September 27, 2011

When the walls come crumbling down: Monarchy and Thai-style Democracy

The following is the extended introduction to my review of Saying the Unsayable: Monarchy and Democracy in Thailand, edited by Søren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager (2010) published by NIAS Press

Full reference Connors MK (2011) "When the walls come crumbling down: Monarchy and Thai-style Democracy," Journal of Contemporary Asia, 41, 4, pp. 657-673.


Some observers may think that the Year Zero for contemporary critiques of the Thai monarchy begins in 2006 with Paul Handley's biographical The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand's Bhumibol Adulyadej (Handley, 2006) Because of a single publishing gesture, the reading public glimpsed the king as a man concerned/perplexed with the knots and polish of ruling and power amidst a courtly world of intrigue and military fatigues. Far from the images of sacred humility proffered by state and private agencies alike, the decidedly human account of King Bhumibol was as shocking as it was treacherous to those invested in the psychological panaceas and legitimating prop of a benevolent monarch; publication had to be stopped (the government tried) and the book was banned in Thailand (Hewison, 2008). In his review, Duncan McCargo (2007) noted the book's cathartic effect; in “saying the unsayable” Handley had offered a “re-imagining of Thailand's modern political history.”

Saying the Unsayable: Monarchy and Democracy in Thailand, edited by Søren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager (2010), takes up this challenge of re-imagining. The contributors offer engaging reflections and critique, departing from Handley's biographical focus to survey a broader political and cultural world that the monarchy inhabits. In his review, historian Chris Baker (2011) avers this is a “careful book which has nothing personal or strident, no whiff of revolt.” Radical pamphleteering it is not, but there is revolt in the fashioning of wide-ranging and well-grounded arguments that carefully mould the unsayable into the sayable. This approach has ensured the book remains on sale in Thailand, despite its challenge to monarchical myths.

Handley's explosive biography and its wall-crumbling (not yet tumbling) effect were not totally unprecedented. Kevin Hewison's (1997) book chapter “The Monarchy and Democratization” critically expounded what he described as the “Standard Total View” of the Thai Monarchy (STVTM). Hewison's ironic riff on Michael Vickery's term “Standard Total View” announced both a very political critique of an institution that aspires to transcendence and the presence of a cult ideology which few had cared to name. His piece also touched on the Crown Property Bureau (Hewison,1997), the monarchy's stance during the events of 1973 and 1976, and on the conservative nature of Bhumibol's political outlook
To simplify, in its original and controversial usage, Vickery meant by Standard Total View that analysts were creating a one-dimensional picture – the standard total view – of various phases of the genocide in Cambodia (1975-79) that traced the death toll to evil intentions by the Khmer Rouge to purge the nation of former regime elements, its sympathisers and “intellectuals” (Vickery, 1999; originally published in 1984).

Absent from such accounts were accident, imperialism, war and contingency and a forensic accounting of the actual death toll. At the heart of Vickery's critique was the place of evidence, argument and motive in the presentation of controversial moments of brutal social change. His motive in coining the phrase was to point out how flawed and totalising narratives become accepted as fact. Notwithstanding the merits or otherwise of Vickery's account of Cambodia, the application of the idea to the Thai case is clear – how did the Thai monarchy come to have such an elevated and, until recently, largely unquestioned position?
Ivarsson and Isager (2010) following Hewison, describe the Standard Total View of the Thai monarchy in the following terms: as a protector of tradition, the nation and democracy; as an egalitarian development king who modernises as he instructs governments to care for the welfare of his subjects; and as an institution as natural to Thailand's political and social culture as rice is to the Thai diet. Clearly, Hewison's piece on the Thai monarchy was very contrarian, ensuring a limited impact. There was no open political disenchantment propelling widespread dissemination, but it was translated for a Thai audience and reportedly read in the palace. The monarchy was left alone by more cautious writers on Thailand. Even Hewison's modest success in opening up inquiry was not enjoyed by earlier pioneers. As few as they were, such works were ignored, most notably, the now eagerly ploughed work of Christine Gray. Her research showed how Buddhist ritual and kingship “played a central role in advancing western capitalist ideologies and practices in Thailand” (Gray, 1986). Among other things, Gray brilliantly depicted the Thai-ification and legitimation of Sino-Thai capital and the naturalisation of capitalism in general by their articulation to monarchical prestige, mediated by rituals such as merit making by capitalist elites in royally-sponsored ceremonies. This also provided a means by which the king could build up the royal treasury (Gray, 1986). From an anthropological view, Gray (1986) noted that the growth of ritual in the Chakri court was also the growth of the king's naming prerogatives and his ability to structure perceptions about life, production and power in the world. This power was a right by virtue of his kingly position as among the highest interpreters of the Buddhist dharma (Gray, 1991: 44-5). Gray also revealed the contradictory notions of kingship at play in the royal court: a bricolage of Hindu/Buddhist prescriptions that are ever-adaptive to a changing world order and in which even the blood lineage of the monarch requires obscuration because of the democratic temper of the times. During her fieldwork Gray was granted privileged access to court and ceremonial functionaries and she repays the gift with fine scholarship.

