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The funeral pyre for a man who was once the world’s longest-ruling monarch now rises high among the spires of Bangkok’s historic royal quarter. The crematorium’s 50m central tower climbs above smaller peaks in a representation of Mount Meru, the heart of the universe in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology. Scattered around are sculptures commemorating the 70-year reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, up to his death in October 2016. One is his favourite dog Tongdaeng — or Copper — whom he rescued as a stray and later made the subject of a best-selling book, seen as a primer to the Thai people on how to behave.
The pomp of the funeral ceremonies, taking place over five days later this month, will draw foreign dignitaries and transfix much of a country where respect for King Bhumibol (pronounced roughly “Poom-ee-pon”), buttressed by propaganda and a draconian royal insult law, lifted him to the status of a demigod. The monarchy’s mythology is drummed into Thais from their earliest years. Images of the royals abound and the national anthem is played twice daily in some public places, including Bangkok’s BTS Skytrain urban railway. People are expected to stop in the middle of morning and evening rush hours and stand still and straight. It is a reminder of the power of the state, headed by the king, to reach deep into their daily lives. A year after King Bhumibol’s death, many Thais still wear black or white, or at least avoid colourful clothing, in mourning for him — longer than some might for a death in their own family.
To say there is less regard for the late king’s son and heir is an understatement born of the lèse-majesté laws that impose jail terms of up to 15 years (per offence) for disrespecting the monarchy. The new King Maha Vajiralongkorn, 65, who succeeded in December 2016 and whose coronation is due at some point after the funeral, is disliked by many of his subjects for his erratic past behaviour and feared by some following signs that he will rule too assertively. Authorities insist Thais are united by their loyalty to the monarchy, including to King Vajiralongkorn.
As the cremation formally ends the Bhumibol era and launches Thailand into an uncertain new age, many Thais talk sincerely of this devotion — and of their esteem for King Bhumibol in particular. Older people recall how Thailand avoided the war — and in Cambodia’s case genocide — that engulfed neighbouring states in the 1970s. But how King Vajiralongkorn will reign is a source of widespread anxiety. It even reaches the military and commercial elite, who prospered in alliance with King Bhumibol and are faced with an unpredictable successor. As one person put it privately, when it comes to the new monarch: “We cannot speak the truth from our heart.”
I left Thailand in July after almost four years as a Financial Times correspondent. Reporting on the country was always fascinating and often a joy. Having returned to Europe, I’ve been reminded daily of the fundamental friendliness and helpfulness that typifies Thai public life. The “Land of Smiles” slogan coined by the tourist authorities may be glib, but it contains a certain truth. It also made people’s worries about the new king all the more unnerving, and added to my own sense of alarm about the stifling atmosphere that Thailand’s elites have built up around the monarchy, where the lèse-majesté laws are used with increasing vigour while critics of the governing military are rounded up for “attitude adjustment” sessions.
Thai authorities have traditionally cast the armed forces as a guarantor of political stability and upholder of the monarchy in a politically fractious country and dangerous world. I had a range of friends, acquaintances and business contacts who echoed, at least to some degree, the line that King Bhumibol’s monarchy was a “pillar of stability for the kingdom”. A civil servant at a vigil at the Grand Palace on the night Bhumibol died told me how she had loved him since she was a child, learning at school about his efforts for the Thai people and later understanding how he “worked harder than kings in other countries”.
But, before and after King Bhumibol’s death, the coercive effect of Thailand’s lèse-majesté rules was plain to see. Twinned with the Computer Crime Act, which has been tightened under the current military government, they open the way to almost limitless punishments for displeasing the throne, or the junta. Since the May 2014 coup against the elected government, more than 100 lèse-majesté arrests have been recorded by the International Federation for Human Rights.
