Friday, April 24, 2009

Deconstructing Thanong Khanthong: Revisionist History

The Nation:

The Thai monarchy is a revered institution that represents what Thailand is and has been for more than 700 years, since the Sukhothai era. It brings together Thai traditions and culture, and social, political and Buddhist beliefs.

Fact: This notion that the Thai monarchy has been this one long virtuous entity continuing unabated from Sukhotai to the present Rattanakosin era is nothing but a myth. Notice that Thanong leave out the entire Ayutthaya era, as if that period in Thai history never existed. Four hundred years of history is a lot history to ignore. Rama I, the founder of the Chakri Dynasty, modeled his kingdom on Ayutthaya, not Sukhotai. What about Lanna? That was an independent Thai kingdom with its own culture and history that wasn't fully incorporated into the Bangkok state until Chulalongkorn.

Fact: Buddhism is a foreign import. Indeed, many of the traditions and cultures that Thanong claims emanates from the glory of the Thai monarchy are mostly foreign imports.

Fact: Most of the rituals surrounding the modern Thai monarchy are imports from the ancient Khmer culture, which are syncretised versions of imported rituals and myths from India.

Thaksin Shinawatra and his red-shirt supporters have been trying to link the Privy Council to the monarchy. They have been attacking General Prem as the mastermind of the 2006 coup and, by extension, giving the impression that His Majesty the King has been behind it all.

In Thaksin's latest interview in the Financial Times, he showed no restraint. He charged that the King had held an assembly of General Prem, General Surayud Chulanont and other Privy Council members and the military before approving the 2006 coup. This is far from the truth.

Fact: We will never know the truth, because Thanong refuses to do his job as a reporter. Many people think Prem is this devious mastermind, because Prem has a long history of being a devious mastermind.

As a matter of fact, His Majesty did not personally approve the 2006 coup, neither did he approve the 1991 coup against the Chatichai government. But since the coup was a fait accompli, the King had to give his endorsement to keep the country moving, otherwise there would be a vacuum in the administration of the country. No government and no new legitimate government means a political void and a state of chaos.

Fact: Nothing stopping the king from saying no the military. Indeed, when there were two coup attempts during the eighties against Prem, HMTK sided with Prem against the coup makers.

His Majesty plays by the rules to keep the country from falling apart. Although he personally may not approve of certain legislation or coups, he has to give them his endorsement to keep the country moving. As he strictly plays by the rules, he is universally respected. So when there are no rules or unprecedented cases, he speaks out or gives his opinion. And when he speaks, the Thai people listen because they trust that his opinions are meant for the best of Thailand.

Fact: Signing off on coups is not playing by the rules. It violates the constitution. Indeed, the 1997 Constitution gave the legal right to Thais to resist a coup. The Nation and Thanong conveniently forgot that bit when they were propagating for the military and defending the coup, and also advocating that anybody who was against the coup should be shut down and re-educated by the military.

The King is at times called Prachao yu hua or Pho luang, or the "Royal Father". This term can be traced back to the Sukhothai era. Pho Khun Ramkhamhaeng was a Sukhothai king. But his relationship with his subjects was like a father governing his children.

Fact: Saying that there was a a natural continuation of a royal culture from Sukhotai kingdom to Ayutthaya and Bangkok is a right-wing nationalist myth with no basis in reality. The Ramkhamhaeng stele wasn't even brought until Thai consciousness until the reign of King Mongkut.

The Thais know deep in their heart that Pho luang would never mean anything bad for Thailand. Pho luang is selfless. He is not a divine king, a demi-god or devaraja (an Indian or Hindu concept) as Paul Handley's "The King Who Never Smiles" suggests, although most of the royal or religious ceremonies associated with the monarchy are influenced by Brahminism. But rather His Majesty is a Pho luang or Prachao phaen din in the tradition of Sukhothai's Pho Khun.

King Ramkhamhaeng the Great, who ruled like a father over his children, represents an ideal concept of Thai kingship.

