Thailand’s misstep on the way back towards democracy


February 18, 2019

Thailand’s misstep on the way back towards democracy

By Editorial Board, ANU

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2019/02/18/thailands-misstep-on-the-way-back-towards-democracy/

Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi, the elder sister of Thailand King Maha Vajiralongkorn. Picture: AFP

Last week, Thailand’s upcoming elections took a bizarre turn when Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya (pic above), Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s elder sister, was registered as a prime ministerial candidate by Thai Raksa Chart, a Thai political party affiliated with the exiled billionaire and former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The King swiftly condemned the move as unconstitutional and an inappropriate interference of the monarchy in Thai political affairs. But both interventions on the way to the 24 March elections leave many questions about the country’s transition from military rule along the road back towards democracy.

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By most reckoning, Thailand is the second most important member of ASEAN. Thailand is Southeast Asia’s second largest economy although its growth rate, which had been running at 6.5 per cent before martial law was imposed, is now languishing at under 1 per cent. Its people are more prosperous than the population-large Indonesia and, although stalled in the middle income trap, its economy includes the most advanced industrial production networks in Southeast Asia and is highly integrated into the East Asian economy.

Thailand’s economy is flexible and globally connected. Its production networks enhance regional productivity and efficiency. ASEAN efforts at regionalising its market and production depend on re-igniting Thailand’s success — positioned as it was at the leading edge of Southeast Asian modern industrial development. Its political troubles of the past half-decade have posed the usual issues for international investor confidence for Thailand itself, but they’ve also raised serious issues about its ability and commitment to deal with ASEAN’s challenges in an uncertain world economy and the new shape of geopolitics in the region.

This year, Thailand chairs the ASEAN group and in that position it will play a crucial role in trying to frame the region’s response to perhaps the most testing international and economic environment that the regional organisation has confronted in the more than 50 years since it was founded. Thailand’s return to democracy after the coup five years ago is in part preparation for the leadership role for which it now has responsibility.

At its roots, the fracture of Thai political stability five years ago was a consequence of the nation’s failure to build a stable consensus about how to distribute political and economic power across society, ordered around the monarchy, the military and bureaucratic elite, and the people, gradually enfranchised through elections after the student uprisings in 1973. The restoration of a measure of democracy this time round depends on the commitment of the most powerful interests in the nation, including the palace and the army, to respect electoral mandates. If things go badly wrong again, Thailand — one of the most successful societies in Asia and a society that is comfortable with its positive international and regional standing — will not only find it more difficult to re-establish its place back on the perch, it will weaken ASEAN’s new determination to assert its centrality in regional affairs.

One view is that Thailand can manage its regional responsibilities, as chair of ASEAN, and continuing political turmoil at the same time. There will be no repeat of the 2009 episode when protesters forced the cancellation of that year’s ASEAN Summit and badly dented ASEAN’s international standing. That’s probably a sanguine view of Thailand and ASEAN’s situation today. The region and the organisation are under intense pressure and searing critical examination. If Thailand’s missteps along the road towards democracy spill over into uncertainties about the process of setting a new strategic direction for ASEAN, the costs will be non-trivial.

The monarchy appears to have shown decisiveness and appealed to worthy principle in dealing with the fiasco created by Princess Ubolratana’s unusual entry into Thai politics via Thaksin’s clumsy tactic. Yet our first lead piece this week by Patrick Jory speculates that the King may have had knowledge of his sister’s and Thaksin’s move. Were that so, it would forebode continuing febrility in the relationship between the monarchy and the bureaucratic elite.

On coronation, it’s believed, the King could in fact extend political amnesties to cement the progress of constitutional monarchy under his reign. If that extended to Thaksin, however, there would certainly be further trouble down the track. Meanwhile, the role of the military and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha will be decisive. He was nominated as a prime ministerial candidate by the Phalang Pracharat Party at the same time as Princess Ubolratana’s spectacular flameout. Although this was not unexpected, it raises difficult questions. Prayut’s nomination for prime minister by Phalang Pracharat can be argued to compromise the military’s interest in respecting the electoral mandate. The appointment of senators (who have a vote with elected parliamentarians on the choice of prime minister) is by the National Council for Peace and Order of which Prayut’s chair. Senate votes could carry the day in the likely event that there is no decisive majority outcome from the popular electoral vote.