In June, a military court sentenced a former insurance salesman to 35 years for posting 10 insulting messages and images on Facebook — the longest lèse-majesté jail term ever. Another man was investigated over a Facebook post that allegedly mocked Tongdaeng, King Bhumibol’s — now deceased — dog. (The reputation of a royal pet may apparently be worth more than the freedom of a Thai citizen.) A further case is targeting a historian who has questioned the accuracy of accounts of an elephant battle involving a Thai king four centuries ago.
A signature case was the jailing of Jatupat Boonpattaraksa, a student activist also known as Pai. In August he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison after he shared — along with more than 2,000 others — a BBC Thai-language profile of King Vajiralongkorn. The authorities placed the BBC under investigation, but have yet to take further action or successfully challenge the piece’s factual content. It appears they simply found the information inconvenient and Pai an irritant.
The lèse-majesté rules are arbitrary and mostly applied in secret. Anyone can bring a complaint against anyone else for whatever motive, creating parallels with the Salem witch trials. Lèse-majesté complaints are rarely dismissed by the police, who worry they will themselves be accused of the offence if they do. Even the US ambassador to Thailand, Glyn Davies, was placed under investigation over the mild concerns he raised in 2015 about long prison sentences imposed for alleged royal insults.
As I discovered, the impact extends to coverage by foreign media based in the country — including the Financial Times — which struggle to portray the full facts. There is no substantial disclosure or detailed scrutiny of either the political role of the monarchy (which is officially apolitical) or of its finances. The government insists the laws are not intended to curb free expression and debate about the monarchy, but it is self-evident that they do. As a Bangkok-based overseas reporter said to me: “One thing I’ve learned living here: censorship works.”
Somebody also told me that the lèse-majesté laws had made King Bhumibol’s name “like Voldemort’s” in the Harry Potter books — not because the king was evil, but because people sometimes hesitated to refer to him directly. During his last years, I found myself trying to look into the souls of the citizens who stood rigid whenever the national anthem played. Where did love and respect end, and dread begin?
I felt it even more acutely as the audience stood in a cinema before images of the newly enthroned King Vajiralongkorn. At what point, I wondered, do the internal contradictions of honouring someone so widely doubted become too much?
For critics, the position the country finds itself in today is the inevitable consequence of a long-running project to deify the monarchy, undertaken by the traditional military, business and bureaucratic establishment to maintain control. More nuanced narratives of King Bhumibol’s “nation-building” reign note that he boosted the authority of the armed forces, made the monarchy more conservative and increased public deference to it. He did little to stop the lèse-majesté laws spinning out of control, save for some elliptical remarks in 2005 that he was ready to be criticised. He also chose Vajiralongkorn to succeed him.
King Bhumibol’s palace acquiesced to military coups and did not speak out strongly during some notorious episodes of deadly security force violence. The most notable putsch occurred in 2006 against then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a plutocrat who had scored two big general election wins and later owned Manchester City Football Club. Thaksin — under whose rule corruption and rights abuses flourished — is far from a hero. But he won popularity by giving money for healthcare, rice subsidies and microcredit to Thailand’s populous rural areas. It awakened Thais to the possibilities of a different political model from neo-feudalism leavened by noblesse oblige — and made it a shock to some when the monarchy allowed the military to topple him. Thai authorities have said recently that they would charge Thaksin with lèse-majesté for his comments on the May 2014 coup. Thaksin denies wrongdoing.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an academic and former diplomat who has been out of Thailand since the military issued a warrant for him after the 2014 coup, says the situation is a “formula for disaster”: it makes it impossible for the country to have the debate it needs about how it governs itself, after a turbulent 12 years punctuated by sporadically deadly street protests and two coups. “This is so sad for Thailand,” says Pavin, now based in Japan after his Thai passport was cancelled. “We know there is a big hole, we are continuing to march towards it — and eventually we will fall into it.”
Some fear King Bhumibol’s death has brought this moment closer. Even Vajiralongkorn’s own mother, Queen Sirikit, famously described him in 1981 as “a bit of a Don Juan”. She suggested her “good boy” might have to change his ways or quit the royal family, if the public disapproved of him.
