ASIA HAND A right royal silence
By Shawn W Crispin
BANGKOK - King Bhumibol Adulyadej failed on Thursday to make his annual
birthday speech, with his royal family members citing poor health as the cause
of his non-appearance. The now 81-year-old monarch has historically used his
nationally televised address to speak to matters of national urgency, and his
words were highly anticipated this year in the wake of the political chaos that
has engulfed the country.
There was widespread speculation after this week's Constitution Court decision,
which disbanded the ruling People's Power Party (PPP) and two of its junior
coalition partners, that Bhumibol might encourage the formation of a government
of national unity in a royal bid to defuse the dangerously escalating political
pitting supporters and detractors of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Those tensions came to a lull for the monarch's birthday celebrations, but many
fear they could reignite with upcoming political developments. Remnants of the
PPP, now bidding to form a new government under the Peua Thai banner, have
promised to fight against any national unity government, regardless from whom
or where it is proposed. They have held steadfast to their, now legally
debatable, democratic mandate to rule.
Bhumibol has only visibly and overtly intervened in politics in response to
bloodshed on Bangkok's streets, as seen in the 1973 and 1992 crises pitting
pro-democracy and military forces. The king's inaction in the wake of the
current and still unresolved political struggle is consistent with that
last-resort precedent; his silence on Thursday, his loyalists say, was more
meaningful than any speech.
The silence also meant Bhumibol failed to bestow royal legitimacy to the
PPP-led caretaker government, whose members had assembled to extend well
wishes. With his ailing health and advanced age, it's not clear to many that
the respected monarch has the energy or inclination for yet another
intervention. And with the country polarized between competing political camps
vying for supremacy in the post-Bhumibol era, it's also not clear to many that
this timely guidance from above would necessarily lead to a lasting resolution.
Instead, judging by his encouragements to judges, it seems Bhumibol would
prefer that the courts arrive at a rule-by-law conclusion to what the revered
monarch himself has referred to as the country's "mess". The legal process,
however, could yet call for a royal intervention. Members of the Senate have
indicated in the wake of this week's Constitution Court decision that they will
challenge the constitutionality of former PPP party list members moving over to
the Peua Thai party and thus the legitimacy of the entire 2007 elections.
The PPP and opposition Democrats each received about 37% of the total votes at
last year's polls, with the Democrats receiving about 200,000 less than the PPP
out of a total 32 million votes cast among the two dozen or so competing
parties. Regional gerrymandering gave the PPP more parliamentary seats, but the
Asia Foundation’s James Klein notes in a recent report that 63% of Thai voters
did not support the PPP, "Thus, PPP claims that they represent the majority of
Thai citizens cannot be labeled as simple sound-bite rhetoric; it is outright
Thus a Constitution Court or Election Commission ruling in the senators' favor
would conceivably open a new political vacuum, which, depending on how
interpreted, the Thai charter's vaguely worded Section 7 could allow Bhumibol
to intervene and establish an interim ruling body. There were widespread rumors
before the Constitution Court's ruling to disband the PPP that judges would
order the formation of a Supreme Council to fill the political vacuum. With the
Senate's constitutional challenge, the Supreme Council case scenario is still
very much in play.
Many Thais were also looking towards Bhumibol's address to set the record
straight about any royal connection to the People's Alliance for Democracy
(PAD) anti-government protest movement, which had campaigned on the platform of
protecting the monarchy from alleged usurpers in former premier Thaksin's camp,
including ranking members of the now disbanded PPP and their aligned red
shirt-wearing United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) protest
The PAD's debilitating week-long closure and occupation of the country's main
domestic and international airports tainted the image of the yellow-clad
movement in the eyes of many previously supportive Thais and stranded
foreigners. It's unclear if the PAD was given a signal to abandon its
encampment after the Constitution Court decision. But some commentators,
including the well-read Bangkok Pundit blog, note a decline in the number of
Thais who wear yellow on Mondays, previously in a show of support for King
Bhumibol, after the PAD, which had co-opted the color for its rallies, became
more violent in its actions and retaliations.
Speculation about royal support for the movement came to a head in October when
Queen Sirikit presided over the funeral of a PAD supporter who was killed in a
police crackdown on the movement on October 7. Some of Thaksins' supporters in
the PPP-led government and others interpreted her attendance as an indication
of royal support for the protest movement, though Queen Sirikit has not
publicly taken sides in the conflict. By law the Thai monarchy is above
Yet nor is it clear to many observers and some diplomats that the monarchy has
a unanimous view of the conflict: Princess Chakri Sirindhorn was quoted in an
Associated Press story reported from the US in October saying that the PAD
acted on its own behalf. The royally appointed Privy Council, which some of
Thaksin’s supporters are keen to rein in through constitutional amendments, is
also known to consist of members who pursue agendas independent of the crown.
