The influence of Monarchies in Western countries is decreasing. The role of the royals is not what it was anymore. Most royal houses in countries like the United Kingdom are not that powerful as they were. Despite the royals still having some influence depending on the country, they mostly have a symbolic, trade supportive or fraternizing role. The royal houses do tend to cost a lot more than what they make. Living in pure luxury paid for by the people just because you were born in the right place may sometimes be a bit sensitive.
What is a monarchy
As first, back to the basics. What is a monarchy?
A monarchy is a kingdom or empire with one royal ruling the country.
It is nowadays common that a monarch is the head of state, however, sharing his/her power with a parliament and not able to avoid the constitution. This we call a constitutional monarchy. The other side of the coin are the absolute monarchies. Today there are still some absolute monarchies like Saudi Arabia where the king can govern the country without adhering to any laws.
Thai monarchy history
So what about the monarchy of Thailand?
The history of Thai royalty is already developing for eight centuries, mainly because Thailand was never colonized. This started in 1238 with the Kingdom of Sukhothai and later followed up by the Kingdom of Ayutthaya in 1351. From 1782 onwards, it was up to the current Chakri dynasty which was named the Rattanakosin Period after the island from which the kings ruled the country.
In 1932 a revolution broke out in demand of a constitution to end the absolute monarchy led by the Chakri’s. The role of the king was now largely symbolic and his power was exercised by the prime minister and national assembly. Thailand became a constitutional monarchy and the throne moved to Bangkok.
During the fascist governing days of prime minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram, the monarchist country got a name change from Siam to Thailand in 1939. With World War 2 over, the reigning days of Phibunsongkhram also came to an end. In 1946 prince Bhumibol ascended the throne and was crowned King Rama IX.
Rama IX remained king until his demise in 2016 and was in life the longest-ruling monarch worldwide. Rama IX was a gifted man who gained an appropriate amount of respect from his people and was, despite strict laws on lèse-majesté, loved among the Thai people.
According to Glassman (n.d.), Rama IX started his reign by taking on a more active role in Thai politics. Supported by the PM and the USA, Rama IX became the representation of the coup-government to gloss over the dictatorship and to unify the country. The governments’ ideas were brought to the people via the King who was made highly visible around the country. The ideological and economical superiority of the monarchy was now completely visible in Thai politics.
Farrelly (2017) mentions something important; The 80’s military power aligned itself with the monarchy of Rama IX. Royal reverence introduced itself as part of the Thai culture. And the extravagant presentation of king Rama IX made sure he became the figurehead of the national stability of a country that had some unstable years.
Farrelly simply mentions the following:
”Under King Bhumibol, Thailand enjoyed great economic success, while managing through periods of political instability.”
The popularity and influence of this king are therefore not to be underestimated. Rama IX acquired much love and influence from his people. How about his son?
Current Thai monarchy
Rama X is the current king since the demise of his father Bhumibol.
Something important to keep in mind is the way the Thai people look at their kings. Especially the elder generations do see the king still as the representation of God on earth. Therefore, one should pay attention to his/her words when talking about the king. In Thailand, it is illegal to do wrong against the king and the ones surrounding him in many given ways. As the only monarchy, Thailand made the laws stricter after the Second World War. Nowhere else is the monarchy protected from lèse-majesté this hard.
At the beginning of 2020, protests erupted. Eventually, it became clear the monarchy of Rama X was a significant part of the protesters’ reasons to take the streets. According to Kurlantzick (2019), Rama IX already had some influence in ”behind the screen” politics kept away from the public. His son does it more obvious. He took control over two military units (which creates a fear of coups) and forced others, less loyal, out of Bangkok. Also, he took away powers from a powerful monarchy advisory body and directly influenced elections by withdrawing his sister as a candidate for a party he did not support. Getting stakes in Thai companies to get control over the monarchy’s finances are also part of his influence.
Why is the stance towards this king different than that of his father? Farrelly (2017) mentions that when Rama X was just a prince, he was already a target of gossips and jokes since he is a pretty divisive figure. His selfishness and abusiveness are the main reasons for the gossips. And other than his father, he likes to be outside of Thailand. Preferably in Germany where he lives like a tripped out playboy.
Iverson (2018) describes that Rama IX was a very likable man who became the father of the country by being present and involving himself (in a positive way) in the daily life of the Thai by, for example, visiting them. This was something he did long before he was crowned king and therefore had quite a different start than his son’s. Rama X’s musical and photography skills made the Thai fall in love with him. And other than spending a lot of money on his luxury life like his son, he actively funded the lives of his people in various areas such as education.
Comparison to other monarchies
Dutch King Willem-Alexander apologized on live television a few months ago because he went on a holiday with his family while traveling was strongly discouraged. This video became a good comparison for the Thai where their king was in Germany for months while they were left to their fate in fighting the Coronavirus. And where the influence of most Western royal houses is decreasing, the Thai monarchy is starting to look more like the absolute monarchies. With Rama X, Thailand seems to be in a transit phase and is now hard to compare to others. Especially since the divine view the Thai people have of their king is far different from other monarchies which are either symbolic or ruling the country.
The Thai population currently has a tough time concerning their monarchy. Despite a messy history, the royals are still very much respected and important for the Thai citizens. Therefore, it is now up to the Thai self to decide what they want for their future. More protesting or more respect for the King?
Mika van Uum
European Studies & International Relations
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