Unflattering images of Vajiralongkorn before he became king include a leaked video, in which he appears fully clothed beside a swimming pool with his third wife Princess Srirasmi, who is wearing only a thong. A staff member produces a cake and the couple sing “Happy Birthday” as the prince clutches his favourite white poodle Foo Foo (according to a US diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks, Vajiralongkorn made the dog an air marshal). The trio then pose for pictures before the topless princess crouches on the floor in front of Vajiralongkorn and offers him a piece of cake from a silver salver.
He attracted further comment recently after photos surfaced of him wearing a crop top at an airport and shopping mall in Germany. Thailand’s generals clashed with Facebook in May as they attempted to scrub the net of the images. The dispute ensured the story went viral, generating ridicule of the king outside Thailand — but none at all in the mainstream Thai media.
Other questions over the new monarch go beyond eccentricity. When he divorced Srirasmi in 2014, the authorities purged her family, jailing her parents and three brothers the following year for insulting the monarchy. Since King Vajiralongkorn took the throne, palace staff members have been dismissed via scathing announcements in the Royal Thai Government Gazette, the state’s official journal. Officials with decades of service were branded “lazy” or “arrogant”. Such humiliation breaks what foreigners are often told is a central taboo in Thai culture: making people publicly lose face.
In 2015, two people mysteriously died in custody after working on “Bike for Dad” and “Bike for Mum”, two cycling events headed by Vajiralongkorn in honour of his parents. The pair — a senior police officer and a celebrated fortune-teller known as Mor Yong — were part of a group of event organisers accused of using the monarchy’s name for personal gain. The connection to the royal event, together with the official silence about how exactly the men had died, unnerved some.
In a rare interview in the 1980s, the then Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn said he was sometimes the subject of false rumours and unfair criticism. He has visited predominantly Buddhist Thailand’s restive south and urged efforts to end a long and bloody conflict there that has pitted security forces against ethnic Malay Muslim separatists.
King Vajiralongkorn has also already taken significant fresh powers, at times apparently wrong-footing senior generals. He intervened to change a new constitution that was drafted under military diktat and passed in a tightly controlled August 2016 referendum. As a result, the King — who has spent a good deal of time in Germany in recent years — is allowed to travel abroad without appointing a regent. He also has even greater authority to intervene in political crises. Under a new law in July, he took direct control of the Crown Property Bureau, a national treasure chest whose huge landholdings and stakes in industries ranging from banking to cement are estimated to be worth tens of billions of dollars. He has seemingly unlimited authority to manage the fund, just as he has acquired control of other institutions previously considered to be under the aegis of the government, police or military. This month, shares in Siam Commercial Bank worth more than $500m were transferred on behalf of King Vajiralongkorn, according to a regulatory filing by the Crown Property Bureau. The filing gave no details about the ultimate beneficiary, or if any money was paid.
Some Thais privately hope to muddle through the new kingship. One business person says of King Vajiralongkorn: “Some people are not confident, but we are with him. Meaning, he is here. We can only do what we can do.”
Others speculate that King Vajiralongkorn is tilting the country back to greater monarchical absolutism — and a long period of actual or de facto military rule beneath him. But Thailand is not a Gulf autocracy — nor indeed China — with no modern democratic tradition. People have a history of voting and, particularly in the past 20 years, have become used to seeing those ballots win real changes. Elections originally promised for 2015 have been kicked down the road until next year and potentially later still, under a constitution that will entrench the military’s power over any new government.
It is impossible to generalise about how — and to what degree — devotion, affection and fear bind Thai citizens to their kings. As one Thai journalist has put it, if it’s compulsory to love the monarchy, you end up with two kinds of people: those who love the monarchy and those who lie about their love for the monarchy. The only certainty seems that the balance has already begun to shift. As King Bhumibol’s funeral brings his long era to a close, one well-connected Bangkokian points to the many questions now swirling in private chats about the new reign. “You and I are talking. People in other circles are talking. Of course it will boil over. But how?”
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Illustrations by Annabel Wright