The myth of King Bhumibol - Often called revered, Thailand’s King Bhumibol was a divisive and negative force for Thailand’s politics and democracy
After a prolonged illness, Thailand’s King Bhumibol has finally died. His long-anticipated passing will be mourned by many – but not all – Thais, and adds to the country’s uncertainty and instability, as yesterday’s sharp stock-market falls suggest.
The media are long on cliché and short on analysis: Bhumibol was ‘widely revered’, ‘semi-divine’; Thais ‘looked to him to intervene in times of high [political] tension’ and exercise a ‘unifying and calming influence’ – as the BBC typically puts it. The truth is, of course, more complicated.
Certainly, successive military regimes built up a virtual personality cult around Bhumibol through the Cold War, establishing his image as a paternalistic sponsor of development projects, caring for his poor people. This massive propaganda effort – coupled with extensive state repression – turned a country that had considered abolishing the monarchy in the 1930s into one that largely worshipped its king. This is why many Thais will now experience deep anguish and profoundly mourn Bhumibol’s passing.
But the idea of Bhumibol as a stabilising and positive political influence is largely a myth. Giles Ungpakorn has persuasively argued that Bhumibol never exercised independent influence over Thai politics. Instead, he was a symbol deployed by genuinely powerful groups – notably the military – for their own purposes. His famous public interventions against brutal military dictators in 1973 and 1992, Ungpakorn insists, occurred only when mass resistance had become insurmountable; his appearances ‘were merely attempts by the elites to keep control of events, while sacrificing unpopular dictators’.
In service of the anti-communist ruling elite, after 1973, Bhumibol sponsored right-wing paramilitaries terrorising leftist youths, culminating in the 1976 Thammasat massacre. Later, under Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Bhumibol publicly backed the ‘war on drugs’, in which over 2,500 people were extra-judicially killed. Then in 2006, a military junta overthrew Thaksin, promptly gaining the king’s endorsement of their coup. By the time of the latest military coup, in 2014, Bhumibol was arguably non compos mentis, but he was again wheeled out to sanctify the destruction of democracy.
So King Bhumibol was never a consistent supporter of democracy or even basic human rights. His role in the 2006 coup in particular – and the royal family’s subsequent blatant support for the anti-Thaksin ‘yellow-shirt’ protestors – disillusioned many Thais, fomenting growing anti-royalist and even republican sentiment among pro-Thaksin ‘red-shirts’. This is denied expression through Thailand’s vicious lèse majesté laws, which can land critics of the monarch in prison for decades.
Bhumibol’s passing is politically destabilising, therefore, not because the monarch was personally powerful, or a linchpin for stability, but because it threatens the ability of powerful groups to continue using the monarchy for their own purposes. While state propaganda had successfully cultivated reverence for Bhumibol, the same cannot be said of Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, who will now succeed his father as King Rama X. Despite the lèse majesté laws, Thais widely understand that Vajiralongkorn is a dissolute, callous man who cares little for them or his royal responsibilities. A video of him forcing his third wife to parade almost naked at a birthday party for his dog, Foo Foo (a poodle, which the crown prince granted the rank of Air Chief Marshal), has been widely viewed and condemned in Thailand.
Vajiralongkorn spends much of his time abroad, often in Germany, gambling (accruing serious debts, which former Prime Minister Thaksin once paid off), or flying around his personal jumbo jet. Over the last year, as he prepared to inherit the throne, he has allegedly authorised the persecution of his third wife’s family, stripping them of their titles and purging them from the state in an apparent act of ‘housekeeping’. Yet his behaviour continues to be contemptuous and erratic: in July, the 64-year-old shocked observers by arriving at Bangkok airport wearing a woman’s crop top and several, large, temporary arm, chest and back tattoos. All this is naturally worrying for anyone seeking to use the dubious mystique of the royal person to rubber-stamp their political designs.
What will now follow, therefore, is a year-long mourning process, during which the incumbent military regime will do all it can to cultivate popular reverence for the new King. Nonetheless, Vajiralongkorn is never likely to have the same cachet as his father. The monarchy’s declining lustre is arguably what explains the growing dependence on legal chicanery – politicised lawsuits and judicial coups – to overturn democratic outcomes, as well as increasing resort to lèse majesté prosecutions. The junta’s new constitution – endorsed half-heartedly in August’s referendum – promises more of this to come.
The elections envisaged in the new constitution will now be unlikely to take place until the one-year mourning period is over, and the new King is ‘bedded in’. Whether the erratic Vajiralongkorn will consent to being disciplined by those who have long manipulated the monarchy – the network of palace flunkies, army generals, top state officials and wealthy oligarchs behind the ‘yellow-shirt’ movement – remains to be seen. He may instead opt to continue living mostly abroad.
Either way, if Thailand’s political conflicts resume their former intensity following the elections, these forces will have to confront their enemies with a greatly diminished symbolic arsenal at their disposal.
Lee Jones is Senior Lecturer in International Politics at Queen Mary, University of London. He is author, most recently, of Governing Borderless Threats: Non-Traditional Security and the Politics of State Transformation (CUP, 2015).