The Kingdom of Thailand is a piquant place to watch the abdication of King Juan Carlos. While the Spanish head of state slides after almost 40 years into retirement amid family scandals and pro-republican protests, his Asian counterpart continues to attract public devotion despite the turmoil in his country. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86, this week marks 68 years on the throne, outlasting Emperor Franz-Joseph I of Austria-Hungary.
Yet Thai media coverage of the Spanish king’s troubles is also a reminder of the limits on comment linked even tangentially to the Chakri dynasty, especially during the long political crisis. Draconian lese majesty laws carrying prison terms of up to 15 years are wielded as weapons to shut down debate, even though this appears to contradict the king’s own publicly expressed wishes. As the military rulers who overthrew the elected government last month tighten their grip, the monarch’s inviolability is likely to be used to clamp down further on freedom of expression precisely as this divided country most needs to talk about how to govern itself.
The lese majesty law marks a stark line between the kingdom and the European parliamentary constitutional monarchies it superficially resembles. While they have faced an ever less deferential public gaze, King Bhumibol has overseen a revival in monarchical power and prestige since he took over as an 18-year-old after the mysterious shooting of his brother and predecessor.
Thailand’s monarchy – absolute until 1932 – is now imbued with the semi-divine qualities of dhammaraja, or “righteous king who rules through Theravada Buddhist principles”. Reverential images of King Bhumibol are ubiquitous, some exhorting Thais to behave like him, others depicting his virtues as commander, family man, photographer and inventor. Many express reverence towards him; and most sceptics know better than to talk publicly of topics such as the role of the monarchy in politics and uncertainties over the succession.
One important facet of Thailand’s near decade-long political crisis is the alleged challenge to the monarchy launched by Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-exiled former prime minister, whose political parties have won every national election since 2001. Mr Thaksin’s critics say his favours towards his allies, and the poor and populous rural communities that swept him to power, were an effort to usurp the king’s traditional role in patronage. His supporters say he did no more than appeal to people ignored by the traditional establishment.
The number of lese majesty investigations has surged, with a handful of cases a year before Mr Thaksin was unseated in a 2006 coup rising to hundreds in the years since then. Thailand now languishes at 130 out of 180 countries in this year’s Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, two places below Afghanistan. The atmosphere around lese majesty has grown more sinister, notably with the emergence this year of the ultraroyalist Garbage Collection Organisation, which scours the internet for people to harass and report. The junta has summoned academics who have criticised the law for questioning, while it was reported last week that a taxi driver had been detained after a passenger complained he had disrespected the monarchy during their small talk.
King Bhumibol’s 2005 comments that he was ready to be criticised appear to have been ignored. One analyst describes a culture in which police pursue even the thinnest of complaints for fear of being accused of the crime themselves. Now frail, the king has so far remained publicly detached from the current political crisis, apart from a cursory post-coup note from the palace confirming General Prayuth Chan-ocha as junta leader. He has not offered his views on the broader struggle between the urban elite and its southern allies on the one side, and Mr Thaksin’s new-money clique and its backers in the northern countryside.
The social schism suggests another muffled European echo in London, where Queen Elizabeth II is, like King Bhumibol, seen as a bridge between eras. The British monarch faces the possible break-up of her kingdom in the winter of her reign, as Scotland prepares for its independence referendum in September. It has taken the UK decades of open debate to reach this framework for resolving a profound internal dispute – a luxury Thailand simply does not have.