In our second lead piece this week, Greg Raymond canvasses these and other political problems in Thailand today.

‘Much is still to play out,’ says Raymond, ‘but there are reasons to think that both sides of politics may see it in their best interests to act with restraint. One of the beneficiaries of what has occurred is without doubt Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha’. Prayut looks like he has a strong chance of being elected prime minister. He needs to secure 126 seats from a coalition of his own and other smaller parties, and command virtually all of the 250-member Senate (as is expected given senators are appointed by the junta) to get a winnable 376 seats to ensure his installation as prime minister.

But political emotions are inevitably running high and Thaksin’s might not be the only misstep. Were the military to cancel the election in the light of what has happened, or take excessively punitive measures against the Thai Raksa Chart party, it could trigger unrest and make a volatile situation more so. The Pheu Thai Party, the main Thaksin-affiliated party, is still in the contest if it can preserve its cool and insulate itself from whatever happens to the Thai Raksa Chart party, including possible dissolution.

Prinya Thaewanarumitkul, Vice Rector of Thammasat University, has urged Prime Minister Prayut to stand back and withdraw from the Prime ministerial contest in order to avoid a conflict of interest for the National Council for Peace and Order in its role in the appointment of senators. That would be an act of great statesmanship, but an unlikely turn of events. There is quite a way to go before Thailand restores its rank among the democracies and many uncertainties along the path over the next several months.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

 

Hoping for a vibrant, noble monarchy


January 31,2019

Hoping for a vibrant, noble monarchy

Opinion  |
by Nathaniel Tan
Published:  |  Modified:

COMMENT | We have a new Yang Di-Pertuan Agong, Daulat Tuanku!

Each new Agong brings his own set of values and style to the monarchy. Hopefully, we will be maintaining the best traditions of our monarchy, and leaving any unsavoury elements behind.

In the wake of the last Agong’s resignation, there were a number of critical comments made that led to people being hauled up by the police for questioning it, employees being compelled to leave their jobs and so on.

These actions were taken purportedly to “defend the dignity” of the monarchy. Moving forward with a new monarch, this may be an opportune time to ask what is the best way to protect the dignity of the monarchy?

There are a number of possible answers to this question. No doubt, there are some who believe that the best way to do so is to via extreme punitive actions.

This school of thought believes that anyone caught saying anything negative at all should be hit with the full force of the law and be subject to punishments such as fines, prison and whipping.

In evaluating this approach, let us stop to think of places and times in history where this approach to instilling love and respect for rulers may have been considered successful.

I stopped for quite a while and was not able to come up with any such examples.

There are countless examples of using this tactic to successfully invoke fear, but none that I can think of where it has nurtured genuine love and respect towards a ruler.

The reason for this should be apparent to any parent, older sibling or teacher – you simply cannot frighten or intimidate someone into loving or genuinely respecting you.

For the purposes of today’s article, let us leave aside for now deeper questions of the relevance or legitimacy of a monarchy in today’s world.

Suffice to say here that it is no doubt an institution steeped in tradition and history, revered by a significant part of the population, and full of potential to play a meaningful role in governance and society.

Primacy of good deeds

I think the short answer to the original question of how we can best protect the dignity of the monarchy is through the actions of the monarchs themselves.

No matter what the rest of us do around the monarchs, including arresting and prosecuting those who say unpleasant things about them, the esteem in which they are held will always be proportional to the role they play in public life.

If they are seen to live upstanding, exemplary lives, and execute their official duties according to the highest standards of nobility, they will be loved and revered, regardless of what the government or the rest of us do.

In recent times, one of the most visible portrayals of a monarch in public imagination is that of Queen Elizabeth II, in the Netflix television series, The Crown.

Far be it for any of us to fawn over our former colonial masters for no reason (least of all a semi-fictionalised one), but perhaps the series can give us some ideas of how monarchs can come to be revered.

One underlying theme in The Crown is the idea of personal sacrifice in pursuit of public service. The queen is portrayed as someone who has to make various compromises and difficult personal decisions to protect the eponymous crown.

She is seen to repeatedly defer to tradition and convention, even when she would personally much rather not, and at considerable cost to her personal relationships.

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At some points in The Crown, Queen Elizabeth contrasted with the behaviour and decisions of her uncle, who was crowned King Edward VII, only to abdicate his throne in less than a year, as a result for his love for a divorced socialite.

