Charismatic monarch, unstable institution

Thongchai Winichaikul 31 May 2017

King Rama VII himself said that a system of absolute monarchy relies on a good king. However, nobody can guarantee the existence of good monarchs forever. Systematic overreliance on one individual creates irresolvable insecurity in all absolute monarchies (and constitutional democracies where monarchies are above politics).

So we try to build political institutions that do not rely on individuals, such as democracy, so that we may enjoy lasting stability. One failure of our current system is that such institutions have failed to take root.

The transition from Rama 5 to Rama 6 was one of a few instances where, at first, succession seemed to pass smoothly, with little opposition and all arranged in advance. But with the hindsight of five to ten years, the transition proved to be a turbulent one: the new King was not a good fit with the system, causing a split amongst elites.

While the aura of the revered late King Bhumibol Adulyadej still casts its light on the new King, this shadow is a double edged sword. At first, memories of the late king linger in a ‘honeymoon period’ where the populace welcomes his successor, with the expectation that he will continue the greatness of his father. But as the honeymoon period comes to a close, citizens will compare Vajiralongkorn with Bhumibol, and find him sorely wanting. It is not possible for the new King to be comparable with the late King — because hyper-royal enchantment with the late King causes him to transcend reality, to the point of being super-human.

Dissatisfaction and opposition is inevitable.

Or do we still live under absolute monarchy in disguise?

I think that most Thai people believe that succession impacts their lives. What does this mean? It means that a great number of Thai people share an understanding that we do not allow to be expressed — in other words that we are fooling and lying to ourselves. Though we may think this and that, we say out loud the opposite: that the King is not relevant to politics, only important to our lives. Yet that everybody is so concerned and questioning [about succession] shows that succession affects life, society and politics more than Thai people will admit.

I wish to request everybody reading to please ask yourself this question: What is the King’s role and importance to the country? If he is of little importance and his role is of little importance, then he doesn’t have to adapt much, because he doesn’t affect us. But that everybody is so concerned [about succession], it’s because he affects us all. So, please answer yourself: what influence does his have and why does he possess such influence?

The other questions I want to pose are: didn’t Thailand evolve beyond absolute monarchy a long time ago? Then what kind of system are we living under now? What is the actual role of the monarchy, such that it has such a large influence on society and politics? Or are we still living under absolute monarchy in disguise?

The network monarchy

One important characteristic of the monarchy is what many call the ‘network’. When I speak of the monarchy’s role in politics, ‘monarchy’ refers to more than just one individual or the monarchy itself — I am referring to the many people who benefit from the monarchy, who have vested interests, whose ideology is tied to the existence of a strong monarchy. The people who make up this network are many, and are not merely the King’s family. The network includes ordinary people just like us — with ideologies, beliefs, good intentions, bad intentions. Some are enchanted, infatuated with the monarchy while others have material interests. Whatever it is, they all desire a strong monarchy who has a role in the country’s political affairs.

In other words, if a King does not have sufficient charisma, engages in poor behavior and activities, or has a personality that causes people to doubt his virtue, the ‘royal hegemony’ will cease to exist. There is no ‘core’ that can form the foundation for the network, and which can provide the legitimacy needed to grow royalty’s influence in Thailand’s politics. So full circle back to this overreliance on one individual — now we can see why succession is rising in importance. It’s not just about the King alone. The behaviour of the King is connected to the political system, to other institutions and on and on.

To sum up, succession would not be fatally important were it not for the current political context, and the conditions of Thailand today.

The king and the constitution

I think that the latest constitution makes it clear that we now live under a system of governance that is exactly what Rama VII wanted, but which the People’s Party opposed. What should we call this system? (laughs). More than 80 years later after the reign of Rama VII, he finally got what he wished for.

In conclusion, Thailand’s current political system depends on the monarch having great charisma. The constitution as it stands is based upon a king, whose own legitimacy is based on the belief that kings must be good. But nobody can guarantee this. As such, there is inherent contradiction in the system.

Will this contradiction erupt? Of course it will, one day. But nobody can say when.

This is an excerpt from an interview published in Prachatai’s new book A Molten Land: The Mandatory Transition