“My heart feels so good today seeing His Majesty,” says Penpat Thaweekul, one of the vast royal-supporting yellow-clad crowd waiting under a hot sun to catch a glimpse of the now-frail king speaking from a distant balcony.
The world's longest-sitting monarch is portrayed as a widely-revered apolitical father-figure – but even with this representation, there are lines Thailand's elected politicians cannot cross. Though the royal institution once enjoyed a near-universal respect, recent polarization has raised questions about that role and about the country's future after his reign.
After the king's reign, “the royalist domination in politics will be in disarray, for sure,” says historian Thongchai Winichakul. The rest, he says is unclear, wondering, “Will their power decline or will they take a tighter control during the transition?”
The heir-apparent is the only son of the king, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, who as rumors have it was close to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in the past, and appears to command less respect among Thais than Princess Sirindhorn, the king’s daughter and second in line.
Royalists viewed former Prime Minister Thaksin – whose parties have won four successive elections since 2001 and whose sister Yingluck is now premier – as a threat to the officials and business elites around the king. According to a leaked September 2006 US embassy document, a Thaksin confidante described royalists as fretting that then Prime Minister Thaksin’s policies “would erode their own standing.” The same month, Thaksin was ousted in a military coup.
In an effort to protect the monarchy, Thailand cracked down on some of the world's strictest lese-majeste laws and punishments, making it incredibly difficult for open discussion on the monarchy and its future.
According to statistics gathered by iLaw, which tracks freedom of speech in Thailand, more than 16,500 websites deemed in breach of the lese-majeste laws and related computer laws have been blocked this year – a spike since 2011 when around 3,200 were blocked – though far below the almost 40,000 blocked by the previous government during the violent, protest-riven 2010.
Prime minister musical chairs
The royalist factions who ousted Thaksin in 2006 “cannot be happy that Thaksin’s sister is prime minister,” says Paul Handley, author of “The King Never Smiles,” an unauthorized biography of King Bhumibol banned in Thailand. “I think that limits her ability to begin normalizing politics away from palace intrigue, if that was even in her ability and intention.”
Thaksin is often described as running the government from exile and plotting a way home without serving jail time for 2008 corruption charges. But Yingluck has apparently defied some of Thaksin's recent policy directives, in a seeming attempt to put clear water between herself and her brother. She could be trying to cool the anti-Thaksin tempest that comes with royalist protests – the most recent of which took place on Nov. 24, though they failed to draw the masses that turned out for today’s birthday speech, or 2008 anti-Thaksin protests for that matter.
The upside for Thailand is that politics might be shifting slowly from a heady mix of street protest and the court rulings to a more sedate locus – the country's legislature, says Kim McQuay, the Asia Foundation's Thailand representative. He sees criticism of the government as “gradually moving in the direction of firmer grounding in the principles and rules of parliamentary democracy, with the opposition invoking formal institutional mechanisms to monitor or challenge policy and decision-making.”
Yingluck recently averted a no-confidence vote in parliament, fending off corruption allegations around a government rice plan. She has pledged fealty to the king – oaths backed with the dismissing of a September petition – signed by more than 30,000 Thais – which sought a relaxation of the lese-majese laws and punishments.
Puangthong Pawakapan, a politics lecturer at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University who helped organize the petition, says that the current government fears a royalist backlash and is not committed to freedom of speech. “Their top priority is to stay a full term, bring back Thaksin, and win the next election,” Ms. Puangthong says.
The role of loyalty
So for now authorities perpetuate kingly mystique, with one government statement issued this week reminding that “His Majesty the King is sometimes referred to by his subjects as Pho Luang, royal father. He has spent his life working for the benefit of his people, who are all his “children.”
But for those jailed for defaming royalty, conditions are described as harsh. One detainee, Ampon Tangnoppakul, died in prison in May this year in still-hazy circumstances, months into a 20 year jail term for sending sms's reportedly criticizing Queen Sirikit, who is said to be unwell and did not attend her husband's speech.
Mr. Ampon's widow still protests her late husband's innocence, and speaking over the echo of a funeral rite at a nearby Buddhist temple – the same one where her husband's funeral took place earlier this year – she says that despite her family's ordeal – some former neighbors scorned the family after Ampon's death – she will fly a yellow flag, the color associated with support for the king, honoring the king's birthday. “So this neighborhood here will know I am loyal,” she says.
Loyalty was very much on display today as Thais venerated a king now in the 66th year of his reign. “Look! Look at my arm,” says Buraorn Chumchuen, showing off her goosebumps just after the king finished his short speech at Bangkok's Royal Plaza. She describes the king as “the heart of Thailand, now and forever." Asked if she worries about what will come when the king's time ends, Ms. Buraorn surmised that “the future is the future, we cannot know what to expect.”
The king himself told the sun-baked throng on Wednesday that the future should not be a worry. "If Thai people cherish this value in their hearts, the Thai nation will certainly remain safe and stable, no matter what circumstance it finds itself in,” he says.