Giles Ji Ungpakorn
The images of mob violence carried out by fanatical royalists after the Thai king’s death is a stark reminder that the ideology of “Nation, Religion and Monarchy” is a constant source of violence in Thai society. This is why calls for peace and understanding are likely to fall on deaf ears.
In historical terms it comes as no surprise that the institution of the monarchy has always been associated with violence. In the feudal “Sakdina” period, forced labour and the trade in products of forced labour, was the source of wealth for the monarchy. Many ordinary people tried to escape this violent coercion by moving into rural areas far away from kings and their soldiers. Naturally, the process of becoming a king was little different from the process of becoming top boss in a criminal gang. It relied on naked violence. Frequently big men fought it out to take the throne, even in the early Bangkok period.
Even when the Sakdina system was no longer sustainable and the Absolute Monarchy came into being under king Chulalongkorn, violence was at the heart of the new royal dictatorship and it was used to suppress those who wanted to seek political self-determination, such as those in the north-east or Patani.
After the 1932 anti-monarchy revolution, the ideology of “Nation, Religion and Monarchy” was redefined and modernised in the 1950s for use in the Cold War by the dictator Field Marshal Sarit, who used military violence to take power. Sarit was a brutal and corrupt ruler who promoted and used the monarchy for his own ends. The monarchy became a symbol of the collective conservative Thai ruling class.
Sarit executed socialists like teacher Krong Jundawan without any trial. This was justified by saying that it was necessary for national security and to protect “Nation, Religion and Monarchy”.
After the 14th October 1973, when Sarit’s protégés killed pro-democracy students in the streets to try and maintain power, the king had to step in to protect “Nation, Religion and Monarchy” from the rapidly radicalising movement of students and workers. The royal family, top military generals and conservative politicians cultivated fanatical royalist mobs and para-military police who eventually attacked students and workers at Thammasart University on 6th October 1976. People were hung from trees, shot and beaten to death. The justification was that these were leftists bent on insulting and overthrowing the monarchy. “Nation, Religion and Monarchy” were saved through a bloodbath against unarmed civilians.
In more modern times the ideological slogan of “Nation, Religion and Monarchy” has had a fourth word reluctantly added, almost as an afterthought. We now see the slogans “Nation, Religion, Monarchy and the People” as a backdrop to military press conferences.
The royals have always been photographed in military uniform, often holding guns and even the females like the queen have used the language of violence. A few years ago she was quoted as saying that she wished she could just pick up a gun to fight Patani dissidents.
Today during the imposed mourning period for the king, a mixture of violence and socialisation are being used to enforce a public expression of royalism. Howling mobs of fanatical royalist attack anyone believed to be anti-royalist and this has the backing from the general who runs the so-called ministry of justice. Those in power today got where they are now through the barrel of the gun and seek to maintain power to protect the monarchy using all sorts of violence, including the lèse-majesté law. Victims of royalist mob violence are arrested and charged under this draconian law. The use of the law is an act of violence against thought and body. It is there to prevent free thinking and to lock up dissidents.
Lèse-majesté cases mushroom under military regimes, both the present one and the previous Abhisit led government which was controlled by the military.
We need to build a counter ideology which opposes nationalism, fanatical Buddhism and royalism in order to reduce state-sponsored violence in Thai society. That involves building a strong social movement opposed to military rule.