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More Reading the Wikileaks Cables: Thailand’s Monarchy

by Joshua Kurlantzick
December 16, 2010

A woman holds a portrait of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej on his 83rd birthday in Bangkok

A woman holds a portrait of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej on his 83rd birthday in Bangkok. (Chaiwat Subprasom/Courtesy Reuters)

The latest bunch of released Wikileaks cables, online at the Guardian’s archive, offer fascinating insight into Thailand’s opaque monarchy, and should put to rest, once and for all, any idea that the royals stay out of politics except for occasions of national emergency, such as the bloodshed of 1992.

Theoretically, Thailand’s monarchy is “above politics” – the royal institution does not involve itself in political life, and is theoretically a constitutional monarch, like Queen Elizabeth II. Of course, Thais and experienced Thailand watchers know this is not the case; Thailand scholar Duncan McCargo, at Leeds University, coined the term “network monarchy” to explain how the palace influences politics through a network of its supporters and loyalists. But the recent batch of leaked cables show in much more detail how directly the monarchy intervenes in Thai politics, and how much more regularly it intervenes than some Thai observers thought. The royals are hardly saving their powder for occasional instances of dire national emergency. In one cable, a former Thai prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, tells US officials that Thailand’s Queen Sirikit pushed for the 2006 coup against former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and also backed anti-government protests by groups that had demonstrated against Thaksin. In another, senior Thai officials tell American diplomats that Thailand’s king “explicitly told [army commander] Anupong Paojinda not to launch a coup” in 2008, two years after the previous putsch.

Though these cables will be blocked from servers in Thailand, and Bangkok-based newspapers and bloggers will refer to them without referencing the royal family, for fear of being charged with lèse majesté, undoubtedly many Thais will find out about them, just as they have found out about most other stories about the royal family. Of course, Thailand’s government will officially ignore them. But eventually, it will have to address their substance. In yet another cable, senior Thai officials express dismay to the US ambassador at the eventual transition to Thailand’s crown prince, whom they hint is flighty, womanizing, and unsuited to rule. When he finally takes over the palace, if Thailand has not crafted a better way to contain the monarchy’s influence, there could be major trouble.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Chris

    Hang on, so the King told the top military commander not to interfere in politics through launching a coup, and is therefore interfering in politics for doing so…?!?

  • Posted by Tony Gillotte

    As usual, Kurlantzik has it all wrong. Two years of living in Thailand and writing up country travelogue and culture pieces does not make an expert on Thai politics.

    While the Wikileaks cables may have contained the conversation mentioned in his article, he conveniently left out the meat and potatoes of the succession story.

    After writing stories on succession speculation and talking to high placed Thai legal minds who worked on writing the new constitution, it is clear there actually exists a succession road map, a plan, that is expected to be followed by most politicians, the military and police.

    Whether it is unfortunate or not is not for me to judge, but these sources claim that the succession plan will appoint Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn as the new king and that his role will remain above Thai politics. And this will especially be true in the Princes case since he is not seen as being as capable as his father. However, dont be surprised if he isnt seen as an activist King who follows up on the myriad projects his father has established in nearly all of Thailands 77 provinces. And, he will preside over all official functions as the monarchy has in the past, which he has done his share of since he has become more and more conspicuous in the last few years.

    Finally, most of the plans requirments will be acknowledged and followed by the vast majority of the Thai population. While this may not satisfy those who would prefer a less visible role for the kingship, it will be up to the new King to see if he can summon some of his fathers loyalty from the masses.

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