This abdication was treated as a considerable scandal. Driving not far from my home soon after the recent announcement of resignation here, I saw that abdications were treated somewhat differently in Malaysia, with an enormous poster of the former Agong having appeared overnight, with the words “Daulat Tuanku”.

In any case, I obviously have no quarrel with the former Agong’s decisions, and consider the personal lives of public figures as something we should mostly not concern ourselves with.

We should also note that in recent times in the UK, no one is ever censured for “insulting” the Queen. There is a particular scene at the end of the movie Johnny English Reborn, where my favourite funnyman Mr Bean is portrayed to be banging the head of the queen with a silver tray.

I can’t imagine how many decades of prison doing something like that might earn someone in countries more like ours but one has to ask, has it affected Queen Elizabeth’s popularity in the least?

No to vitriol, yes to transparency

One could even argue that the more strictly you enforce a restriction against criticising a ruler, the less popular the monarch becomes – and surely this is not in the interests of a monarch or the monarchy.

I have written previously that the tone taken by critics of the monarchy such as A Kadir Jasin was excessive and a little vindictive.

I think there is little to be gained from launching vitriol filled with rough words at the royals at this juncture.

That said, police investigations (especially under the Sedition Act) and compelling people to leave their jobs seem somewhat excessive punishments.

For all of Kadir’s harsh criticisms, he is no less than an advisor to the prime minister; if he can still hold such an important position, perhaps we should consider whether the action taken on other critics by their employers is appropriate.

Speaking of Kadir, while I disagree with his tone, his underlying point that monarchs are funded from the public purse was far from irrelevant.

As such, some degree of transparency regarding how this money is spent would, of course, be a good thing.

Opacity, on the other hand, can give rise to all sorts of unsavoury rumours – which is no good for anyone.

At the end of the day, the monarchs have a great deal of agency over how they are perceived by the public.

If they abide by the highest code of conduct and standards of integrity, while continuing to show compassion for ordinary Malaysians, their popularity is all but guaranteed.


NATHANIEL TAN, who works at Emir Research, a think tank focused on data-driven policy research, was concerned to read about the rise of pro-monarchy vigilantism. The episode of The Crown that deals with precisely that is called ‘Marionettes’.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

Bersatu and the shaping of new realities


January 19, 2019

Bersatu and the shaping of new realities

Opinion  |  Nathaniel Tan

 

COMMENT | I am grateful to be read by so esteemed and prolific a writer as S Thayaparan. Needless to say, like any two writers, the good Commander and I can hardly be expected to agree on everything – this is a healthy thing.

In his article on Jan 9, Thayaparan alludes to what I believe are a good many shared goals and even some shared analyses. What differences we may have could arguably be ascribed to the fundamental level of optimism versus cynicism. Of course, this is my own biased view.

I agree with Thayaparan that UMNO’s core strategy of feudal patronage was indeed very successful in securing Malay votes, especially in rural areas.

How else could we account for the fact that in terms of individual parties, UMNO had won the most seats in Parliament? Or the fact that nationally, Harapan only won approximately 25-30 percent of the Malay votes.

I also agree with Thayaparan in that this is a very tempting strategy to replicate, in order to achieve the same level of Malay support that UMNO achieved; as well as with the fact that there are undeniably some in Bersatu and Harapan who wish to pursue this path.

Thayaparan seems to believe that it is inevitable that Bersatu will indeed go down this same road. Here perhaps we differ.

I am no seer, so it would be foolish to say definitively whether Bersatu will or will not turn out like UMNO in the end. I will be willing to say however: it certainly isn’t an inevitability.

In terms of electoral strategy, I think the primary argument that should be put forth to those trying to emulate UMNO’s strategy of feudal patronage is that the votes you win very likely come at the cost of other votes.

Once again, I quote the Aesop fable where the dog with the bone saw his reflection in the river, and dropped the bone he had in greedy pursuit of a second bone.

Should a party follow UMNO too far, especially in terms of its approach to race, the backlash will be real. That constituency of voters should not be taken for granted, as GE 14 demonstrated decisively their willingness to vote in protest.

Knowing one’s opponent

Secondly, every political strategy must obviously take into consideration context and landscape.

