In the digital era of runaway instantaneity, it is difficult to view Thailand’s late King Bhumibol Adulyadej with levelled lenses, as yesterday seems inordinately more important than yesteryear. His time on the throne exceeded 70 years but many tend to frame contemporary Thai politics over the past decade when former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted and exiled by a military coup, giving rise to the ‘yellow versus red’ discourse and divide. To fathom where Thailand has been, it is necessary to keep time and circumstances in mind even while the impulse is to focus on the here and now and what comes tomorrow. Three guidelines are instructive.
First, seven decades constitute a long reign. Although King Bhumibol has been synonymous with Thailand, kingship was initially not meant for him. He was in reserve for his only and elder brother, King Ananda Mahidol. Old photos and footages indicate the two brothers were inseparable, the best of friends, who both became kings when the monarchy was at its nadir after absolutism was replaced with constitutional rule in 1932. As the newly empowered civilian and military leaders squabbled and struggled for power, they perfunctorily placed a boy on the throne after a royal abdication in 1935. When King Ananda died unexpectedly in 1946, teenager King Bhumibol was thrust upon the throne practically without choice.
To the Thais, this was a monarch who did not want to be King in the first place. Yet after taking up the throne, King Bhumibol threw himself into the job of nation-building. He worked up and down the country incessantly from rugged hills and remote rivers to malaria-infested jungles promoting myriad public works and development projects, thereby earning immense moral authority. He became patron and sponsor of numerous charities, and endorsed and handed out as many state-related papers from official documents to university diplomas. Thais saw in his consistency, dedication and diligence a selfless man who made sacrifices to get Thailand through the hard decades when the country was the boondocks of underdevelopment. After a whirlwind tour to drum up international support for Thailand’s Cold War efforts, King Bhumibol did not leave the country for 49 years until his passing, except a few hours in Laos to preside over a bridge opening across the Mekong River in 1994.
Second, the late monarch’s endless hard work brought results for which Thais are forever grateful. King Bhumibol bonded with his people and made his mark during the Cold War in the 1950s-80s when Thailand had to make its way in a treacherous neighbourhood. In April-May 1975, Cambodia, South Vietnam and Laos all fell to communist expansionism, whereas Burma went autarkic a decade before. The pillars of the Thai state – nation, religion and monarchy – struck a collective and effective chord for the Thais. The resulting unity and stability got Thailand through.
Winning a good fight against communism and ushering in a long period of economic development were two extraordinary achievements during the late monarch’s reign. His leadership was uniquely suited to the circumstances and challenges of the time. Anyone else in that role may not have worked so hard because he did not have to. When Thais look around their neighbourhood and see where they are, their gratitude for the late king surges to the fore. His departure from the scene thus elicits the Thais’ immeasurable sorrow and grief. It is not just the end of a reign but an end of the way they have been.
Finally, the reign became a victim of its success. With sustained economic development and greater access to education and exposure to the outside world, Thais wanted their voices to be heard and their roles to be recognised. Inevitably, democratisation and political liberalisation made inroads and, in fits and starts, culminated with Thaksin Shinawatra’s rise and his juggernaut parties. His three political parties – the first two were judicially dissolved – have won all elections in Thailand in the 21st century, the last in July 2011 when his sister Yingluck Shinawatra led Pheu Thai banner to victory and became prime minister.
Yet the yellow-red narrative in Thai politics can be misleading. It was not as if elections and democracy impeccably arrived in full bloom when Mr Thaksin waltzed into power, only to be thwarted time and again by putsches and conservative forces. Mr Thaksin’s rule and his party machine were full of warts and flaws, beset with corruption allegations and conflicts of interests that benefited his clan and cronies, from manipulating the law to benefit his telecommunications conglomerate to granting state concessions to associates. His opponents must respect election winners and learn how to win elections but, as global trends now call into question, elections are decreasingly sufficient for democratic rule to be workable and accepted by all sides.
The Thai situation is that the late monarch’s glorious reign has left behind a modern country that now has to come to new terms under a new king. Thailand needs to renegotiate and reshape a new constitutional order that accommodates both monarchy and democracy in an acceptable moving mix, not too much of one or the other, with the strengthening of democratic institutions and an adjustment of the monarchy for future stability and order.
As leadership is indispensable in this process, Thailand’s military junta can leave no better legacy than to broker compromises and prod and pressure all sides to see their collective future as larger than themselves. Yet in the overarching frame of the reign, Thailand would not be where it is today without King Bhumibol as a force of personality who led by example with unsurpassable moral authority. It would be misguided and misleading to impose digital standards on Thai politics that gathered pace in analogue times.
The writer teaches International Political Economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
(via http://www.bbc.com/thai/thailand-38140839 – in Thai)