About a thousand years ago, a king called Cnut ruled a large swathe of northern Europe including Denmark, Norway and England. His father was the fearsome Sweyn Forkbeard, Viking monarch of the Danes. A description of him in a 13th century Icelandic saga says Cnut was a very handsome man, “except for his nose”, which was rather ugly.
Cnut’s life is mostly forgotten now, but he remains famous for one incident that has been repeated in various forms over the ten centuries since his reign. The earliest known account of what happened was recorded by the chronicler Henry of Huntingdon around 900 years ago, in his history of England, Historia Anglorum.
According to Henry, one day King Cnut ordered his courtiers to carry his throne to a nearby beach. He sat facing the sea, and commanded the tide not to come in. But of course, the waves didn’t stop, and the tide came in, and soon Cnut’s royal ankles were under water. At this point, according to Henry, the slightly sodden Cnut proclaimed: “Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless and there is no King worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven and earth and sea obey eternal laws.”
The tale has been interpreted in various ways over the centuries. In some versions, Cnut was an idiot who really thought the tide would obey his command. In other versions, he knew he was going to get his feet soaked, but staged the stunt in order to teach a lesson to his foolish courtiers whose flattery of him had become increasingly ridiculous.
The moral of the story remains the same. Kings are human beings just like the rest of us, and they don’t have any magical abilities or supernatural powers. Nobody can stop the tide coming in, and anybody who thinks they can is stupid.
Sadly, in the 21st century, Thai military dictator Prayuth Chan-ocha clearly hasn’t learned the lesson of the story of King Cnut.
For centuries, the Thai elite have sought to control information, and prevent ordinary people knowing the truth about their leaders and their history. But technological advances have made this increasingly untenable. Now, in 2016, trying to prevent Thais from accessing information about their monarchy is as absurd as trying to stop the tide from coming in.
Thailand has a new king, the sadistic 64-year old petty tyrant Vajiralongkorn. Prayuth’s military junta, which seized power from a democratically elected government in 2014, is desperately trying to pretend that Vajiralongkorn is an impressive and respected man and that Thais are joyful that he is their new king. In fact, he is despised and feared by almost everybody.
The king’s image has not been helped by his recent antics in Munich, where he has been repeatedly photographed wearing strange clothes and fake tattoos, sometimes in the company of his secret new wife Nui and sometimes in the company of his new favourite mistress Goy. The desperate junta is trying to stop Thais seeing these images. They have blocked thousands of websites, and threatened to jail any Thai who shares the photos.
In July this year, the junta raided the family home of my wife Ploy, and took her away for interrogation along with our three-year-old son, and my wife’s father and brother. None of them had committed any crime. They were victimised just because Ploy is married to me, and I had shared the above photograph of Vajiralongkorn on social media. It was originally published by the German newspaper Bild.
Now the junta is attacking the BBC for publishing a factual profile of Vajiralongkorn, and threatening pro-democracy activists with long jail sentences just for sharing it. They have also begun harassing the Facebook followers of the most respected critic of the military dictatorship, exiled academic Somsak Jeamteerasakul.
Just as Cnut learned a thousand years ago, Prayuth will learn that this will never work. You can’t stop the tide, and you can’t stop the truth.
Andrew MacGregor Marshall is a journalist, lecturer at Edinburgh Napier University, and author of ‘A kingdom in crisis’.