The Thai Inquisition

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Royal playboy or in-law corruption? Back in Thailand there is a scandal brewing.

“Princess Srirasm Suwadi of Thailand has “resigned” from her royal title – in a move that has left citizens of the Asian nation wondering what on earth is happening in the top tier of their revered royal household”  –The Telegraph

Now there are competing narratives about why this happened but I think this a good issue to watch as it is a rare to see an extant functioning monarchy. Now of course this is a “constitutional monarchy” but it seems that the Thai monarchy serves as a stronger Schelling point than the modern British Throne. Let’s first take a look at the role of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Thai society before we delve into the issue.

“Their monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, is the world’s longest-reigning ruler, having sat on the throne for the past 64 years.  The vast majority of Thais have known no other ruler, and although the 87-year-old has amassed an estimated £20 billion fortune, making him by far the world’s wealthiest monarch, he has managed to maintain his popularity – funding schools and hospitals, and carefully managing his image to appear as a man of the people.” –The Telegraph

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A father figure, a Patriarch perhaps? While he hasn’t served the traditional role of the absolute monarch, he certainly hasn’t accomplished nothing either he’s managed to stay on top of 19 coup d’etats.

“In a country riven by political turmoil – and which is currently under military rule – he has been a constant, reassuring, father-like figure. Thailand has had more coups than any other country in contemporary history – since 1932, when the absolute monarchy was abolished, the country has had 25 general elections and 19 coups d’état, 12 of them successful. In times of crisis he has often stepped in to scold the politicians and order the troops back to their barracks – restoring order for a few more years.”  –The Telegraph

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It seems like the only stable institution in this country is the monarchy. That is not really that surprising. Imagine what Thailand would be like without it. Its good to have a sane voice to scold the politicians. Although not having politicians in the first place is always better.

Let’s take a look at the first issue corruption.

“At least three relatives with that surname were arrested in a corruption scandal. Many of the more than 20 detained in the graft probe have been charged for defaming the monarchy, with police saying they had made “false claims” about their relationship to a royal to justify committing crimes that allegedly ranged from running illegal casinos to oil smuggling, kidnapping and extortion.” –The Telegraph

So some of the princess’s relatives were abusing the privileges of their position. Obviously this is a bad thing.  However without context it is hard to say whether this was indeed a rare occurrence or an common occurrence and therefore an issue of selective enforcement. Obviously just because everyone is doing it doesn’t make it right, but context could help us judge the intent behind the charges ( whether genuine or an excuse ). These charges are indeed serious: smuggling, kidnapping and extortion are nothing to scoff at. It seems like there were a number of perks which came with being family to the princess. Army Chiefs, and advisers to name a couple.

“First, her family members were stripped of their positions – forced to stand down as army chiefs and advisers, and purged from the regime. Then, as the net tightened, she found herself erased from the family photograph broadcast on the nightly news.”-The Telegraph

A sane and functional regime should be able to purge its aristocracy which is abusing their privileges or otherwise acting irresponsibly. But I’d like to take a pause for a second and look at an interesting tidbit in the last quote. Apparently the nightly news includes family photographs of the royal family. Yahoo has a bit more details about the broadcast.

“In an unusual break from tradition, there was no mention of her in the royal household news broadcasts on December 9, her birthday. The next day she disappeared from the opening sequence of the nightly royal news broadcasts, which features portraits of all the kingdom’s senior royals.” –Yahoo

We learn two things from these broadcasts. One the royal family has at least some level of control of the media. Whether this simply extends to who is considered royal on the day to broadcast or something more is up in the air. But I doubt in an American regime they would let the matter lie and forget about the former princess’s birthday. Then again having some of the strictest speech codes in the world in regards to slandering the Monarchy probably doesn’t hurt. The second interesting thing is that the broadcasts exist at all. In our American democracy while the media might utilize some White House Press photograph for their own purposes, it would be unimaginable to see photographs of the President every night.  Maybe we should change that?

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Never mind moving on….Nightly royal broadcasts are the sort of thing which engender empathy and closeness to the royal family. Certainly there is a sense of celebrity with Modern Royals. The presentation of Royals in media should be a topic of study. I quite like the idea of nightly royal broadcast it is something simple that reminds people who is in charge and gives opportunity for serious frame control. Although having the royal family be a complete mystery might be an alternative strategy to look at.  We can see a simple example of frame control in the quote below.