There is also the increasingly ambitious military, whose leaders deployed royal
symbolism when staging the 2006 coup and justified it by claiming the putsch
was meant to protect the monarchy from Thaksin's alleged threat. At the time,
certain of Thaksin supporters claimed to have seen footage of a
woken-from-sleep Bhumibol on the night of the September 19 putsch sternly
asking the coup-makers "why there had to be a coup?" They have taken more
critical aim at Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanonda for allegedly
orchestrating the coup - charges the senior statesman has denied.
With Bhumibol's advanced age and declining health, and with one palace insider
saying his private principal secretary, Asa Sarasin, handles most of the
monarch's day-to-day affairs, diplomats and others speculate that the military
now marches mainly to the beat of the royal advisory Privy Council. Both
institutions would likely see their powers legally diminished in a
post-Bhumibol era were a pro-Thaksin administration allowed to rule and amend
laws without the resistance of a PAD-like protest movement.
What's clearer is that the country is now in the throes of an intense power
struggle between two elite camps which has little to do with democracy or class
struggle, as popularly presented. Both business-minded groups, one led by
Thaksin and backed by his northern and northeastern popular power base, and the
other by a more traditional elite led by the opposition Democrats and buoyed by
the party's southern, Bangkok and outlying central regions popular support,
have less-than-sterling democratic credentials.
The mainstream Western media's presentation of Thaksin as a democratic symbol
overlooks his authoritarian and rights-abusing tendencies during his six years
in office, including his aversion to parliamentary debate and penchant for rule
by decree. His government systematically undermined the free press and lent
overt support to rights abuses in state-sponsored campaigns against drugs, dark
influences and a Muslim insurgency.
Thaksin's well-marketed populist hand-outs to the rural poor, which amounted on
average to less than 80 billion baht per year (US$2.242 billion at today's
rate), were a pittance to the over 1 trillion baht in bad debts his government
opaquely took over, reprocessed and handed back at a sharp discount to the
original business owners who misspent the loans. Nor did his government, as
popularly presented, invent rural handouts: his village development funds were
a recycled - and better marketed through his use of monopolized state media -
grassroots program first launched by the Democrats in the 1970s.
That same pro-Thaksin business clan now hopes to wrest control of the various
licenses, concessions, enterprises and land holdings which the traditional
elite, who through varying degrees of association with the monarchy, have
derived their power and privilege. Those traditional interests, many affiliated
with the Democrat Party and politically excluded from Thaksin's generous
bailouts and state-directed credit schemes, are known to be among the biggest
of the PAD's behind-the-scenes backers.
Their fears of a changing post-Bhumibol order are reflected in the rapid
clearing and development of various royal-related lands in Bangkok; their hopes
for maintaining the status quo are seen in the state enterprise workers,
threatened by Thaksin's privatization plans, who have supported both
incarnations of the PAD.
It's not clear, in the name of democracy or even class struggle, that one side
to Thailand's debilitating elite conflict, with each side mobilizing their
masses on regional lines, has more right to dole out these resources than the
Thaksin became a billionaire from state-tendered telecommunications
concessions, one of which he is on record profusely thanking a military general
involved in the 1991 military coup that overthrew democracy. (An estimated
US$2.2 billion of Thaksin’s personal wealth is now frozen in Thai banks and
could be seized on corruption charges.) Earlier this year, Forbes magazine
ranked Bhumibol as the world's richest monarch with a net worth of US$35
billion derived in part from over 3,000 acres of prime property in Bangkok.
To lay the blame for Thailand's dysfunctional democracy and collapsing social
order at Bhumibol's feet, as some international media have done in recent days,
seems critically misplaced in light of the various stakeholders who are more
clearly contributing to the country's recent instability. In terms of popular
legitimacy, even with the frequent mobilization by political actors of his
royal symbolism, nobody has more in a Thai context than Bhumibol. And while
many wish the aging monarch would righteously intervene, as he has in previous
conflicts, his silence over his birthday spoke volumes to a divided nation.
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online’s Southeast Asia Editor. He may be
reached at email@example.com.