BBC.

Observers say he is likely to be a key player if the tanks roll again. “The king is involved in every coup,” points out Kitirianglarp, who like many in the capital fears that more trouble is on its way.

There is no immediate prospect of an end to the bitter standoff between the authorities and the anti-government People’s Alliance for Democracy, whose supporters have besieged the capital’s government buildings since late August. Thailand’s former deputy prime minister warned this week a putsch was the “only way out” of the political stalemate, although the army has waved such speculation away.

King Bhumibol’s enormous popularity is difficult for

outsiders to fathom, but it is partly based on his reputation as a virtuous and modest monarch who has his country’s best interests at heart. He and his wife work hard at serving their subjects; the queen, for example, gave thousands of dollars to Bangkok hospitals treating patients injured in last week’s bloody demonstrations.

But the country’s turbulent political history has also played a major part in his rise to pseudo-divinity. Like a rock in a stormy sea, the Thai king has been a source of continuity and strength through 60 years of chaos and on-off military rule.

His authority is invoked by competing political forces, while ordinary Thais look to him for help when the fragile status quo evaporates, as it did this year.

Critics say the increasing use of lese-majesty is evidence of political insecurity. “Some politicians want to extend the jail sentence to 20 or 30 years,” says Kitirianglarp, laughing bitterly. Meanwhile, Penpak and her boyfriend wait as the authorities decide their fate. “I’m frightened of what will happen, but if I worry all the time about the future I won’t be able to live my life,” she says.



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