Thailand: All the King’s Men

When it rains in Thailand, it usually comes in torrents. I arrived in Bangkok in October in the middle of a tropical storm. The great postmodern shopping malls, marble corporate palaces, and gleaming new hotels, built in the late 1980s and early 1990s when there seemed to be no end to the property boom, rose imperviously above the floods. But many parts of the city were under water, causing endless traffic jams on inundated roads. The inhabitants of Klong Toey, a fetid slum of about 80,000 people plagued by drug addiction and AIDS, were living in raw sewage. On my way to the hotel I saw shoppers wading through water up to their thighs to buy groceries at markets that remained open despite the floods. The main headline in the next day’s newspaper was: “Flood Disaster: King’s Move Helps Save Capital.”

What King Bhumibol had done was to grant permission for the Royal Irrigation Department to divert excess water from the Chao Phraya River, which runs through Bangkok, to farmlands which had been “presented to His Majesty by the original landlords….” This was no doubt a relief to the nine million people of Bangkok, but there was something a little hyperbolic, even fawning, about the headline, which cannot have been unintentional. What was suggested was that in a crisis it is the King, and not his government, who comes to his people’s rescue. So it is during tropical storms, and so it is in politics. As the longest-serving head of state currently in power and the longest-serving monarch in Thai history, Bhumibol, who came to the throne in 1946, is a formidable figure in the Thai national imagination. Although the monarchy lost its absolute authority after a revolution in 1932, and the country had a fully elected parliament since the new “people’s constitution” of 1997, the King remains the ultimate arbiter of power.

On Tuesday, September 19, another rain-sodden night, General Sonthi Boonyaratglin staged a coup d’état against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, an ex-policeman and telecommunications tycoon elected by a landslide in 2001. Thaksin’s rise to power had come after the great 1990s boom turned into a bust in 1997. Property prices plummeted. The Thai baht crashed. Stocks lost up to 65 percent of their value. And this is when Thaksin, a combination of Silvio Berlusconi and Hugo Chavez, came charging in as the “CEO politician,” the man who would clean up the mess with all the efficiency of an entrepreneurial genius, unhampered by the shabby compromises that mark the politics of more conventional men.

A self-styled champion of the poor, Thaksin bought popularity and votes with cash handouts, and those he couldn’t buy, he bullied. Parliament was more or less ignored as irrelevant. Thaksin barely bothered to show up when it was in session. He owned a cable television station, and allowed his minions to threaten editors and journalists who criticized his policies. Part of his telecommunications empire—transferred to …

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