As Gray was exploring these issues from the early 1980s to early 1990s, a strident re-hegemonising of the Thai social field around the “democratic” monarchy was underway. This was no less than an attempt to conceal and gloss the brutal massacre of October 1976 at Thammasat University. The elevated status of the monarch derives from this ideological work; its proximity being so recent one wonders at the mechanisms of its success, and the cultural residues on which that success drew. Until Handley explicitly drew attention to Gray's “underappreciated dissertation” (2006: xi), most academics ignored her powerful critique of the monarchy. This, perhaps, evinces an academic caution all too familiar to scholars who worked on Indonesia during the Suharto period or indeed on any region where academics either obscure critique or accept certain matters as untouchable. The caution was odd given that Thailand was then becoming valorised as the beacon of democracy in Southeast Asia (even as it was given the qualifier “semi”). That there was room for critical engagement is evident. Towards the end of his widely acclaimed Siam Mapped, Thongchai (1994) writes excoriatingly of the monarchy's symbolic violence in promoting Thainess. Pasuk and Baker (1995) provided scholarly interpretation of Thailand's broad transformation and, in the process, examined the role of the monarchy with critical balance. My own account of the monarchy explored its ideological rehabilitation after the trauma of 1976, showing the very constructed nature of the idea of “democracy with the king as head of state” and the many agencies of state that sent it out into the world (Connors, 2001, 2003) McCargo (2005) confronted the issue of palace politics head on in his “network monarchy” article, anticipating current debates. He proved it was possible to be very controversial. It is true that all of the above largely played the institution, not the person.

A number of works have used euphemisms such as “establishment” in English or “sathaban” (institution) in Thai to indicate who or what was being spoken about, enabling probing if cautious accounts of the palace. In the 1990s, some Thai scholars wrote newspaper columns that deliberately avoided using, as is customary, Bhumibol's full title and instead simply referred to him as king (kasat), indicating at least a disenchanted stance towards the monarchy. One such scholar explained to this author that he chose not to bother with royal language (the verbal prefixes and nouns that sound very affected) in a deliberate attempt to demystify the institution. He explained his good fortune in not getting into trouble on the basis that he was not important. On that point, the then not so well-known Giles Ji Ungphakorn, at the Eighth International Thai Studies Conference (2002) in the north-eastern city of Nakhon Phanom, said that he preferred a republican form of government over the current system. This clearly contravened the constitutional prohibition on advocating for any political system that challenged “democracy with the king as head of state.” No action was taken against him although over 300 people heard his comments. As his prominence grew as an anti-coup activist and after he attached himself to the red-shirt movement in 2008, he was hit with charges of lèse-majesté for his book A Coup for the Rich (Giles, 2007). In exile and feeling free of the suffocating caution required when writing about the monarchy, his work has grown more critical both of the monarchy and of those who want to make it a central issue: as he sees it, the military is the might behind the throne (see Walker and Farrelly, 2009). Such overtly political prose that reaches a sizeable audience and that aims at political action is clearly not allowed. And it is the latter, of course, which is the more dangerous. But before recent events forced open the window for critical commentary, it was clear that academically critical works could be published and that there was no reason for silence. The silence was in part born of fear – reasonably held by Thais – of excommunication; but the silence was also purposeful in the sense that it represented a willingness to see the political world the way the national elite fashioned it (see Ockey 2005), and a reactive belief that if the monarchy could not be resisted then it could be harnessed to progressive purpose and that claims could be made upon it. This reactive response colours the last two decades, and it is this more than the STV which is now under threat.

