Thailand king and I: Why the protests in Bangkok put a spotlight on the monarchy

The Thailand protests reveal an open split in the kingdom over the role of the monarchy in a democracy. Is it time for the king to acknowledge it?

A pro-government, pro-monarchy demonstrator holds a picture of King Bhumibol Adulyadej during a rally in Bangkok, Thailand, on May 6, 2010.

Keeping my head below that of the king of Thailand is difficult when he is shorter than I am. But crouch I did, like a Neanderthal, during a day I spent with King Bhumibol Adulyadej while he traveled in his kingdom up north, visiting dirt-poor farmers and inspecting agricultural projects.

Even more difficult, however, was censoring my words about the king’s role in Thai society while talking to his aides. Under Thailand’s strict lese majeste laws, I could have been jailed for up to 15 years if I uttered even the slightest criticism of His Majesty.

Fortunately, this king is easy to like. After six decades on the throne, he still genuinely cares about the Thai people – and most of them revere him. I saw peasants with their faces to the dusty ground as he passed by, as if he were a god. And yet, he would stop and chat with this farmer or that about their troubles. Later, back at the palace, he would write up orders to bureaucrats on what needed fixing in the farmers’ villages.

That reverence toward the king, or at least the monarchy in general, appears to be cracking, however, with each passing day of violence on Bangkok’s streets. Pro-monarchy and anti-monarchy feelings have been coming out in the open since March, when the struggle for power began between the so-called red shirts and the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajeva.

The whispered debate over the future of Thailand’s constitutional monarchy is represented in the stark lines that divide the urban elite and the rural poor.

The elite are the ones who have benefited most from the conservative nature of a monarchy in Thailand’s troubled democracy. The peasants, while still largely respectful of the king, have been stirred into protest by the populous politics – and money – of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The businessman-cum-politician was forced out by the military and elite four years ago, but he still supports the red-shirts' protests from his self-exile in the Middle East.

The king is ailing, and doesn’t seem to be intervening as directly in this violent, political standoff as he did during past crises. It is almost as if the monarchy itself is being slowly replaced in the peasants’ minds by another powerful figure – Mr. Thaksin – an exchange of one unifier and savior for another.

This is the problem with trying to keep a monarchy in a democracy. People look to a person to save them and not to their collective voice through the ballot box. Thailand has a schizophrenic political identity: Do the people hold the ultimate political authority or is one person and one family imbued with power by tradition? Can Thailand have it both ways without the monarchy or democracy suffering?

The issue is made even more timely because the king is ailing and because the crown prince is not widely admired.

It is heartening to hear that some of the “elite” are delicately speaking about the need for a national discussion about the monarchy.

Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya recently called for Thailand to become “a more open and democratic society,” which means discussing the taboo topic of the king’s role.

Thailand is not some sleepy Asian backwater nation. It is home to huge foreign investments, and its financial crisis in 1997 sent shock waves across Asian markets.

The king and I had a good time together – he took my picture with his Canon camera. And I will always keep my head below his in his presence.

But even he, I suspect, knows it is time to set his people free to embrace democracy fully and let the monarchy fade away.

So I said it. Arrest me.

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