“”The king has granted permission to announce that Princess Srirasm, the wife of Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, has informed in a written document that she has resigned from her royal status,” the palace said in a short statement, signalling an end to the marriage.” –The Telegraph

Again the crown seems to have some control over it’s own image. While permission to announce the end of a marriage may not seem like something big, having control of the time and message sent can be essential to legitimacy.  The fact that the statement mentions permission re-enforces that the king is in charge especially of his family affairs.

There is apparently more to this story than simple corruption. Given the strict laws regarding speech against the crown it is difficult to get an insider perspective on the Crown Prince. Given this limitation, along with the inherent limitations of news media I approach these accusations with some caution, though I have no evidence to prove otherwise. Let’s take a look at the crown prince.

“The heir to the throne, 62-year-old Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, has a reputation as an unpredictable libertine with a lavish lifestyle. ” –The Telegraph

That’s not good but unsurprising. Given the wealth to do anything there is always a danger that a prince will grow to be hedonistic. Though keep in mind traditional Thai monarchs have been polygamous. Here’s one example of a incident of pettiness.

“”The crown prince allegedly used his own planes to block the plane of a visiting Japanese prime minister on the tarmac in Bangkok in a fit of pique; threw a lavish birthday party for his pet dog at which his wife appeared topless in a leaked video; and stormed home early from a visit to Japan after he felt subjected to a series of minor protocol slights by Thailand’s most important investor,” he wrote.” –The Telegraph

This is the crown prince’s third wife and they have been married since 2001. There are some allegations that he has a mistress with another son and that is the reason for the fall from grace of his ex-wife. Time will tell as a fourth marriage with a child already born in the near future would point to an affair rather than corruption being the primary impetus.  There are larger forces at work here.  The sort of thing that might say be left out in a mainstream news source.

The shift in position of Srirasmi is significant because it will have a direct effect on the imminent royal succession. In the near future the Crown Prince will elevate his new wife, who will become the future queen of Thailand. But she is a relative unknown. The Thai royal family has mainly survived in the age of democracy largely because, among many factors, it has remained popular. But the idea of the Crown Prince becoming the next monarch with a mysterious wife unnerves many Thais. –The Diplomat

Alright so the having a new unknown wife might not be popular with the people. we heard that before.  What else might be going on?

Vajiralongkorn thus found the need to reconcile with the military and the royal elites. Walking away from Thaksin and building a bridge with the army would smooth the path for him. The divorce helped lubricate the wheels, since Srirasmi was never accepted by the royal elites due to her questionable past. Many Thai elites said that they would never prostrate in front of a bar girl, the former life of Srirasmi. It appears that Vajiralongkorn is cleaning up his house before the big event.

But this also represents a dilemma for Vajiralongkorn. On the one hand, he has made his backers in the military and the palace happy. The deal into which he has entered with them may possibly bring some stability to the throne. But on the other hand, abandoning his wife this way, just as he did his second wife, Sujarinee Vivacharawongse (who sought exile in the United States), has darkened the already murky image of the Crown Prince. For many Thais, he will rise to the top position with no charisma, no moral authority, and little of their respect.

At the same time as palace politics unfold, the Crown Prince has been unusually active in his duty. He officially endorsed the coup when he agreed to preside over the opening session of the National Legislative Assembly in August. In royal news shown daily on TV at 8 pm, Thais see much more of their prince going out and about, reflecting that he is taking the role of future king seriously. –The Diplomat

Maybe the Prince is trying to shore up ties and clean house before his succession, that seems like another plausible explanation.  It seems that his efforts are coming not a moment too soon.

But his father, King Bhumibol, is frail. Bhumibol’s recent birthday, December 5, a much-anticipated date in the Thai calendar, passed by without the king’s appearance. His mother, Queen Sirikit, has suffered strokes and has not been seen in public since 2011. The Bhumibol era is waning and the royal transition is looming. The coup of May 22 sent out a strong signal that the military, backed by the royal elites, wanted to take control of the process. –The Diplomat

So I’ll leave this post with some questions:

1. Under what conditions should aristocratic status be revoked? Who makes this decision? What should the consequences be outside of revocation of privileges?

2. How should the Royalty be portrayed in media? Both how as in through what means and how as in, through which frame?

3. Are there any tried and true methods for producing virtuous and wise aristocracy? This of course requires both an eugenic and pedagogical answer?

As always there is no one right answer but there tend to be patterns. Hopefully somewhere in the annals of history or the records of academia there are some hints of truth that we might draw upon. We can’t fix humans but we can work with what we know and understand.

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One thought on “The Thai Inquisition

  1. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/01/23) | The Reactivity Place

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