Thailand’s absolutist king is on his best behaviour
THE WEEKS of stand-off between young Thai activists and the establishment they are challenging have not been short of political theatre. The protesters are calling for the resignation of the army-backed prime minister, for open elections and, above all, for an absolutist monarchy to be modernised. They raise the three-finger salute of defiance from “The Hunger Games”. Giant inflatable ducks lend their marches a carnival air—and also prove useful as protection against water cannon. And thousands of letters demanding that King Maha Vajiralongkorn accept limits to his power and wealth were delivered in replica post boxes to the very gates of the hallowed royal palace in Bangkok.
The monarchy in Thailand sits atop a cosmic hierarchy that demands order and obedience and offers beneficence. Never has it been challenged in this way before. Yet the king of four years, to whom even his most loyal supporters hesitate to attribute a great love of democracy, has betrayed no irritation and even slightly changed his ways.
A playboy resident in Germany, where he occupies a floor in an upscale Bavarian hotel with a shifting harem of “sex soldiers”, King Vajiralongkorn normally spends only brief spells in the country he rules. But recently he has stayed put in Thailand. More striking still, for the first time since his accession (and indeed the first time in decades), he has mingled with his people. The stiff and aloof king has gone walkabout, descending from his vintage Rolls-Royce to allow adoring subjects dressed in yellow (which signifies devotion to the monarchy) to touch the royal feet. In his first comments as king to the foreign press, with Queen Suthida on his arm, he expressed “love” for all Thais, protesters included. Thailand, he added, is a “land of compromise”.
The monarchy’s critics are not swallowing it. The martinet king has taken personal command of important military units and direct control over the crown’s immense property holdings and investment portfolio. He now has at his disposal over $60bn in assets—more than the sultan of Brunei and the British royal family combined. Even if he is paying more attention to appearances, the critics say, there is no sign that the king, an absolutist through and through, is thinking of giving up any of his authority.
Meanwhile, says Pavin Chachavalpongpun of Kyoto University, a “push factor” helps explain the king’s absence from Germany—the growing risks of greater parliamentary scrutiny of his presence there and whether it contravenes a ban on foreign states operating on German soil. The European press gleefully reports not only on how he churns through wives and mistresses but also on his cavortings. Paparazzi keep snapping the 68-year-old in crop tops and stick-on tattoos. A spell out of the limelight could be helpful.
For the protesters, the king’s conduct in Germany only reinforces their scorn for his attempts to burnish his image in Thailand. Not least, a mistress, Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi, whom the king summarily dismissed last year for “misbehaviour” and “disloyalty”, has been reinstated as the “untainted” royal consort. She accompanies the king and queen on their walkabouts. The king’s polygyny, his humiliation of the women vying for his capricious affection; his habit of making even the prime minister prostrate himself before his majesty: instead of connecting with members of a new generation demanding gender equality, democracy and respect for individual rights, the king’s comportment repulses them. As Netiwit “Frank” Chotiphatphaisal, a prominent activist, puts it, the walkabouts—the king in a white military uniform slathered with gold braid—are just cosplay in service of the king’s ego.
Mr Pavin points out that, for all his talk of compromise, the king, although supposedly above the political fray, only meets and greets his supporters. Meanwhile, the prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the coup in 2014 in which the army (ostensibly in defence of the monarchy) seized power, grows less conciliatory by the day. In particular, a draconian law against “insulting” the monarchy has been dusted off and used against more than a score of activists. Mr Prayuth’s star, admittedly, is waning with the king, not least for letting the protests wax so dramatically. But if Mr Prayuth is dismissed as a scapegoat, it will surely be because King Vajiralongkorn wants his successor to take a harder line. With the monarch digging in and young protesters convinced that change has arrived, the cosplay is becoming serious.
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline "Cosplaying nice"
Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/asia/2020/12/12/thailands-absolutist-king-is-on-his-best-behaviour
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