Simply put, Harapan needs to know exactly who it’ll be up against in GE 15.

Thayaparan writes:

‘A Bersatu grassroots activist, who I usually call on because she gives it to me straight, told me that it is easy for the other Harapan components to criticise Rashid. It gets them good press and makes them seem like heroes, like young Syed Saddiq. But, the “beloved” (and she means it when she says this) prime minister not only has to ensure that Bersatu is a viable party, but also that “Harapan does not mampus (die)”.

Okay, I said, if your rural heartland base needs to be better informed, then why not begin the process of dismantling the system – political tactics included – which separates them from the urban Malay voter? “You want us to win or you want PAS or UMNOo to win?” she replied.’

Two prominent young Harapan leaders, Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman and Setiawangsa MP Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad have both used America’s transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump as an example of a right-wing backlash.

This article does not look to ‘ignore’ these warnings and advocate some sort of no-holds-barred progressive agenda; nor does it intend to underestimate any particular political movement.

That said, if Harapan is posturing to fight the wrong enemy in the wrong way, it could end up shooting itself in the foot.

Feudalism impossible without controlling the government

The main problem with UMNO and PAS is that they cannot rule alone; for the same reason they can’t rule alone, these two can’t rule together either.

The Malay population currently stands at 55 percent. Unless you twist and turn electoral boundaries into some unrecognisable mangle, it is essentially impossible for UMOmno and PAS to appeal to non-Malays enough to win the federal government without some sort of ally.

Indeed, one can very easily argue that this scenario has already played out – not in GE-15, but in GE-14.

UMNO’s entire mandate was based on its leadership of BN, where every community was supposed to be represented.

With whatever shreds of that illusion now being shattered conclusively, UMNO is left as a party with a very narrow, exclusive ideology, and very few genuine allies.

PAS meanwhile has a dismal history of going it alone. In 1995 and 2004, they contested alone and won only seven seats each time. In 1999, 2008 and 2013, they contested in coalitions with PKR and DAP, and won 27, 23 and 21 seats respectively.

2018 was a bit of an outlier, with PAS winning 18 seats, but with each and every one of those seats coming from only three states (Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah) – making it fairly obvious that PAS cannot win elsewhere without strong allies.

So, it has to be asked: Who will Harapan really be fighting in GE-15?

As always, we should not imagine voters to be stupid. Even if they wanted to vote in someone they think would be more willing to deliver them government goodies feudal-patronage style, surely they understand that their candidate cannot do so if he is not part of the federal government.

This brings us to the most important point – why do we have to ‘out-feudal’ the enemy, when the purported enemy is in no real position to be the next feudal lord?

Certainly one should not preach complacency, but one should equally not be sending warships into waters where there are no enemies, leaving other flanks vulnerable.

Indeed, Harapan’s biggest enemy could be Harapan itself; if elections were to be held, say within a year, the biggest reason behind votes against Harapan would likely be under-performance.

Worrying about maintaining and growing Malay support is not necessarily wrong, but this can easily be a strategic misstep as a counterpoint to enemies who are now mere phantoms.

Umno has already been defeated, and at its current state of disintegration – caused in the first place by the party’s dependence on government-funded feudal patronage – it remains to be seen if it would even exist come GE-15.

PAS on the other hand has shown extreme resilience over the decades, and we can expect them to be a real force, but unless they do a 180 degree turn and somehow start to appeal to non-Muslim political movements, they will not be a primary contender for the federal government.

Redefining Malay politics

This brings us to the question of what then will the fight for the Malay heartland be about?Image result for FEUDAL MALAYS

A  feudal Umno  Patron

The impression I personally got from Thayaparan’s article was a belief that these rural Malays will always be dependent feudal peasants.

I choose a more optimistic view.

Bersatu and Harapan’s unique position – resulting from UMNO’s and PAS’ extremely weak position – gives them a golden opportunity to redefine what Malay politics is about.

There are numerous examples of late showing that there are clearly elements within Bersatu who want to go the UMNOo way, but I daresay the battle for the party’s heart and soul is not over yet.

As I wrote recently, at the very top of Bersatu is Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, and his oldest dream to invigorate the Malay community – propelling them to become successful entrepreneurs, leading professionals and captains of industry.

While his unrelenting sarcasm and unfavourable comparisons might not be the best way to bring this about, I don’t think we can doubt the sincerity of his intentions.