That the work under review is not obscure, oblique, or pollyannaish about the monarchy bespeaks a new time when popular and intra-elite struggle has punched a hole through the quasi-consensus surrounding the monarchy, expanding the space for a more honest reckoning of Thai history. That such a point has been reached can be seen in several respects. Most obviously, there are the relentless attacks on the Privy Council which began very soon after the coup d'état that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006. Since 2007, predecessors of the anti-coup red-shirt movement called for Bhumibol to remove several appointees to the Privy Council, including its President General Prem Tinsulanonda, for his apparent role in the coup of 2006. In July 2007, this author saw protestors at Sanam Luang throw ping-pong balls and darts at a caricature of General Prem, drawn with pursed pink lips and an ornate earring garnishing the side of his face. This was a shocking sight to anyone acclimatised to the obsequious behaviours solicited/elicited by social superiors. It was in its own way no less than a public death of deference: the constitution states that appointment or removal from the Privy Council is the sole prerogative of the monarch, but the red shirts continue to call for Prem's removal.
Critical, if oblique, works have emerged or re-emerged in the Thai language, with broadly constitutionalist interpretations of the monarchy in competition with reactionary accounts that assume unrestricted royal power. For example, against the proliferation of commentary on the king's royal prerogatives (see Pramuan, 2005), in 2008 a law press published a seemingly innocuous title, Exposition on the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand 1968 and Governing Regulations 1972: Regarding the King. In a preface that recounts law specific to the monarchy, Worajet (2008) demonstrates that the monarchy's ascension during the post-1976 era comes with greater control over its own affairs. Previously, amendment to the Palace Law of Succession (1924) followed procedures relevant to any constitutional amendment, but in the 1991, 1997 and 2007 constitutions amendment to the succession law is the sole prerogative of the palace. On this Worajet (2008) observes: “there has never been any expert explanation of whether this is a case of legislative royal prerogative or not, or whether [the palace prerogative to amend the succession law] …conforms to democracy and the principle of division of powers.” The book is a reprint of the work of Yut Seang-uthai, the influential jurist and Secretary General of the Council of State from 1953 to 1968. Yut pressed for a constitutionalist interpretation of the monarchy until his death in 1979, earning accusations of lèse-majesté along the way. Just to take one example, Yut (2008) writes “royal addresses through radio must be done in accordance with recommendations by the cabinet, as there must be someone responsible for the speeches.” Such an interpretation almost reads like sedition to the present mentality of prerogative royalists. The king's speeches are largely palace affairs and are not directed or approved by the government. Such limitation as proposed by Yut would certainly strip the king of an important source of legitimacy that comes from his now conventional right to chide governments in public, and to define and interpret situations as if above them. It would lead, practically, to a secular kingship devoid of a mechanism to be the “Great Definer” of the nation's fate.

If the king's prerogative to speak remains intact, the impact has been dulled by the relatively widespread disillusion with the monarchy since the 2006 coup. It is now not uncommon to hear highly critical comments about the monarchy which often stem from what some red-shirts describe as an “awakening” (ta-sawang) when the Queen attended the funeral of a member of the yellow-shirted People's Alliance for Democracy in October 2008. This was interpreted as an endorsement of the movement to overthrow the pro-Thaksin government of the time. As one red-shirt protester explained to this author in 2009 at a demonstration in Bangkok, “how can a mother chose between her sons?” Some protestors also refer to being “orphans.” These family references are a response to the widespread promotion by state agencies of the king and queen as father and mother of the nation. Explicit reference to Thailand's wealthiest conglomerate, the Crown Property Bureau, can also be heard in conversation.(The work of Porphant (2008) has been influential in opening up discussion on royal wealth).

