Sunday December 5 is King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 83rd birthday. This means it’s Thai National Day and also Father’s Day in the country. (The Queen’s birthday is Mother’s Day.)
Bhumibol has been hospitalised since September 19 2009, although he made a rare public outing two weeks ago to inaugurate a pair of bridges at a river project in Samut Prakarn. Land and irrigation reform have been lifelong concerns for the world’s longest-serving monarch. This morning he emerged again for an appearance at the ceremonial Grand Palace in Bangkok. He thanked well-wishers before allowing his son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, to read out Bhumibol’s customary birthday address.
Increasingly, the ailing king’s speeches have emphasised his commitment to Theravada Buddhist teachings. Today he called on Thais from all sections of society to “understand their duties”, warning that ill-motivated acts could be detrimental, both personally and for the nation as a whole. The king is well aware that the population hangs on his every word, and much thought will have gone into the nuances of the following phrase: “When one becomes senseless and unreasonable, one can become forgetful and afraid and can abuse one’s authority. This is very dangerous. This kind of practice can lead to downfall to oneself and the country.” (Nation Multimedia)
Dignified and undemonstrative, Bhumibol embodies a proud nation’s tradition and heritage. He is universally adored by his subjects. On his birthday the country’s media tends to abandon all pretence at dispassionate reportage. Most of the principal Thai news websites featured an full page interstitial birthday greeting at their normal homepage URLs. The English-language Nation categorised ostensibly straight news reports with the label “LONG LIVE HIS MAJESTY”.
Such reverence may read as sycophancy to foreigners, but it’s largely born of genuine affection.
Visitors to Thailand quickly discover that the king is beyond criticism. This is no “unwritten rule”: the country has some of the most draconian lèse-majesté laws in the world. But I’ve never met a Thai who doesn’t love the king. So why should it be necessary to impose (and enforce) such laws?
The most obvious answer is that the laws are used as a political weapon. During the 2005/6 political crisis, Thaksin Shinawatra and Sondhi Limthongkul exchanged lèse-majesté charges, and the accusations against Thaksin were cited as one of the justifications for the military coup of September 2006. More recently, many accusations of lése majesté have been made against members of the “red shirt” movement, an alliance that has ties to Thaksin. The red shirts’ tonal adversaries, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (or “yellow shirts”) have used language that conflates the current political élite with the royal family. By implication, the red shirt movement’s opposition to the PAD and the like (such as the current government) has a treasonous flavour.
By framing the current political struggles as royalist (yellow) versus anti-royal (red), the less scrupulous political operators can hope to appeal to the average Thai’s loyalty to the royal family, turning them against the red shirts and fellow travellers. A few accusations of lèse-majesté against red shirts could help reinforce the perception.
The “Long Live the King” bangles worn by so many red shirts suggest things aren’t so simple.
Another factor is that statements about the royal family may be becoming more sclerotic in response to a general nervousness about the king’s health. There is some concern that when Bhumibol’s heir apparent succeeds to the throne, the institution of the royal family may not be quite as heretofore.
One of the lèse-majesté laws’ most noted critics is the king himself. Neither he nor his family have ever encouraged charges to be filed under the laws – indeed, when Veera Musikapong was banned from politics for five years on lèse majesté charges, the royal household let it be known that they thought the remarks were harmless.
The king has even used his annual birthday address to play down the importance of lèse-majesté. In 1991, he remarked “If a Royal Opinion cannot be touched, it would mean that Thailand cannot progress”, and on his birthday five years ago he stressed: “Actually, I must … be criticised.”