All that remains to determine is methodology.

It won’t be any walk in the park, but I do believe that with the right leadership and policies, we can transition out from the rural heartland’s dependency on feudal patronage, into governance based on genuine empowerment – setting everything in place for Malays to succeed on their own merits.

If we take the time to look, there are always a few encouraging signs here and there – the takeover of Perlis Bersatu by Bersatu headquarters could be one such sign.

I am all for realistic analysis. It is foolishness not to base your plans on what the objective truth on the ground is. At the same time, all the realism in the world will do us no good if we have no vision; reality, after all, is often nothing more than what all of us make it.

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On my first day driving to my new job, I listened to a song from the musical The Man of La Mancha. Perhaps not for the last time, allow me – in the style of the good Commander – to quote some lines from the show:

‘I have lived nearly fifty years, and I have seen life as it is. Pain, misery, hunger … cruelty beyond belief. I have heard the singing from taverns and the moans from bundles of filth on the streets. I have been a soldier and seen my comrades fall in battle … or die more slowly under the lash in Africa. I have held them in my arms at the final moment. These were men who saw life as it is, yet they died despairing. No glory, no gallant last words … only their eyes filled with confusion, whimpering the question, “Why?”

I do not think they asked why they were dying, but why they had lived. When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. To seek treasure where there is only trash. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!’


 

NATHANIEL TAN is delighted to have begun a new job at Emir Research.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

Time to create a culture of critical consciousness for citizens wishing to speak truth to power


January 19,2 019

Time to create a culture of critical consciousness for citizens wishing to speak truth to power

by Dr. Azly Rahman

https://www.malaysiakini.com/columns/460011

COMMENT | When the Multimedia Super Corridor was created in the mid-1990s, during Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s first tenure as Prime Minister, the rakyat was promised that the internet would not be censored. Thirty years later, it is still largely uncensored, nor is any grand governmental filter like China’s Green Dam firewall put in place.

Pakatan Harapan cannot always hide behind security laws in the age of greater and more massive free speech as practised by its citizens, especially those who voted for change – real, radical change – and not for some new regime that lies through its teeth.”– Azly Rahman

I was a keen observer of the impact of digital communications technologies on the degree of how nation-states are deconstructed by the power of the technologies that shrink time and space and put distance to death. I wrote a dissertation on this topic, with the birth of Cyberjaya as a case study of hegemony and utopianism in an emerging ‘cybernetic Malaysia’.

Today, the internet in Malaysia is king, the monarch of misinformation but also messenger of good things, delivered instantaneously. What kind of messiah the internet – the most personalising and democratising tool ever invented – will turn out to be we do not know.

How then is a new government – that promised clean, efficient and trustworthy governance – deal with the inherent contradiction of wanting to allow citizens to tell the truth on the one hand, but refusing to be voted out by the tsunami of critiques on anything, on the other?

In cyberspace, on a daily basis, criticisms are mounted as if a great war is brewing. As if a prelude to the yet another storming of our Bastille.

In other words, Pakatan Harapan cannot always hide behind security laws in the age of greater and more massive free speech as practised by its citizens, especially those who voted for change – real, radical change – and not for some new regime that lies through its teeth.

Critical mass

How do we then critique the monarchy, kleptocracy, theology, and ideology – at a time when the powers-that-be seem to be increasingly panicky with the speed by which things are going?

This is a Habermasian question of public space, of “defeudalisation”, and of the way we educate citizen internet vigilantes to exercise free speech in an increasingly authoritarian world.

Consider the scenario the last few weeks. Netizens are getting hauled to the police station for passing comment on the king who abdicated. Not very nice things were said to the monarch.

Pro-monarchy netizens are in an informational war with those angry and dissatisfied with the king who did not tell the country why he went on leave for a few weeks, only to find out later that he was allegedly attending to his own wedding. A racial-antagonistic dimension of this can be discerned.

The Seafield Temple riots in November were made known to the public almost instantaneously with devastating effect, not only on how it got worse, but how the government and the people were trying to deal with the aftermath.

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Sadly, a firefighter died and this tragedy is, in fact, another example of how the internet is a tool of production of both the truth and fake news. In cyberspace, comments take on a troubling racial and religious dimension.

