Giles Ji Ungpakorn
For some years I have argued that king Pumipon of Thailand never had any real power and that his role was purely to give legitimacy to the political actions of the elites, especially the military. He was used by them as a symbol of the “natural order of things in society” in order to maintain the status quo.
When I have debated the power of the Thai king with some of my colleagues, especially Ajarn Somsak Jeamteerasakul and more recently Eva Hanson, their argument against my position is to say that I am looking at a narrow definition of power: the power to order something to happen. But in my view this is the essence of political power. It is a materialist, real world concept of concrete power. No other power exists. Examples of this concrete power are the power to order the military to stage a coup, the power to order the shooting down of pro-democracy demonstrators, the power to order the judiciary to make decisions according to the views of the monarchy, or the power to dictate political, economic and social policy. Quite a few Thais actually believed that king Pumipon had such concrete power. Yet it could never be proved.
However, those who argue against my definition of power claim that the Thai king never had to order anything directly because people would “know” what he desired and would therefore issue the orders on his behalf.
Now, in my view, this is just playing with words. Those that claimed to “know” the king’s wishes, without him ever ordering anything must have been engaged in self-delusion for nothing can be proven. It is not only self-deception, but a great public lie in order to justify to society what they choose to do. Without clear instructions or rebukes from the monarch there is no way of knowing that these people have correctly read the mind of the king. In fact I would go so far as to state that those claiming to be carrying out the king’s wishes in this way are merely using the king to give legitimacy to their own political agenda. This leads straight back to my position which states that the king was weak and used by the elites.
There are people all over the world who claim to be carrying out “God’s work”. This claim is made without any attempt to ever show a concrete instruction from God. There are no letters, e-mails or sound recordings of God’s wishes for us to investigate. At most there are only ancient “holy books”, which were in fact written by ordinary human beings, who claimed to be carrying out God’s work, and often these books are full of contradictions.
As an atheist I do not believe that God exists. But surely Ajarn Somsak or Eva Hanson would have to agree that using their thesis, God is in fact a very powerful and real being?
Or is it really that God is a powerful excuse used by ordinary mortals, to legitimise their actions to other humans who also believe in God?
So surely those who claim to have carried out Pumipon’s wishes are really only using what they hope is a powerful symbol in the eyes of some Thais in order to legitimise their own actions. In plain language, Pumipon was a powerful excuse to legitimise the policies of the Thai elites, irrespective of whether he agreed or disagreed with them and he never had any say in the matter either. In other words, he had no power. He was just a tool.
Of course, the Thai ruling classes had to attempt to socialise the population into respecting and loving the king in order that he could be a useful tool in the first place. But this was just propaganda which could be countered. At certain moments in history, the Communist Party successfully countered royalist propaganda. More recently some Red Shirts have done the same on a smaller scale. This is just an example of Gramsci’s “War of Position”, an ideological war.
In many societies “the law” is used by the ruling class to legitimise their actions. But “the law”, which the ruling class has written for its own benefit, is only powerful if the general population accept it. Once they do not, the real naked power of the police and army have to be used. We have seen this recently in Catalonia. We also see how the Thai junta constantly quote their own laws to justify their actions, but they are commanding the guns, tanks and the courts. Once the theatrical mask slips, we see the true nature of power.
The argument that Pumipon never had to order anyone to do anything directly, but somehow remained the most powerful man in Thailand does not hold water. It is merely another way of saying that he was used by the powerful elites to justify their actions.