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Obama and His Majesty the King

by Joshua Kurlantzick
November 19, 2012

U.S. president Barack Obama speaks with Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej during an audience granted at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok. U.S. president Barack Obama speaks with Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej during an audience granted at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok (Royal Household Bureau/Courtesy Reuters).


President Obama kicked off his tour of Southeast Asia this week with a visit to Bangkok, Thailand where he and Secretary Clinton were granted a royal audience with the country’s ailing monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.  The Washington Post yesterday had an excellent account of the meeting, which took place at the Siriraj Hospital where the king has been hospitalized since 2009. The United States’ courtship of the monarch dates back to the 1950s, when the king and his close ally, then-military leader Sarit Thanarat, allowed U.S. troops to base out of Thailand during the Vietnam War. Washington came to view the monarch as invaluable to stemming the growth of communism, both in Thailand and region-wide.

The U.S.-Thai relationship, though treasured by both sides as “special,” is hardly unique. The United States has long relied on monarchs and strong militaries around the world to prop up political systems in developing nations. That strategy, it appears, isn’t working too well anymore. In my new piece for Washington Monthly, I review the biography King Bhumibhol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work and examine how, in Thailand and elsewhere, royal reverence has hampered the development of democracy.  You can read my review essay in its entirety here.

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  • Posted by Jeff Parkey

    Mr. Kurlantzick consistently provides excellent commentary on events in Southeast Asia, especially with respect to Thailand and Myanmar/Burma. However, to describe the Washington Post’s account of the Obama/Clinton meeting with King Bhumibol of Thailand as “excellent” is being generous. The story stumbles seriously at least twice. First, the “American woman” mentioned in the piece who trails Sec. Clinton and comments to Pres. Obama concerning the King’s gift is certainly the American Ambassador to Thailand Kristie Kenney. It is known that she would be joining Thai officials in hosting the visitors and it would be logical for her to accompany the group on their engagements. Indeed she is pictured with the group on the State Department website’s coverage of the meeting with the King. Second, while President Obama may have met PM Shinawatra in Bali last year, as indicated at the end of the article, he certainly did not meet Thaksin Shinawatra in this capacity, as Thaksin Shinawatra is not the PM of Thailand. The PM of Thailand is Yingluck Shinawatra, the younger sister of Thaksin. Thaksin was the PM of Thailand until being removed by coup in 2006. As the story indicates, reporters were leaving the room during this exchange. If reporters misheard or if the President misspoke it seems that Mr. Nakamura, the story’s writer, should clarify. Basic details such as these should not be beyond the reach of the Washington Post.

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