Assuming that the monarchy continues in one form or another, there’s some interesting commentary sparked by the king’s death. (The end of the monarchy following the 9th reign has been a prophesy heard previously – clicking the link downloads a PDF considered illegal in Thailand.)
Of course, there’s lots of hagiography too, reporting much that has been said about the king previously. A quick look at any news source in Thailand shows only this kind of reporting. Claims that the king was above politics and a force for stability were criticized years ago, as can be seen in the PDF linked above.
Here is some of the more interesting material currently available:
France 24 has an AFP story that “follows the money,” with a story on “one of the world’s richest monarchies, with a multi-billion-dollar empire spanning property, construction and banks.” One estimate is that the Crown Property Bureau is worth almost $60 billion. PPT would add that each of the royals is individually wealthy and each of them sponges off the taxpayer as well, so this is a fabulously wealthy capitalist conglomerate. If there is a competition for the top spot, then there are plenty of spoils for the winner/s.
The king’s unauthorized biographer Paul Handley has an op-ed at The New York Times. His conclusion is:
This is a bleak backdrop for the end of King Bhumibol’s reign. He was the model of a great king — modest, earnest and selfless, with his attention focused on the neediest. But he has left Thailand, as well as his heir, in the same situation he inherited all those years ago: in the hands of corrupt and shortsighted generals who rule however they want. And those King Bhumibol cared about the most — the Thai people — must suffer the consequences.
We are great fans of The King Never Smiles, but we are not convinced that the modest, earnest, selfless stuff isn’t buying palace propaganda (see the story above). We do agree that Thailand is currently in the “hands of corrupt and shortsighted generals,” we’d just point out that that was not the situation when the late king came to the throne. It was the Democrat Party’s founders, the old princes and other diehard royalists who used the death of the new king’s brother to overthrow a civilian regime. This was the first successful royalist coup.
Over at New Mandala, academic Lee Jones has an article called “The myth of King Bhumibol,” writing of his “weakness” of the king and identifies him as “a divisive and negative force for Thailand’s politics and democracy…”. We agree on the latter points but are not sure about the “weakness.” We think it better to view the monarchy and military as partners in anti-democratic rule.
Also at New Mandala, Nicholas Farrelly has an assessment of the king’s legacy. His view is of the king as a product of palace propaganda and image-making. He concludes: “But in late moments of reflection he [the king] may have regretted that his country became so ill prepared for mature leadership transitions and that his own charisma had been so regularly mobilised against the political wishes of the Thai people.” We doubt he regretted this. He considered Thais as children requiring discipline and direction and he provided it, for a while.
And, in another New Mandala piece, anthropologist Christine Gray writes about talking about monarchy. She writes about the past failures to challenge reporting and scholarship that was too accepting of palace propaganda. She makes an interesting point when she says “it seems tacky to criticise the dead” and then says it is necessary. She’s anticipated a ever stronger line on social media that argues that “now is not the right time for criticism.” It seems it is never the right time to be critical of the monarchy.
Along the same lines, Peter Symonds at WSWS has some useful observations. On not being truthful, he observes:
The king’s death was greeted with a wave of nauseating accolades from heads of state and political leaders around the world. US President Barack Obama issued a statement declaring that Bhumibol was “a tireless champion” for economic development and improved living standards. The UN General Assembly and Security Council stood in silent tribute. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon praised Bhumibol’s “legacy of commitment to universal values and respect for human rights.”
The international media followed suit, focussing on the outpouring of grief among the king’s supporters. The phrase “revered by the Thai people” appears in article after article, which either gloss over or completely ignore the Thai monarchy’s staggering wealth and its support for the country’s long succession of military coups and abuse of democratic rights.
The tabloids are also at work. The Mirror has been at it and so has the Daily Mail. The New York Post has a story titled “Thailand’s new king is a kooky crop top-wearing playboy.” It reproduces some of the lurid stories about the crown prince – the Post might say clown prince. Srirasmi is mentioned. There’s other critical commentary, including by a former Australian ambassador to Thailand.