THAILAND is in the final stretch of a nail-biting election campaign, with only three days to go. A surge in support for the opposition party, led by the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, former prime minister, has alarmed the ruling party and its military pals. What better time, then, to publish a book-length online exposé of the “invisible hand” in Thai politics? Armed with a trove of leaked American cables, a British journalist has done just that. The first two parts of his tale, entitled “Thaistory”, are available via his website. A third installment is promised shortly, with a final chapter to follow.
In American political parlance, such an exposé released on the eve of an election might be hailed as an “October surprise”. After all, most news channels love chewing on political conspiracies. But this one has proved far too hot to handle for Thailand’s media. For all the online traffic and Twitter exchanges that “Thaistory” has generated, it has been studiously ignored by Thailand’s mainstream media. Government censors have begun to block access to the story. Only a left-leaning news website, Prachatai, translated the original article (in English) by Andrew Marshall, a former correspondent with Thomson Reuters.
The reason is simple, and woven into the fabric of the conspiracy: the “invisible hand” wishes to stay off-stage in Thailand’s political drama. In case you have not guessed, the hand belongs to the Thai royal family and their courtiers. Mr Marshall traces—often with excruciating detail—how King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his rather dysfunctional family have exercised power behind the scenes, notably during the rise and fall of Mr Thaksin, who was ousted by royalist generals in 2006.
Much of the account may be familiar in its broad outline to readers of this newspaper. But now it is salted with the pungent analysis of American diplomats and their informants, courtesy of WikLeaks. Mr Marshall is not the first journalist to scan these cables for news leads. Other news organisations apparently took a look and passed, either for lack of interest in the subject matter or for fear of upsetting Thailand’s government, which has strict laws to prevent the public discussion of royal affairs. Mr Marshall decided that he would rather quit his job than sit on the story, so he parted ways with Reuters. His former employer says it didn’t publish the story because of concerns over its “length, sourcing, objectivity, and legal issues”.
Presumably, Mr Marshall didn’t expect a newswire to run a book-length article. In its current form, it is a sequel of sorts to The King Never Smiles, a critical biography of Bhumibol that caused a furore when Yale University Press published it in 2006. Thai diplomats went to extraordinary lengths to try to stop or delay that book’s publication. Its arrival during the tense run-up to the coup fed a general paranoia about Mr Thaksin, who had thumbed his nose at royal flummery and styled himself as a sort of father figure to the country, in competition with Bhumibol. Five years on, Mr Thaksin is plotting a comeback via the ballot box, raising the stakes again.
This is the back-story to Thailand’s political convulsions, which is why scholars will be pouring over the “Thaistory”, as will American diplomats and their embarrassed confidants. The Thai public can expect no such privileges from the guardians of public debate. Mr Marshall writes that, “Thailand needs to start dealing with reality”, which includes the likelihood of a messy succession to Bhumibol and the fact that many ordinary Thais no longer believe the royal mythmakers. Easier said than done, which is why politicians can be counted on to ignore these revelations as they race through the final stretch to the polls.