The protesters who have been in the streets of Thailand for much of the last year are ranged against powerful forces. They oppose the authoritarianism of the country’s political leaders and the absurdity of its monarchy. First among the demonstrators’ enemies is the state, determinedly resisting their demands for greater democracy. Second is the army – loyal to the king and willing to injure and indeed to kill in defence of the status quo.
The third is more amorphous. And it is greater than the adoration of the yellow-clothed fans of the monarchy present at counter-demonstrations organised by the state. It is the nascent feeling of respect for the institution of the monarchy present in many Thai, something the protesters challenge openly – and increasingly in the tones of disrespect rendered illegal under the country’s laws of lèse-majesté.
These laws are intended to preserve the dignity of the monarchy by punishing those who insult of the king. Thai rapper and activist Ammy, born Chaiamorn Kaewwiboonpan, was sent to prison last week after ‘confessing’ to burning a portrait of the king. This act of run-of-the-mill symbolic protest was deemed too much for the king’s majesty to take.
The Thai king, Vajiralongkorn, whose subjects have at one time been instructed to ‘worship’ the monarchy, is ungodly rich. The wealth of the monarchy is estimated at $40 billion – and assets under direct royal control include valuable property and controlling stakes in major international firms. Demands for greater democracy and a more constitutional monarchy threaten the political power which accompanies that wealth.
Under the king’s father, Bhumibol, the monarchy still sparked protest. But Bhumibol’s long reign and the relative stability it promoted meant that by the time of his death in 2016, the old king was regarded with deep, reverential affection.
But the contrast between the old king, especially as he appeared in the dignified frailty of his final years, and his successor is immense. The new king has none of his father’s virtues; he appears to have no virtue at all.
According to America’s then-ambassador to the country, the Thai king made his late poodle Fufu an Air Chief Marshal in the Royal Thai Air Force. The dog appeared in public wearing a fetching tailored uniform with badges of rank to that effect. Dinners were held in its honour. There is footage, widely circulated within the country, of a lavish and surprisingly risqué birthday party held for the dog’s benefit a few years ago (though one doubts the dog appreciated that aspect as much as the future king). When it died, Fufu received something akin to a state funeral, and mourning for the dog was emphasised by state organs.
Fufu’s life seems to portray Vajiralongkorn at a midpoint between Caligula’s treatment of his horse Incitatus and the modern-day owner of an Instagram pet. But the king’s other proclivities tip him a little closer to the Roman emperor.
For years, it has been an open secret that the king likes extended holidaying in Germany. He spends much of his time in the country, where he was periodically pictured wandering around rural towns dressed in crop-tops and all manner of undignified fare.
To avoid the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the king was reported to have holed up in a Bavarian hotel with a bevy of women (invariably a ‘harem’, according to the international press) at the start of last year. His presence there eventually became so protracted and conspicuous that he received the threat of legal sanction if he continued to conduct Thai government business in Germany. It was deemed impolitic for the ruler of Thailand to operate almost exclusively from an alpine resort.
No doubt the absurdity of these repeated stories has hardly assuaged the anger of demonstrators in Thailand. Why is it reasonable to imprison them for insulting the monarchy when the king’s own behaviour disrespects the institution? If a monarchical system relies upon the dignity of the institution and the respect in which the king is held, how can it rest upon the shoulders of a man as undignified as Vajiralongkorn?
As the Thai military reacts to protests with force, and its courts sentence increasing numbers of demonstrators to jail, one wonders how long this uneasy stand-off between democrats and monarchists can last.
Authority in Thailand wishes to concede nothing and to maintain the absurdity of absolute monarchy, even in pretence. More’s the pity that this monarchy is embodied by one unworthy of figurehead status, let alone immense wealth accompanied by great power.
This was originally published in The Critic.