Reading the (yellow) tea leaves in Thailand

Posted: Friday, December 05, 2008 10:18 AM
Filed Under: Bangkok, Thailand

By Ian Williams, NBC News correspondent

BANGKOK, Thailand – A strange thing happened in Bangkok today on the king’s 81st birthday. Very few people wore yellow.

In Thailand, colors represent different days of the week. Yellow is the royal color, since it stands for Monday and King Bhumibol Adulyadej was born on a Monday. On his previous birthdays Bangkok has been a sea of yellow. Not today.

Thai King Bhumibol Adulyad
AFP – Getty Images

Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej sitting next to Queen Sirikit during a review of the honor guard for his birthday celebrations on Tuesday.

There may be a straightforward explanation for this. Yellow was the color worn by the royalist anti-government protesters, the Peoples Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which seized Bangkok’s main airports and closed them for more than a week, causing immense damage to Thailand’s economy and image.

Most Thais were appalled by this, and by the increasingly cult-like behavior of the PAD’s leaders and the violence of their armed “security guards,” and simply don’t want to wear anything associated with them.

But the lack of yellow today does beg a bigger question: has the PAD by its actions damaged the very institution it claimed to be defending?

No show
The PAD is backed by conservative elements in the royal palace. Queen Sirikit has been quite open in her support, which emboldened the protesters. And it was this perceived royal backing that allowed them to act with such impunity, the police and army unwilling or unable to intervene.

The king himself has said nothing, which is why Thais were keenly awaiting his annual birthday address Thursday, which they hoped would help calm the charged political atmosphere here.

But the king didn’t attend his eve-of-birthday gathering at the palace and there was no speech. That’s never happened before during his six decades on the throne.

Instead Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn gave a brief greeting on his father’s behalf. His sister, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn then explained that her father has “some minor illness.”

Fevered speculation
This has triggered fevered speculation: Is the ailing king seriously ill? Is he just fed up with the poisonous politics of his bickering subjects? Or is he sending a message?

Those who support the message theory say he’s signaling his general disapproval of what’s been happening, or perhaps he is trying to sow unease among political leaders by saying nothing and keeping them guessing as to where he stands.

Another theory has it that the king didn’t want to say anything because he didn’t want to be used and was aware that whatever he said would be seized upon and misconstrued by both sides.

Or perhaps the 81-year-old monarch just wanted a rest, suggesting by his absence that Thailand’s politicians grow up and sort these things out for themselves, which they will have to learn to do with his inevitable passing.

We may never know, but certainly yellow is for now out of vogue.

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