Most of the promises broken by the new regime were leaked at lightning speed, with widespread implications. From the government’s reluctance to recognise the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC), the news of the new car project being public-funded to some degree, members flocking into Bersatu like locusts from Umno and now the Special Affairs Department (Jasa) to the confusing and annoying statements coming from the Education Ministry, the political appointments to GLCs – all these and many more point to the idea that citizens are using the internet to exercise their rights as voters and citizens.

They are speaking up and able to again decide if a new government that can deliver promises better ought to be voted into power in the next election. The internet is king.

You can think of more examples of how this technology is a double-edged sword both for the ruler and the ruled. And now we see the Sedition Act 1948 about to be used to compel the rakyat to not speak up.

Those having their voice as internet vigilantes against power abusers continue to play their role. It will take a keen anthropologist to catalogue the thousands of comments that exemplify disgust towards the powers-that-be – produced, reproduced, and made viral – as compared to the few that caught the attention of the authorities.

How to critique

The internet is a virgin forest of information with a life of its own. From it emanates the phenomena of the evolution of truth, multiple truths, alternative truths, and post-truths.

It is a very exciting time for philosophers to study the postmodern thinking activities of the human species. And the internet is the location or space of the battlefields of truths fighting against each other, something those in the US military would call the dromological nature of things, or the speed by which politics moves and removes things, and makes or breaks or multiplies whole truths and half-baked truths.

Is the government looking into this phenomenon? Is it looking into how to educate the rakyat not to say nasty things out of anger and ‘cyber-amok’ conditions – even if what is said is the truth – but to teach them how to say the truth with sound reasoning, using the tools of the critique of power and ideology?

Can the Education Ministry or the Communications and Multimedia Ministry at least provide guidelines on how to critique the monarchy, kleptocracy, ideology, and theology, using sound cultural, philosophical, ideological and liberatory means? This will save netizens from writing things that are true, yet unsubstantiated, and end up in jail.

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The government of any day owes the citizens the promise of education for critical consciousness, so that democracy can evolve nicely, and regimes can come and go if it fails to deliver.

 

It was the internet that helped the new government grab power. It was netizens that helped Harapan win.

Today, the new government must cultivate a new culture of critical consciousness, to teach citizens how to use the Excalibur of the new regime, new excitement, new society. Not for the new emperors to have a newer sword of Damocles hanging over citizens wishing to speak truth to power.

So educate. Teach us how to critique the power abusers be they politicians, theologians, or the monarchs, safely and scientifically.

Wasn’t that the grand promise of Harapan, to leave the idiocracy behind?


AZLY RAHMAN is an educator, academic, international columnist, and author of seven books available here. He grew up in Johor Bahru and holds a doctorate in international education development and Master’s degrees in six areas: education, international affairs, peace studies communication, fiction and non-fiction writing. He is a member of the Kappa Delta Pi International Honor Society in Education. Twitter @azlyrahman. More writings here.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

Marrying the Thai monarchy and modernity


January 6, 2019

Marrying the Thai monarchy and modernity

https://www.newmandala.org/marrying-thai-monarchy-modernity/

The royal wedding between British Prince Harry and American Meghan Markle has heralded a new era of one of the oldest monarchies in the world. The constant reinvention of the British royal family serves to remind other monarchies of the need to stay relevant to avoid anachronism.

Image result for prince harry and meghan

Eighty years ago, Meghan marrying Harry would have remained an impossible dream. In 1937, the American and twice-divorced Wallis Simpson wedded Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor, a year after Edward’s abdication. Simpson represented unwanted qualities and was disqualified from being a British queen. But in 2018, Meghan—also an American divorcee, biracial, and a Hollywood actress—was cheerily welcome into the Windsor family. Times have changed. So has the British monarchy.

Thousands of miles away, Thailand is among the few countries in Southeast Asia where the monarchy has survived. The royal wedding in the United Kingdom was examined thoroughly in Thailand both in printed and social media.

In traditional media, the coverage of the nuptials was extensive, stoked by the public’s curiosity over British royal affairs, and held as a mirror to Thailand’s royals. Printed media focused on two main elements: first, the awe-inspiring pomp that accompanied the British royal institution, and second, the cost of the lavish wedding. In the two elements, commentaries appeared highly paradoxical.

