Friday, April 17, 2009

The Economist on the Big Kahuna

The Economist:

When “yellow shirt” protesters laid siege to the government led by Mr Thaksin’s loyalists late last year, they did so invoking the king’s name. Yet now even Mr Thaksin felt obliged to profess again his loyalty to the king, and to pay homage to his power.

Such regal influence was far from preordained when the king came to the throne as a stripling, the American-born son of a half-Chinese commoner. He and his image were moulded by palace advisers and by successive military governments. They saw how useful it would be to have a figurehead depicted as not merely beyond reproach but very nearly divine, for the king’s blessing could then legitimise what otherwise would look awfully like any old Latin American junta, in Thailand’s case backed by business cronies and the Bangkok elite. The need helps explain why a king held supposedly in wonder by his subjects warrants one of the world’s most draconian laws against lèse-majesté. The king has been not just a figurehead for Thailand’s elites, but a source of patronage and power in his own right, with destabilising consequences, especially now his reign is in its fumbling twilight. He has long bestowed honours in exchange for donations to his good causes. The causes may benefit his beloved rural poor, but the patronage system perpetuates royal influence.

Mr Thaksin’s innovation was to use the impressively democratic constitution Thailand adopted in 1997 to invent a new politics that transformed the old system of retail, local, vote-buying into a wholesale machine that spread patronage nationwide. Policies of universal health care, microcredit and the like only strengthened the machine. Thus Mr Thaksin became the only prime minister in Thailand’s fitful democratic history to serve out his full term. But the old elite felt threatened as his autocratic leadership and popularity seemed to challenge the king’s authority.

Thai culture blends Buddhism, spirit beliefs and rampant materialism. Power and potency come in many fluid forms. But as Andrew Walker and Nicholas Farrelly of Australian National University put it, Thailand’s elite is less conceptually adroit, calculating power in zero-sum terms. The junta that ousted Mr Thaksin claimed his policies flouted the king’s notions of a “sufficiency economy”, rooted in traditional notions of harmonious village life and perfect hierarchy, which they then incorporated into a new constitution. The junta, quickly making a mess of governing, allowed an election. But convenient court rulings helped bring down two successive pro-Thaksin governments.


But the monarchy may be in deeper trouble. Some red shirts this week lamented that, if King Bhumibol is against the leader they keep voting for, he must be against them too. The king is old and frail. His successor, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn—spoilt, oft-wed and demanding—is much disliked. The monarchy’s carefully fostered image could crumble overnight.

Protecting it is partly the task of Abhisit Vejjajiva, Thailand’s present prime minister. He rode to office, unelected, thanks to the yellow shirts. Mr Abhisit says he is a reformer, who will heal divisions. He handled the red-shirt chaos with firm restraint. The king, it is said, has taken rather a shine to the 44-year-old, schooled at Eton and Oxford. Our correspondent in 1932 would have put him firmly among the “rather exotic Westernised intelligentsia” in the post-coup government. He would doubtless have relished the paradox that such an urbane, cosmopolitan figure is now the front for a regime that in essence owes its power to a feudal monarchy. Mr Abhisit lacks both influence and legitimacy. To earn both, he will need to face the voters. Indebted to the royalists who brought him to power, he is unlikely to encourage debate on the monarchy’s future. But if he did so, Thailand and perhaps the royal family itself would have reason to thank him in the long run. In its present role, the monarchy is standing between Thailand and not just political harmony, but modernity itself.

You can read Andrew Walker and Nicholas Farrelly's article here.

I feel bad for Harry Nicolaides. His "crime" is minor compared to these vultures. I am sure the Abhisit government believes in criticism and won't use the entire propaganda apparatus of the Thai government to counter these pieces.

I am sure Thanong is taking his marching orders presently.

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