The king and them Dec 4th 2008 From The Economist print edition
The untold story of the palace’s role behind the collapse of Thai democracy
THAILAND’S tourism business, its export industries and its reputation have been wrecked by recent events. Crowds of royalists have occupied the government’s offices for months and then seized Bangkok’s airports. The police refused to evict them. The army refused to help. This week the siege was ended after the courts disbanded three parties in the ruling coalition. But the parties plan to reform under new names and continue governing, so fresh strife threatens. It is as if a thin veneer of modernity, applied during the boom of the 1980s and early 1990s, has peeled away. Until recently a beacon of Asian pluralism, Thailand is sliding into anarchy. The conflict began three years ago as peaceful rallies against corruption and abuse of power in the government of Thaksin Shinawatra. The protesters, wearing royal-yellow shirts and accusing Mr Thaksin of being a closet republican, got their way when royalist generals removed him in the coup of 2006. But on democracy’s restoration last year, Thais elected a coalition led by Mr Thaksin’s allies. The yellow-shirts of the inaptly named People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) revived their protests and adopted increasingly thuggish tactics, prompting Mr Thaksin’s supporters to don red shirts and fight back.
Speak it not Throughout this conflict, the great unmentionable, not just for the Thai press but also for most foreign reporters, has been the role of King Bhumibol, his family and their closest courtiers. The world’s most ferociously enforced law against lèse-majesté (offending the crown) prevents even the mildest discussion of the palace’s role in Thai public life. Such laws are mostly in disuse elsewhere, but Thailand’s was harshened in the 1970s. Absurdly, anyone can bring a lèse-majesté suit. The police have to take seriously the most trivial complaints. All this makes the law a useful tool for politicians and others seeking a way to damage their foes. Often, the press is not allowed to explain the nature of any supposed offence against the crown, so Thais have no way to tell whether it really was so disrespectful.
The lèse-majesté law is an outrage in itself. It should not be enforced in any country with democratic pretensions. Worse is that the law hides from Thais some of the reasons for their chronic political woes. For what the king himself calls the “mess” Thailand is in stems in many ways from his own meddling in politics during his 62-year reign (see article). In part, the strife also reflects jockeying for power ahead of the succession. With the king celebrating his 81st birthday on December 5th, that event looms ever larger. Much of the story of how the king’s actions have hurt his country’s politics is unfamiliar because Thais have not been allowed to hear it. Some may find our criticisms upsetting, but we do not make them gratuitously. Thailand needs open debate if it is to prepare for the time when a less revered monarch ascends the throne. It cannot be good for a country to subscribe to a fairy-tale version of its own history in which the king never does wrong, stays above politics and only ever intervenes on the side of democracy. None of that is true. The official version of Thai history dwells on episodes such as the events of 1992, when Bhumibol forced the resignation of a bloodstained dictator and set his country on course for democracy. But many less creditable royal interventions have gone underreported and are seldom discussed. In 1976, paranoid about the communist threat, the king appeared to condone the growth of the right-wing vigilante movement whose members later took part in the slaughter of unarmed student protesters. In the cold war America saw Bhumibol as a staunch ally and helped finance his image-making machine. This long-standing alliance and the fierce lèse-majesté law have led Western diplomats, academics and journalists to bite their tongues and refrain from criticism. After the 2006 coup, the 15th in Bhumibol’s reign, officials tried to tell foreigners that protocol obliged the king to accept the generals’ seizure of power. Thais got the opposite message. The king quickly granted the coupmakers an audience, and newspapers splashed pictures of it, sending Thais the message that he approved of them. In truth the king has always been capable of showing his displeasure at coups when it suited him, by rallying troops or by dragging his feet in accepting their outcome. And he exerts power in other ways. Since 2006, when he told judges to take action on the political crisis, the courts seem to have interpreted his wishes by pushing through cases against Mr Thaksin and his allies—most recently with this week’s banning of the parties in the government.
No fairy-tale future In the imagination of Thai royalists their country is like Bhutan, whose charismatic new king is adored by a tiny population that prefers royal rule to democracy. In reality, with public anger at the queen’s support for the thuggish PAD and the unsuitability of Bhumibol’s heir simmering, Thailand risks the recent fate of Nepal, which has suffered a bitter civil war and whose meddling king is now a commoner in a republic. The PAD was nurtured by the palace and now threatens to engulf it. An enduring image of the past few days is that of PAD toughs shooting at government supporters while holding up the king’s portrait. The monarchy is now, more clearly than ever, part of the problem. It sits at the apex of a horrendously hierarchical and unequal society. You do not have to be a republican to agree that this needs to be discussed. As The Economist went to press, on the eve of the king's birthday, he was reported to be unwell, and unable to deliver his usual annual speech to the nation. So he had still not repudiated the yellowshirts' claims to be acting in his name. His long silence has done great damage to the rule of law in Thailand. He could still help, by demanding, as no one else can, the abolition of the archaic lèsemajesté law and the language in the current charter that supports it, and so enable Thais to have a proper debate about their future. He made a half-hearted stab at this in 2005, saying he should not be above criticism. But nothing short of the law’s complete repeal will do. Thailand’s friends should tell it so.
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