How has Thailand’s monarchy endured for so long and continued to garner public support—or at least some fraction of public support?
The monarchy means multiple things to the Thai people, but it symbolizes Thailand because it symbolizes Thailand's independence. Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that was never colonized by a Western power. There were multiple reasons why Thailand escaped colonization, but they basically went down to the king who was in power in the mid 19th century, King Mongkut, who was Rama IV, and he was very modern. This was unfortunately the king who figured in Anna and the King of Siam, who was painted as a half-naked savage. I think the Thais very rightly object to that, and it's also illegal to have a copy of Anna and the King of Siam in Thailand. Anyway, he modernized Thailand. He figured out if he traded with multiple Western powers, no single country could get one foot in. He not only saved Thailand from colonization, which was a considerable feat, but also the monarchy has been unbroken as a result, because when the Western colonizers did come in, they usually tended to break the monarchy in some way in Southeast Asia. In that sense, they do understand that historic significance.
The monarchy has also changed and adapted. There was a coup against the absolute monarchy in 1932 that gave rise to a constitutional monarchy. The beloved King Bhumibol, who died a few years ago and is the father of the King Vajiralongkorn, was probably the ultimate modern monarch. He was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, because his father was at Harvard Med. He was a jazz saxophone player. When he was first on the throne, he was a DJ for a radio station out of the palace. But more importantly, he really started a very broad program of royal philanthropy in Thailand. And he translated traditional royal customs into modern ways. For example, in the 1950s and 60s, Thailand was a very enthusiastic participant in the Golden Triangle, where most of the world's heroin came, and the king sponsored through his Royal Foundation's crop substitution projects, so that people could grow strawberries or asparagus and sell them to the restaurants in Bangkok instead of growing heroin. So he's associated with being very progressive as well. The Thais were fairly content that their monarchy could adapt.
I would say the third reason is that there's a great distrust of elected politicians and a common view that they are corrupt, and in many ways, don't have Thailand's best interests at heart, and that the monarchy is an alternative or a check on elected politicians. So those are three reasons why the monarchy has prevailed and has endured.
Speaking of how the monarchy has been seen in the past as progressive and rather consistent, I was reading that Thailand has experienced 12 coups and 20 constitutions since 1932. Could it be that one reason for the success of the monarchy as a political institution is that it acts as a source of stability for the Thai people?
Yes and no, and here we have to talk about the relationship between the military and the monarchy. First of all, let me go all the way back to kings. The current king is the tenth king in what is called the Chakri dynasty. The Chakri dynasty came to being through a military battle, and then it cloaked itself in a kind of semi-religious, semi-sacred aura. We can talk about that in a minute. As most monarchies do, they tend to take over power forcibly—both in ancient Eastern and Western civilization—and then claim by some way that this was all the work of a deity. They were soldiers first and then they became monarchs. But the military were a very active part of the 1932 coup against the absolute monarchy. There were three actors in that coup, the Thai military, the Thai bureaucracy, and then progressive scholars who were fairly leftist. So the military feels that they have some authorship of the monarchy from the 1932 coup. Now, the problem with those coups and those 17 constitutions has mostly been the military. Until very recently, I would say until 30 years ago, the power was transferred from one military government to another through a coup, because how else are you going to get a general to give up power? In the 1950s, there was one general, Thanom Kittikachorn who launched a coup against himself to reshuffle his cabinet. I mean, he put tanks on the road because he couldn't figure out how to reshuffle his cabinet.
So whether or not the monarchy has been successful in curbing the military I think is debatable. There is a symbiotic relationship between them, which we see being renewed. And we saw this earlier in 2020 when they had the military reshuffle and it was King Vajiralongkorn's candidate that became the army chief, not Prime Minister Prayut’s. So, Vajiralongkorn is sort of renewing that. His father, quite frankly, ran hot and cold about the military and democracy. In 1973, he supported a civilian uprising against the military. In 1976, he supported the military coup against the civilian government. I don't think we can make generalizations about that. But there is a very strong relationship between the monarchy and the military. They support one another. They keep one another in power. And I think what's interesting to see is that, if anything, Vajiralongkorn is asserting the power of the monarch over everybody. I think he's got the military a little bit on the run with that.
Earlier, you were talking about the king and his growing authority. I think that's definitely evidenced by his political interventions. For example, I was reading about how he basically endorsed the current prime minister the night before the election—I think the exact wording used was that he urged the Thais to vote for the “good people,” which was taken as an endorsement. What forces do you think that it will take to check the power of the monarchy in terms of its political influence?
I don't think you can check this king in that way, but let me say a little bit about the political role of the king. The king is supposed to be above politics, but if he intervenes, it's supposed to be rarely. So there is, in the Thai viewpoint, the possibility of an intervention. For example, in 1992, when the leader of the 1991 coup did not like the outcome of an election, the Thai military took to the streets with machine guns and started machine gunning student protesters. The king said, stop it, and he deposed the military leader, General Suchinda, on public television. Now, that is an overtly political act that everybody applauded. I think that the things that are more striking about what Vajiralongkorn has done recently are the ways that he has changed some of the laws and palace law. He no longer needs the signature of a prime minister to issue a declaration, and he moved the Crown Property Bureau funds over into his own personal account. The Crown Property Bureau was always under control of the monarchy, but at least there was this fiction that somehow there was the wealth that belonged to the crown, and the wealth that belonged to the sovereign. He also turned back the constitution that the military drafted. So, I don't think it's political intervention, I think it's more the way he has reshaped legally the role of the monarchy. In fact, every time there is a coup or a proposed coup, the would-be coup plotters go to the palace to make sure they're going to get a green light before they do so. So there's always an implied political participation, if you like, in something like that. Not in elections usually, but in non-electoral political events. You are right in that Vajiralongkorn basically saying to the people “vote for this guy,” is new. That isn't usual because they're supposed to be above elections, and that does exceed the usual political role of the king.