The grandeur of the British royal wedding, as portrayed in Thai newspapers, was taken as living proof of the necessity of the Thai monarchy’s own solemnity, even its divinity. Celebrating Harry and Meghan’s wedding became a tool to strengthen the royal institution in Thailand, amidst growing anti-monarchist sentiment.

On the other end of the spectrum however, reports in local Thai media taking the cost of the British royal wedding as a point of discussion could be taken as subtle criticism of the Thai royals. For example, the widest circulated Thai Rath newspaper published a story on the expense of the wedding, reportedly as high as 32 million pounds, and expressed plainly to its readers, “The British royal family bears the cost of the wedding”.

The cost of maintaining the monarchy has long been hotly debated in the United Kingdom. In Thailand, although discussing royal affairs risks lèse-majesté charges, since the coup of 2006, society has been more vocal about this aspect of the Thai monarchy: its profligate spending. Year-after-year, public funding for the Thai monarchy has risen, sometimes stratospherically.

During the reign of King Bhumibol, successive governments funnelled enormous funds into the “Budget for the promotion of the dignity of the monarchy”. In 2013, for example, the budget amounted to US$395 million. After the coup in 2014, the Thai junta increased the budget for the monarchy by approximately 20 per cent, reaching around US$435 that year and US$536 million in 2015.

During the reign of King Bhumibol, successive governments funneled enormous funds into the “Budget for the promotion of the dignity of the monarchy”. In 2013, for example, the budget amounted to US$395 million. After the coup in 2014, the Thai junta increased the budget for the monarchy by approximately 20 per cent, reaching around US$435 million that year and US$536 million in 2015.

After the enthronement of King Vajiralongkorn, however, the budget for the monarchy was cut. US$123 million was allocated to the Thai monarchy in 2018. Still, extra funding streams from various ministries to promote the monarchy have not been curtailed. Overall, the Thai king still enjoys a far larger budget than the British queen. Britain’s Royal Household says that its annual sovereign grant is around US$52 million, although that does not cover costs such as security.

While reports seen in Thai Rath and other newspapers are mixed, Thai social media responded to the royal wedding in the United Kingdom more sensationally. The debate is divisive. On the one hand, the Harry-Meghan wedding allowed some regality to rub off on Vajiralongkorn’s controversial reign. In Thailand, the old discourse of France being “an unfortunate nation” with its abolished monarchy is juxtaposed with the pomp of the British monarchy, hitting home the important point of monarchy being a quintessential pillar of the nation. In a time of the Thai monarchy’s waning popularity, royalists hope to ride on Harry and Meghan’s popular wave to boost their own royal institution at home.

The point delicately raised by Thai Rath on the cost of the wedding was recurrently discussed in social media. Some argued against the use of taxpayers’ money on the monarchy’s private expenses. Despite the lèse-majesté law, comments on King Vajiralongkorn’s share of the public purse proliferated in social media circles. From this perspective, the Windsor wedding served as another blow to the unpopular monarch, who resides for much of the time in Munich, Germany.

Image result for his majesty king maha vajiralongkorn bodindradebayavarangkun

Now that Thailand has entered into the tenth reign, His Majesty King Vajiralongkorn has sought to consolidate his rule, partly through a series of royal ceremonies. His father was cremated last year, an exercise that symbolically ended the era of Bhumibol and signaled the beginning of the Vajiralongkorn reign. His mother, Queen Sirikit, is bed bound. Should she pass away, Thailand will once again enter into mourning mode. The official coronation of Vajiralongkorn could fall after the Queen’s funeral. But the kingship of Vajiralongkorn will not be complete until he names the new queen of the Thai nation. All these ceremonies involve prodigious public spending.

Adaptability is a key to the monarchy’s survival. The high profile British wedding took place at a time of chaotic politics. Britain threatens Europe with Brexit. The United Kingdom’s new immigration policies are getting tougher. Nationalistic rhetoric is on the surge, both in Europe and in the United States. The wedding, watched by millions, was not just a plain fairy tale. There were serious political messages involving the new monarchy and global politics.

In Thailand, since the beginning of the new reign, the only change witnessed by Thais has been the resurgence of royal absolutism. It is ironic that while a royal wedding in the United Kingdom was partly extolled in Thailand as a symbol of adaptability, the royalists’ perception of the wedding between Harry and Meghan reflected a desire for their monarch to be more absolute.