September 29, 2008

"The King Can Do Wrong"

Excerpt from

Connors MK (forthcoming) "Four Elections and a Coup D’etat: Giving Democracy a Break in Thailand", Australian Journal of International Affairs.

The King can do wrong

It is sometimes claimed that Thailand’s current crisis is about the impending succession to the throne. The incumbent, King Bhumibol is 80 years old. The most likely but by no means certain successor to the throne is Prince Vajiralongkorn, rumoured to be, or to have been, close to Thaksin. The coup, in this account, aimed to block a Thaksin-influenced succession (Handley, 2006b 424-5; 2006a) Like much analysis surrounding the monarchy, this is speculative but also plausible. Given that the interests surrounding the crown are extensive and fan out from palace grounds, to military camps, to schools and the bureaucracy, it would be natural for there to be great concern about the succession. A life of socialised royalism through the education system has inculcated an immense respect for the monarchy. For genuine royalist liberals and conservatives, a Thaksin-influenced succession would be repugnant.

Official discourse on the Thai monarchy constantly invokes the idea that the king can do no wrong – indeed this has been one of the abiding elements of the ideology ‘democracy with the king as head of state’. Popularly, the idea of infallibility is understood to relate to the semi-divine nature of kingship in Thailand. But the phrase actually relates to the functions of a constitutional monarchy, namely that a monarchy signs into law legislation and executive decrees, but is not responsible for them. Likewise, court decisions under the authority of the crown do not entail any royal responsibility. It is in this constitutional sense that the ‘the king can do no wrong’. The Thai monarch’s role is to symbolically manifest, by royal imprimatur, the unified sovereignty of the people, through the three arms of government (the judiciary, legislature and the executive). But the Thai king’s role has expanded well beyond this.

In the last five years an incipient debate has emerged in the twilight years of King Bhumibol’s reign. There are those who believe that the monarchy and its interventions at crisis moments (1973, 1992, and 2006) are required in the current stage of Thailand’s political development: the monarchy acts as kind of para-political institution, it intervenes when the contradictions that have attended Thailand’s political transition break out into violence. The king is like an all seeing rational citizen able to adjudge, in times of crisis, the general interest. This view reflects that over two generations the monarchy has extended its role well beyond that of a constitutional monarch in a democracy (right to warn, consult etc.). Accounting for this expanded role, liberal royalist discourse portrays the incumbent as a supreme ombudsman, who has accrued powers by convention and wisdom. Moreover, in the foggy world of practice, liberal discourse merges with traditional Buddhist notions of monarchy based on righteousness (see Bowonsak 1994; Connors 2008a). The coup and the battle against Thaksin then might be seen, in part, both as a struggle to defend the expanded role of a Thai constitutional monarchy, and all the interests that have coagulated to it, and for control over succession.

Indeed, in 2005, the former was how the issue was framed in public debates about Thaksin’s alleged transgression of royal prerogative (Connors 2008a). In the political struggles of 2005-2006 the monarchy was used instrumentally by both anti and pro Thaksin forces in a bid to gain popular favour. But the monarch was more than eager to claim his own space at this time. In his annual birthday speech in 2005 Bhumibol chastised Thaksin for being sensitive to criticism (Thaksin had a penchant for defamation suits) and suggested that even the king could be criticised. This was an extraordinary statement, given the strict enforcement of lèse-majesté. In his speech, Bhumibol (2005) invited criticism of his own role – declaring that the idea that the ‘king can do no wrong’ was a form of condescension on his own person, as if he were not human. Indeed Bhumibol declared that that ‘the king can do wrong’, and welcomed criticism. By saying that he could do wrong, by explictly rejecting the constitutionalist interpretation that 'the king can do no wrong', Bhumibol may well have been expressing the view that his role extends well beyond the symbolic. In short then, the king’s speech might be interpreted as an attack on those who argue for a restricted palace role in administration of the nation. This is a belated public recognition that Thailand’s constitutional monarchy is an activist one. It is, in an oblique way, also a recognition that the king has enduringly headed a national power bloc intent on shaping the nature of Thai capitalism and society (Connors 2007: 131). Thus, in as much as a struggle over succession and the role of the monarchy are to be understood as central to the current crisis, these elements must be mapped on to the broader struggle over regime form.

Comment: this is from a larger article about the events of the last year. Bhumipol's speech on 'doing wrong' was actually a restatement of his December 2003 speech(see below). I can only guess that people simply couldn't comprehend what he was saying the first time round. Even the second time round, the idea didn't sink in: if I remember correctly Matichon Sutsapda, several days after the December 2005 speech, had on its front cover in English "THE KING CAN DO NO WRONG".

Just as the struggle against Thaksin was hotting up in September 2005 I wrote about the 2003 speech thus (published in 2007 Democracy and National Identity in Thailand, pp. 259-260):

"In some respects, the great energy expended in the last decade on democracy promotion, civic education and anti-vote buying campaigns (in short - when tens of thousands of people acted as the shock troops for liberal democrasubjection) has done little to abate the influence of money and power in the political system. Indeed, it might be argued that promoting ‘good citizenship’ in Thailand has led to a moralistic type of politics that permanently displaces questions about power and structure in determining political outcomes. Self-organization is what can transform these democratic institutions into instruments that serve the interests of ordinary people, workers and peasants. Civic politics needs to be complemented with class-based activism in trade unions and farmers federations. Only this can ensure that national politics is not subject to the whims of aggrandizing elites.

In the interests of elite liberalism, and to forestall political instability, action from above may preempt the emergence of a mass progressive movement; and Thaksin may fall in front of a jury of his peers.

Indeed, there is considerable concern about the current political situation among elements of the Thai establishment. The king himself has expressed some cogent concerns that indicate fear of mass disaffection with the political system. In late 2003, the king raised some interesting questions about the future implications of Thaksin’s mode of rule. Offering sympathetic comments on the ‘war on drugs’, the king nonetheless suggested that more had to be done to satisfy critics who claimed the government was responsible for thousands of deaths. The king noted that responsibility was continually shifted from the ‘superman’ prime minister through to ministers, civil servants and through to the people and law, who then might shift responsibility on to the king, ‘which is against the constitution, as the constitution says the king has no responsibility at all… so we agree that none of us are responsible for the nation’. In the same speech the king notes that those responsible in government should accept criticism when it is warranted:

[If] they are right then thank them, if they are wrong tell them, quietly…The person who is greatly troubled by this is the king, because no one can reproach him… We did not tell those who wrote the constitution that no one can reproach or violate the king. Why this was written, I do not know. If one can not be violated how can one know if one is right or wrong?

A system of no accountability is a volatile system, and it is clear that the king’s comments relate not just to the war on drugs but extend to the style of governance that Thaksin has embraced. By implication, if the king is open to criticism, although it is not allowed, Thaksin should also be able to tolerate it. By reprising his role as a cautious liberal king, Bhumipol furthers royal mythology.
Whether a popular movement, a push from above, or an implosion from within TRT removes Thaksin is a matter for speculation, as is his longevity. But if Thailand is to break from the familiar tug of war between authoritarian nationalism, which draws on the three pillars of national identity, and royal liberalism, a movement from below that transcends both streams will need to emerge. Otherwise, a return to the royal embrace will be yet one more historical impasse for Thailand’s poor."


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What was the nature of the King's intervention in 1976? As I recall, he did not intervene to stop the massacre. But that may be because the massacre was over by the time the working day started.