This broad willingness to speak openly about the monarchy contrasts with the adulation or enforced silence that prevailed a decade ago. The shift is best exemplified by the curious case of the brash and brave Thai historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul whose writings on Thai web-boards and in academic papers constantly trash any imposed code of self or socially-expected censorship in a quest for truth about the monarchy's historical and contemporary role. His work predates the current growth of commentary, and it was only in early 2011 that police moved to investigate charges against him of lèse-majesté.

Royalists, that is to say various state agencies, the military, the People's Alliance for Democracy, and the governing Democrat Party have responded to this fragmenting consensus by stoking fears of a movement to overthrow the monarchy and building up state and social surveillance, a topic explored by pseudonymous Han Krittian (Chapter 8). There has been a wave of unprecedented and unmanageable lèse-majesté cases, as chronicled in David Streckfuss' Chapter 5. From an average of five cases per year between 1992 and 2004, the total number of cases tried between 2006 and 2008 jumped to 231 (see pp. 107, 123). Streckfuss (2011) reports that a police source suggests that in 2009 some 3000 potential cases were being investigated. The lèse-majesté cases should not simply be read as state persecution – the vagaries of the law allow individuals acting as concerned citizens to play a role in launching a lèse-majesté case, as Streckfuss carefully outlines. However, Streckfuss (2011)) notes that the failure of an enduring ideology around the monarchy is largely behind the spate of lèse-majesté cases. The monarchy does have a strong conservative and opportunistic social constituency and that constituency, now seeing the wall of the STV crumble, is groping for ways of patching it together before the debris gathers at their feet.

Fear mongering has become rife. Numerous books on an alleged movement to overthrow the monarchy have appeared in the last year. One book, running into multiple editions, features Thaksin dressed in royal regalia and claims that the republican movement is inspired by the overthrow of monarchies in France, Russia and, more recently, Nepal (Kongbannathikan, 2010). Similar claims of republican intent are made on leaflets and banners. For example, in the 2007 election, campaign leaflets were discreetly distributed saying that a vote for the pro-Thaksin People's Power Party was a threat to the monarchy. These were secretive, unsigned leaflets distributed in the north-east, probably by security forces. The Phum Jai Thai party, composed of elements that defected from the pro-Thaksin forces in late 2008 to enter into a coalition government with the Democrat Party, makes such allegations on banners in some provinces with the slogan: “Resist the new Thai state.” This is a slant against the alleged anti-monarchical leanings of the red-shirted United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship and its parliamentary ally the Pheu Thai Party. Moreover, the Phum Jai Thai Party's control of the powerful Interior Ministry has led to the setting up of pro-monarchy networks, partly in response to the “red-villages for democracy” that spread across the north-east in defiance of the crackdown of May 2010 (Somphok, 2011: 24-5). These villages also pledge loyalty to the “democracy with the king as head of state.” Even so, some members explicitly await the return of Thaksin as prime minister (Somphok, 2011: 24-5). While many international supporters of the red shirts enthuse about the movement's apparent anti-royalism, a glance at the red-shirt press over the last two years demonstrates that the more tabloid elements, such as Red News and Truth Today, have attempted to promote a positive relationship to royalism, seeing themselves as more credible protectors of the Crown. Mainstream red-shirt attacks have mostly concentrated on individuals within the so-called network monarchy, or more discretely, the Queen. There are occasional renditions of the royal anthem at red-shirt demonstrations, and the republican element in the movement is a small minority. The movement has put the STV up for scrutiny, but it has yet to crack it (for a more optimistic view, see Glassman, 2011).

As might be expected, Saying the Unsayable advances an alternative to the STV. That it does this with unusual turns of argument and the tensions that form between the chapters makes reading this book a novel experience rather than one of déjà vu. Saying the Unsayable does not merely record what people have long been saying – as some wrongly assert of Handley's The King Never Smiles. Saying the Unsayable goes beyond easy sneers at the monarchy, and offers insights into cultural, political and governmental processes.

The full review of the book appears at

Full references in the original