Giles Ji Ungpakorn
Amid the reactionary military junta-backed “Monument Wars” against the memory of the 1932 Revolution against the Absolute Monarchy in Thailand, and amid the serial killings by military death squads of Thai dissidents in neighbouring countries, much nonsense is being talked about by some regarding the so-called power of the Idiot King Wachiralongkorn. [See https://bit.ly/3doELl3 on Monument Wars, https://bit.ly/3eTJGvt and https://bit.ly/2Vf3Usf on death squads].
One important question needs to be answered by those who advocate that Wachiralongkorn is all powerful. Is there an example anywhere in the world, now or in the past, where a powerful ruler can exercise his power while spending most of his life abroad? Think of Bashar al-Assad in Syria or Kim Jong-un in North Korea today or various tyrant kings in the past.
Wachiralongkorn lives permanently in Germany, either in his Bavarian palace or in a 5-star hotel during lock-down, along with his servants and harem. He only makes short trips to Thailand.
Tyrants are very wary of leaving the country where they rule for fear of being deposed while abroad. To argue that Wachiralongkorn is an exception is just banal “Thai exceptionalism”. In other words it means closing your eyes to comparative studies and the scientific study of history and immersing oneself in mysticism.
The idea that Wachiralongkorn has been increasing his power is parroted by some Thais in articles published by mainstream new outlets.
When talking about “power”, it is important to understand that it is a concrete thing, not some abstract concept. Political power comes hand in hand with the “power to shape society and politics”.
There was never any evidence that former King Pumipon ever had such power. He never shaped Thai foreign policy or had any influence on the direction of domestic political policies. He could not order military coups because he did not control the military. Pumipon always went with the flow, at times praising Taksin and his government. Pumipon shared his right-wing conservatism with most of the military and bureaucratic elites. It wasn’t his ideas that influenced events. He had no influence on the policies used by the Taksin government to dig Thailand out of the 1996 economic crisis. The anti-Taksin movement which emerged much later was not his creation. The conservatives merely claimed they were monarchists in order to try to obtain legitimacy among conservatives. Pumipon once told the military not to buy submarines because they would “get stuck in the mud of the Gulf of Siam”, but no one took any notice of him. His “Sufficiency Economy” ideology was repeatedly quoted by the elites, but never acted upon by anyone. [See more here: http://bit.ly/2oppTvb ].
Wachiralongkorn is much less politically aware than his father, being completely uninterested in Thai society and politics. There is zero evidence that he is trying to wrestle power from the military in order to influence domestic political policy or foreign policy. [See also http://bit.ly/2kBwOlm ].
As I have previously written, “Wachiralongkorn wants the Crown, but not the job”. He isn’t interested in the slightest in Affairs of State. His only interest is in his own “affairs” with numerous women, some of whom have been promoted to high army ranks. He also once promoted his former dog to an air force rank. Wachiralongkorn’s so-called “power” is much more akin to that of a petty local Mafia boss who wishes to protect his wealth and his patch. It must be frightening for those in his immediate household circle to serve such a self-centred, vicious and erratic boss. But a WikiLeaks episode some years ago exposed the fact that many high-ranking generals viewed Wachiralongkorn with irritation bordering on contempt.
In order to be able to use the present and past king as a legitimising figure in their class rule over the population, the military and elites have to give them something in return. Since the image of the monarchy is there to protect the elites, the monarchy acts like a guard dog with all bark and no bite. But guard dogs need to be thrown a bone every day to keep them in line. The bone thrown to the Thai monarchy is the immense wealth given to them, the freedom for them to live their lives as they please, and the willingness of the elites to pamper the royal ego by grovelling on the floor in front of them and pretending to be under the dust of their feet. This latter bit of theatre is only for the benefit of ordinary citizens while real power is in the hands of the military.
Just like the top bosses of most religions who claim to speak on behalf of non-existing gods, the military claim to speak on behalf of the monarchy.
But in order to make this trick work well, the monarchy needs to appear to be worthy of some respect. Yet Wachiralongkorn’s personal life style makes this difficult. The military are unlucky because Wachiralongkorn has no idea how to behave in civilised society and he risks turning the Thai monarchy into a laughing stock with all his scandals. The generals who are running the present “parliamentary dictatorship” are demanding that Thai citizens grovel to this nasty infantile king. The Monarchy is dysfunctional and rotten to the core and many, many, Thais know this.
Those who focus on Wachiralongkorn let the military junta and their anti-democratic allies off the hook because they ignore the need to build a mass movement to overthrow the military and concentrate on an abstract symbol, which they claim is too powerful to even overthrow.