With this particular king, do you think that there's anything that can be done about that? Or is it unlikely because he's reshaped the Constitution and the relationship between the palace and elections and such?
I don't want to dismiss it out of hand because there is now a growing protest movement that includes protest against the monarchy, though it's still mostly about wanting Prayut out. It is possible that he will see to some reform of the monarchy in order just to keep the peace. Let me go back and say that Vajiralongkorn made all those changes because he just wants to be left alone. He doesn't go out and meet the public very often, he's never been popular. He has constructed things that way because you have to be a strong king if you're going to stay out of the country, because staying out of the country is an invitation for somebody to overthrow you. He wants that distance. He would only reform if that were threatened.
Before his father died, there was a very misleading debate in the international press about Vajiralongkorn versus his sister, the very popular Princess Sirindhorn. She is very popular, and her brother is fine with her being popular. She is the one that does go out. She has never married; she has devoted her life to the Thai people and the crown. And there was this completely inaccurate assumption that was ginned up in the international press that she was a contender for the throne. She was never a contender for the throne. Her father in the 1970s designated his son as the crown prince and his heir. She and her brother have worked out a modus operandi, and I don't think there's any possibility that if he were to be overthrown, they would put her on the throne. If he were to be overthrown, they would put his teenage son on the throne through a regent because Thailand follows primogeniture in royal succession. And then whoever is in the Privy Council would control the regent. I also do not think that the monarchy is going to be abolished. There is far too much support for the monarchy. There are pro-monarchical forces and if those protesters get out of hand, they will get very, very nasty. In addition, 18 percent of Thailand's GDP depends on tourism. You are not going to abolish the monarchy if you are so dependent on tourism, because a lot of Thailand's beauty, a lot of the buildings and the art and things like that go right back to the monarchy.
Speaking of the global community, how do you think the global perception of the Thai king as a playboy, which has inspired a lot of embarrassing global headlines, impacts the seriousness with which the global community takes the degradation of Thailand's democracy and the growing authority of the king?
I don't think degradation of Thailand's democracy is necessarily down to the monarchy. I think it's down to the military, number one. Number two, Vajiralongkorn has been a known quantity for 40 years. So this is no surprise, even though the international community and the international media delight in rediscovering this. The Australian Broadcast Corporation got themselves into serious trouble when it did a documentary about Vajiralongkorn over 20 years ago which included a birthday party for his poodle Phoo Phoo, whom he had made a full Air Marshal in the Thai Air Force. And when Phoo Phoo sadly died, he got a full military funeral.
His father was bending over backwards to be a very modern monarch. I think his son is bending over backwards to revert to the more traditional style. But let me say something about why his father had to do that. His father came onto the throne during the Cold War, and there was a very strong fear that a weak monarchy in Thailand was an invitation for a communist takeover. And if anything, this really strengthened the relationship between the military and the monarchy. There was a very strong military leader named Sarit Thanarat, and he had this young king on his hands. He is the one that strengthened the Lèse-majesté laws. People think that the Lèse-majesté laws come down from tradition. Not really. They came from the military. And they certainly were strengthened and came into being in the 1950s and early 60s, and that's one of the glosses on the monarchy—if you so revere the monarchy, you're not going to overthrow it in 1932. There was unhappiness with that. So Sarit had to rebuild the monarchy for security during the Cold War, and King Bhumibol was the young king he had to work with. He literally was a king maker. Bhumibol was just this extremely modern king, and his son is a throwback. He is a deliberate throwback to the traditional Thai king.
If it ever got to a stage where a global intervention of some sort was called for, do you think that it would be hindered by the kind of joking and mocking nature with which the Western media views the king?
No, I really don't think it matters that much. What really matters in terms of Thai foreign policy and Thai security is the government and the military. Certainly, if there's going to be a coup, it's going to be with the blessing of the king. His father did support the US-Thailand alliance. One of the ways that Thailand was able to escape colonization was to be a fence-sitter, to balance all of its great power relations, so that no one power, not Britain or France or the United States could get a hold in. That is the natural Thailand diplomatic style. The Thailand of the 1950s and 60s went against their own grain to align with the United States, and they did it out of fear of a communist takeover. So in that way, the king was more involved in international relations than a Thai king in the modern time would be. His son is not that interested in it. If you had to ask me what the foreign policy views of Vajiralongkorn are, I could not tell you, other than he likes Germany, but that's not really a foreign policy position. So I really don't think it matters that much. I think that the United States government and other governments do business every day with Prime Minister Prayut. They don't do business every day with King Vajiralongkorn.
Evilarry, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons