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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.”1

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 his wife and children—was sold in January 2006 to the Singaporean government for $1.88 billion without his family paying a cent in tax.

Thaksin’s aim, never realized, was to use his wealth to turn his own Thai Rak Thai (“Thais Love Thais”) into a super-party in total control of the state. His other aim, also thwarted in the end, was to turn the army into his own political tool, by placing friends and relatives in key positions. And after ingratiating himself with the royal family by helping them out financially, he began to upset them by behaving more and more regally himself—presiding over religious ceremonies at Buddhist temples in places normally reserved for the King, for example.

Still, some of his social programs, such as universal health care, public housing projects, debt relief, and cheap loans, were popular, especially in the rural areas, where people were convinced that here at last was a politician who cared about them. And as the economy picked up, Thaksin was reelected in 2005, and again in April 2006, after protests against the government, mostly in Bangkok, forced him to call a snap election that was boycotted by the opposition parties. The urban elite, university students as well as bankers, politicians, courtiers, and bureaucrats, saw him for what he was, an aspiring dictator. His opponents claimed that Thaksin’s victory was unconstitutional, because his Thai Rak Thai party was the only contender and failed to get the requisite number of votes to fill all seats in parliament, without which parliament can’t be convened. Thaksin thumbed his nose at the constitution. The judiciary, tamed under Thaksin rule, did nothing.

At this point the seventy-eight-year-old monarch stepped in, as he did when the rains poured on Bangkok. The country was “a mess,” he declared in a rare televised speech. The elections had been “undemocratic,” and the constitutional court should solve the problem forthwith. Given the choice between obeying the King or the autocratic politician, the judges followed the King. The election results were duly annulled, and Thaksin decided to bide his time as a “caretaker prime minister.”

Large numbers of demonstrators in Bangkok, many in monarchist yellow T-shirts, continued to demand Thaksin’s resignation. Thaksin supporters, known as “caravans of the poor,” mostly from the rural areas, where he was still a kind of folk hero, staged counterdemonstrations. A huge anti-Thaksin rally was planned for September 20. Thaksin hinted at violence and the imposition of martial law, an old and trusted tactic in Thailand before installing dictatorial rule. He had the police on his side, as well as an assortment of rural strongmen and their armed thugs. But the army, backed by the monarch, decided to move first. While Thaksin was in New York attending a United Nations summit, a military junta calling itself the Council for National Security took control of the government in Bangkok and suspended parliament. Thaksin was forbidden to return to Thailand, and after several months of biding his time on the golf course in London, he is now traveling around Asian capitals giving interviews designed to embarrass the junta. He told the Asian Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong that “Democracy is in the blood of the Thais,” and the Asahi Shimbun in Tokyo that “the respect of the rule of law and the justice system [by the international community]” is at stake. Hypocritical, perhaps, but vexing to a regime that has no democratic credentials. The junta made things worse by censoring the broadcast of the CNN interview in which Thaksin argued for the restoration of democracy.

As military coups go, this was a most peculiar one, bloodless, and in Bangkok at least quite popular.2 Martial law was imposed, but there were no roadblocks or grim-faced soldiers pushing people around, and the tanks that were stationed around government buildings disappeared quickly. Bangkok’s vaunted nightlife continues, as though nothing happened. The world of girly bars, sex shows, and massage parlors, catering to Thais as well as the tourists, never seems to be affected by politics. (Thaksin tried to crack down on prostitution, without making much of a dent.) Apart from a handful of Thaksin’s most egregious cronies, few people were arrested. The junta did clamp down on television stations to keep the coup free from criticism, but protests from the Thai Broadcasting Journalists Association were still reported in the newspapers. And, as I write, martial law has been lifted in Bangkok and surrounding areas, but not in the rural Northeast, where Thaksin remains popular. Several bombs exploded in Bangkok on New Year’s Eve, killing three and wounding thirty-six. Although Thaksin supporters were blamed, there is no evidence pointing to anyone as yet.

I had lunch this autumn with Kavi Chongkittavorn, a much-respected senior editor of The Nation, a staunchly liberal English-language Thai newspaper. He was in a buoyant mood, and echoed sentiments I had picked up from others in the capital. “I was against the coup,” he said, “but I love the fact that Thaksin is gone.” Thailand, said Kavi, “is not a business, it is a kingdom.”

Indeed it is. Everywhere you look, especially during the sixtieth anniversary year of his reign, you see His Majesty’s face, on posters and billboards, on the walls of every store and restaurant, in all public buildings and many private ones, on streamers and banners strung across major thoroughfares, in hotels, airports, schools, and shopping malls, and at the beginning of every movie screening: Bhumibol receiving foreign monarchs; Bhumibol visiting the rural areas, a notebook and camera readily at hand; Bhumibol surveying his kingdom from above the clouds, a golden halo playing around his bespectacled face; Bhumibol the family man, with Queen Sirikit and their loving children; Bhumibol the warrior king in uniform; Bhumibol the jazz player, his trumpet to the fore; Bhumibol the priest-king, in a gold coat, waving a kind of papal blessing; and so on.

And yet, since the promulgation of the “people’s constitution” of 1997, Thailand appeared to have become a democratic kingdom with a fully elected bicameral legislature, a modern country that had no more need for military coups, and a shining example of liberty in Southeast Asia. Even the more enlightened generals said that the time for military interventions was over. But the constitution has been torn up once again (Thailand has had seventeen since 1932). The restoration of popular sovereignty has been promised at some future date, which is yet to be announced. Meanwhile, the King told his subjects to obey the new order. He had never hidden his contempt for the upstart nouveau riche populist tycoon anyway. The new order was really the old older. The man appointed as interim prime minister, Surayud Chulanont, is a respected ex-army commander and privy councilor to the King.

Not very democratic, then, at least not to foreign eyes, which matter a great deal to Thais. This was the “Thai way to democracy,” said the coup’s defenders. The US embassy received a petition from a group of academics who supported the coup. “Our democracy is different from American democracy,” they claimed. “Please respect our political maturity. We can solve problems our own way within the framework of democracy under monarchy.”3 This has been, more or less, the line taken by many liberals and democrats in Bangkok, including the former senator Kraisak Choonhavan, whose own father, Chatichai Choonhavan, democratically elected as prime minister, was ousted in a coup in 1991. Chatichai too was accused of corruption (with reason) and “parliamentary dictatorship” (less reasonably), and that coup, too, was carried out by military men who claimed to have acted with the King’s blessing.

Then, too, the unique Thai way was extolled by the King himself, who despised Chatichai’s messy democratic government, and said: “Procedures or principles that we have imported for use are sometimes not suitable to the conditions of Thailand or the character of Thai people.” When Thais protested against the junta in May 1992, soldiers fired machine guns into the crowds, leaving many dead. The military commander, who later deplored the killings, was the same Surayud who is now prime minister.

  1. 1

    The Nation, October 11, 2006.

  2. 2

    According to a monthly poll on “gross domestic happiness” the happiness score for Bangkok rose from 5.54 to 6.47 after the coup.

  3. 3

    The Nation, October 11, 2006.

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