Fact: There is no evidence that the current king models his reign on Ramkhamhaeng. In fact, it would be impossible, because there is so little historical evidence available to know exactly how Ramkhamhaeng ruled outside what is written on the stele. There are even some scholars who argue that the Ramkhamhaeng stele might have been fabricated based on linguistic evidence. By the way, I think you'd have to be a little insane to make the argument that the modern Thai monarchy is based on or should be based on an inscription in Sukhotai 650 years ago. Sukhotai is not Ayutthaya. Sukhotai is not Bangkok.

As a Pho luang or Prachao phaen din, the King practices the 10 virtues of Kingship. Since he has been accumulating virtue from good deeds in past and present lives, he will be born again as a higher being. This is the reincarnation of the human life. The ultimate aim is to become an Enlightened One like the Lord Buddha, so that one can break away from the cycle of life and death. The devaraja concept of the monarch is wrong because a devajara is still subject to the cycle of life and death.

Fact: Where does the 10 virtues of kingship come from? Not Sukhotai, but from India. It is a historical fact that most Thai kings did not practice the 10 virtues of kingship. Most Thai kings practiced Real Politick. I am not making a value judgement. That was the reality. The current monarch practiced it as well. 1957, 1976 anybody? Buehler, Buehler?

Unfortunately for Thailand, recent political upheavals have tried to destroy this unique feature of the Thai political system, in which the monarchy is an integral part.

Fact: I like that Thanong reveals a freudian slip here and actually admits that the recent upheavals are a natural reaction to elites playing by a different set of rules and keeping the people down. I don't think the Reds would have any antipathy towards the monarchy at all if the Thai monarchy was like the one in the UK or Japan. The rebellion isn't against the Ramkhamhaeng myth, but a rebellion against sakdina and the vestiges of the feudal mentality.

Thailand has the most unique political system in the world, with the monarchy as the ultimate symbol and stabiliser of last resort.

Fact: Thailand is unique, certainly, because of its history of having a military coup 18 times in 75 years. Thanong needs to make up his mind. The monarchy is either above politics or it is not. If the monarchy was a great stabilizer, then Thailand wouldn't be so politically unstable.

But some quarters of Thai society are intent on destroying this system due to their ignorance and arrogance, and through their belief that liberal democracy and capitalism will bring stability and prosperity to the country.

Fact: The monarchy is the biggest capitalist in Thailand. $37 billion worth of capitalism. Many who oppose the current system are not capitalists at all. Sulak and Giles are not capitalists.

The monarchy has been conveniently branded as belonging to the elite, including the military and the bureaucracy. One cannot categorise the monarchy as belonging to the same group as the military and the bureaucratic elite. The monarchy is above both. If the monarchy had banked its survival on the military and the bureaucracy, it would not have achieved the universal respect it has, or lasted until today.

Fact: Historically, the monarchy wasn't close to the people. Indeed, it was once illegal for common people to even look at the king. Who has access to the monarchy? Is it the common people or the bureaucrats, the military, and the big businessmen? I don't think any taxi drivers have been invited to sup with the royal family lately.

The monarchy's survival depends on the popular support of the Thai people as a whole. The monarchy must be judged by its relationship with the majority of Thais.

I agree. Maybe it should be based on the popular support of the people instead of cradle to grave propaganda and draconian lese majeste laws. I think most Thai people would continue to support it without either.


Jotman said...

"If the monarchy had banked its survival on the military and the bureaucracy, it would not have achieved the universal respect it has, or lasted until today."

It might be added that the courts, Lèse majesté law in particular, also played a role.

antipadshist said...

interesting article on Bkk Post :

Magic, mobs and millennialism

"today the turn to magic raises doubts about the legitimacy of political authority ... Why have magic, mob psychology and millennialism become so significant in Thai political life today?

The answer to the question is that there is a notable lack of consensus among the populace and their leaders regarding the basic premises on which political order can rest in Thailand... Without an agreed on set of new rules for politics in Thailand, magic, mob psychology and millennialist movements will continue to perpetuate the political crisis."