OBSERVER NEWS

Continuing the Discussion: Thailand’s Future?

Thailand Needs To Be Reminded Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining  

BY GIFT P. WATANASATHORN

Since the passing of the world’s longest reigning monarch on October 13, Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, many smiles have been missing from the Land of Smiles. The Thais mourn the god-like father of their nation just as the rest of the world starts asking what will come next. Some tourists claim the event ‘spoiled’ their vacation, while many other foresee social, political and economic instability that could affect the national and regional development in the long run.

In addition, the expected succession of the Crown Prince is another controversy.  However, Thais know that keeping silent is the best course of action. Bombarded with worrisome questions and remarks, the nation must remember that there is something good to be found in every situation.

It was fortunate that this painful event did not take place sooner, when the country was going through political turmoil. Even though being ruled by the military junta may raise other nations’ eyebrows, Thailand could have had a much tougher time undergoing the departure of His Majesty without the National Council for Peace and Order, whose presence seems to be able to keep control. The NCPO’s enforcement of Article 44 in the 2014 interim constitution practically gives the Council absolute power to prosecute any act seen as a danger to national order, security or the royal throne.

It is a high price to pay, but this event reminds Thai people of the sense of unity and community that used to be prevalent in the country but has been absent for a long period of time. Numerous touching stories have been reported during this time of mourning: motorcycle taxis and Tuk Tuk providing free-of-charge service for the people who want to go pay respects to the king’s remains at the Grand Palace; groups of students volunteering to clean up the nearby area; residents from over all the country bringing their home cooked food to give out for free. People have even become competitive about doing good in the name of the passed king. Many swear to live their lives from now on by the King’s philosophy of Sufficiency Economy, which emphasizes a self-sufficient, peaceful and altruistic way of life.

Perhaps this time of distress can be used as momentum to bring the country out of divisions and conflicts that have been dragging Thailand down for the past century. Turning mundane and superficial actions of serving one another into an enduring and meaningful political and cultural movement is key. It is my hope that this sense of compassion, sympathy and virtue that the Thai people used to have for one another will dwell within the nation and allow the Kingdom of Thailand to endure this time of transition.

Ponsawan Gift Watanasathorn is a guest writer for the SAIS Observer. She is a first-year MA student at SAIS Bologna, and a native of Bangkok, Thailand.


 

Thailand’s Existential Crisis: Turmoil Looms as the Country Mourns the Loss of a Beloved King

BY MADURA WATANAGASE

The passing of King Bhumibol has brought out the best in Thais, but also the worst.

Alongside heartwarming stories of unity and kindness, of volunteers handing out water and snacks to the hundreds of thousands of mourners gathered outside the grand palace gates, there are also alarming videos of an angry mobs. One mob surrounded a police station, demanding the arrest of a woman who allegedly committed lese majeste by insulting the late king on social media. Another mob stormed a food stall in search of the owner’s son who also posted offensive remarks. The crowd eventually agreed to disperse, but not before singing the royal anthem.

The cultish reverence Thais express for King Bhumibol has been the tenuous bond bridging the political divide over the years. During the brief decade of democratic rule between the mid-90’s and 2006, now-exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra emerged as a divisive figure in Thai politics: his populist policies made him highly popular amongst the rural poor, while the urban middle class saw him as corrupt. His critics also accused the pro-Thaksin faction of aspiring to the establishment of a Thai republic — an aspiration that was perhaps prevalent among just a subset of Thaksin supporters. Of course, Thaksin was not the source of division, but he certainly catalyzed the polarization of fragmentary tendencies.

Love of the king was at times brandished as a political weapon, perhaps like patriotism in America. To be accused of being disloyal to the monarchy would have elicited a social wrath similar to (or more extreme than) what Donald Trump faced when he derided Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star mother who accompanied her husband onstage at the Democratic National Convention.

However, another side of this collective respect for the king was its ability to bring people together. Concerned that conflicts and disunity would burden the king, Thais have kept turmoil from boiling over and descending into violence — or, they at least preserved the rarity of such occurrences.

King Bhumibol earned the love and respect of his subjects by devoting himself to development projects and making himself visible and accessible during his active years. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, however, does not enjoy the level of reverence that his father did. This begs the question: can a king who is deemed less legitimate in the eyes of the Thai public maintain unity? Or will existing political fault lines reemerge, freed from any need to respect the wishes of a revered king?

If the latter plays out, the monarchy as an institution may be at stake and, because of the historical political alliance between the military and the palace, it is the junta who stands to lose the most. Thailand has been under military rule for most of its history since becoming a constitutional monarchy, but even during democratic rule, the military was never far removed from politics. It has managed to maintain political legitimacy by claiming to defend the interests of the crown.

With the accession of the Crown Prince, underground anti-royalist factions may start gaining traction. Whether the public will acquiesce to the accession and if not, what the military’s response would be remains among the many questions in the minds of Thais during this disorienting period. The death of King Bhumibol marks the end of an era, a definitive shift in the monarchy’s place in the hearts of the Thai people, and possibly edges Thailand closer towards institutional reform.

Madura Watanagase is a guest writer, and is an international development student at SAIS D.C. She is a native of Bangkok.

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