TSB Note: While we are all waiting for #thaistory part 3, which has been promised “soon”, here’s an important article by Bill Schiller in The Star.
BANGKOK—Towering high in the heavens overlooking the courtyard of Bangkok’s Siriraj Hospital stands an illuminated portrait of Thailand’s King Bhumibol, with a garland of dazzling neon lights proclaiming, “Long Live The King.”
But how long does the king have to live?
On his own private floor in this hospital on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, the 83-year-old king has battled Parkinson’s, depression and a series of strokes since being admitted here in September 2009.
Now his days appear numbered, a fact that has many in this nation of 68 million worried.
Stock markets have tumbled on rumours of his death. As recently as May another round of rumours sent foreign diplomats scrambling for confirmation.
Days later the royal household rolled the monarch out in a wheelchair, calming nerves.
The longest reigning monarch in the world — he was crowned in 1950 — King Bhumibol Adulyadej is also the world’s richest by far. His $30 billion in treasure makes Saudi Arabian King Abdullah’s $18 billion look modest by comparison; Queen Elizabeth’s estimated $500 million seems like pocket change.
But what is more important is this: although he is a constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol is worshipped and adored as a demi-god here, a semi-supernatural force that binds the nation.
When he goes, many fear an eruption could occur in this ever-fractious country, increasingly known for its political street battles.
“It will be a gigantic moment,” says Paul Handley, author of the definitive and unauthorized biography, The King Never Smiles.
“No one really knows what will happen. And that’s why people are frightened.” Handley’s book, which is banned in Thailand but widely available in photocopy form on the street, chronicles a dysfunctional royal family that would rival any from Shakespeare’s best historical plays: a good king, the plotting wife, a flawed son who is the heir apparent — who bizarrely made his pet dog an air marshal in the Thai Air Force — and a beloved princess who, according to sources, will flee to China the moment her father dies.
Perhaps most daringly, Handley deals with Thailand’s most sensitive subject of all: did the current king, as a young man, kill his older brother Anand — then reigning king — in a 1946 shooting accident prior to taking the throne?
The very fact that Handley deals with the issue has ensured that he is unlikely to set foot in Thailand without fear of arrest.
Critical or probing questions regarding the king and his family are not taken lightly.
Still, what will happen to Bhumibol’s fortune and the future of the monarchy upon his death are questions weighing on everyone’s mind here.
Few Thais have known any other monarch, and as the country approaches its most critical moment in more than 60 years, one might expect a national discussion in which succession and the security of the nation are carefully considered.
But that’s not what is happening.
Today, Thailand’s powerful lèse majesté law, which makes it illegal to insult the royal family, has made any discussion about the royals a potentially dangerous activity — one that can land people in jail for 15 years.
David Streckfuss, the recognized authority on lèse majesté and author of Truth on Trial in Thailand, “in terms of punishment, the world has never seen anything like this in a century or so.”
The law “has become essentially a treason law,” he says, “almost like high treason, but without capital punishment.”
Since the beginning of last year the police, the palace and loyalist politicians — backed by the military — have been cracking down hard, trying to quell a conversation about the future of the monarchy and vowing to “protect” it by any means.
Those pushing for a more fully-fledged democracy — the so-called “Red Shirts” who align themselves with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — say lèse majesté has been used for partisan purposes, to support the “Yellow Shirts” or royalist camp.
And few believe the recent election of a new government led by Shinawatra’s sister, Yingluck, will bring any lightening of enforcement.
Charges of lèse majesté were once rare, but last year they skyrocketed to 478.
“This is not really a law to protect the king anymore,” observes magazine editor and publisher Thanapol Eawsakul, who has been charged under the law but never successfully prosecuted. “It is being used to protect political interests.”
Eawsakul says if the monarchy as an institution were transformed or even ended on the king’s death, much would be at stake for the network of royals, bureaucrats, business people and hangers-on who rely on the royal family for power and privilege.
This is not the way good king Bhumibol’s reign was supposed to end.
Born near Boston in 1927, where his father Prince Mahidol was studying medicine at Harvard, Bhumibol returned to Thailand in 1950, from his own studies in Switzerland, to be crowned Rama IX.
Bhumibol had brought back with him a radiant 17-year-old Thai woman he’d met in Switzerland, married her and made her Queen Sirikit.
The palace went to work building a cult around the king and his Buddha-like personality, involving him mainly in development projects and building the royal brand into Thai daily life: News of the monarch and his family was to be carried in daily newspapers; dedicated nightly television broadcasts featured royal news; and in theatres, movie-goers had to stand at attention as a film portraying the king as the essence of all that is good in Thailand aired with the national anthem.
These routines continue to this day.
Yet, today there is no shortage of defamation and anger afoot against the royal family inside Thailand, some of it pointedly directed at the king as well as Queen Sirikit. And it seems to be growing.
In Bangkok you can acquire DVDs with cartoons encouraging the use of the guillotine against the royals; view a lengthy segment of the king, dancing and tipsy, at a what appears to be a royal birthday party; and see an infamous video of heir apparent Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, 59, with his third wife Princess Srirasmi — naked except for a g-string — singing “Happy Birthday” to their miniature poodle Fufu for a rolling camera.
It was at a 2007 dinner with the prince and princess, that departing U.S Ambassador Ralph “Skip” Boyce learned that Fufu had been awarded the rank of Air Marshall in the Thai Air Force.
With the prince in line to succeed his father, some advisers in the palace are concerned if not alarmed.
Queen Sirikit, meanwhile, has seen her influence grow steadily over the past decade and enjoys major support from a loyal Thai military. But she has also had a polarizing effect in Thailand’s political ferment.
Unlike the king who has always appeared, at least publicly, to be above politics, the queen signalled her open support for the Yellow Shirt loyalists in 2009, when she attended a funeral for a young Yellow Shirt protester.
Someone who has always spoken openly is the country’s most famous social thinker and well-known Buddhist, Sulak Sivaraksa.
A long-time friend of Canadian writer Jon Ralston Saul and former governor general Adrienne Clarkson, Sulak declares himself “loyal” to the king and stresses he does not support violence.
“But loyalty demands dissent,” he observes, seated in his lush garden, where he has lived for 60 years. “Without dissent you cannot be a free man, you see.”
Despite his gentle demeanour, Sulak, even at 78, is accustomed to speaking truth to power, and he has been charged for it under the lèse majesté law.
Once close to the king, in fact part of “the inner circle,” he says, he had a falling out when he rejected the palace’s old official line that the king’s older brother had been assassinated.
“The truth is the present king killed his brother — accidentally. I’ve not only said it openly, I’ve published it,” he says. He was charged and last year let off, apparently on instructions from the king.
Looking to the future Sulak sees the end of an era.
“To put it negatively, I think the monarchy will end with the demise of the present King.
“If the new king is willing to be a puppet, say like the Cambodian king, it will survive that way,” he notes. “But no longer as a real monarchy.”