In recent days there has been a flurry of statements from senior Thai figures about the need to keep the “royal institution” out of politics. In what appears to be a rare point of consensus, Prime Minister Somchai and Army chief Anupong have issued stern warnings against those who seek to use the monarchy for political purposes and draw the “royal institution” into political division. Privy Councillor Prem has declared that “Thai citizens knew how to draw the line between their political differences and their duty to the monarchy.” International web sites have been targeted for their commentary on the royal family and expensive internet “gateways” are being put in place to block inappropriate comment.
With the funeral of the king’s sister fast approaching – and the birthday of the king himself following soon after – the desire to have the “royal institution” presented in its most favourable nationally unifying light is understandable.
But I wonder if there is more going on than a public relations spruce up in preparation for these important events.
In the wake of the October 7 violence in Bangkok, the queen made her support for the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) abundantly clear. As a result of the queen’s actions, the “royal institution” was publically aligned with an opposition group that had clashed with police, besieged parliament and openly courted a military coup. This public alignment took place when the attention of the national and international media was focussed on the events in Bangkok.
Of course, the PAD has been campaigning under the royal banner for a long time. But the “royal institution” itself was able to maintain its distance on the public stage. The palace made no attempt to prevent the use of the royal brand by opposition forces but, at the same time, there was no explicit royal endorsement of the PAD. The public imagery of the “royal institution” standing above politics, however strained, could be maintained.
But the queen’s actions – perhaps independent and not necessarily endorsed by the “institution” - publically shattered the fragile imagery of royal independence. As one Thai political commentator said to me recently, “what had been rumour was now reality.”
The queen let the genie of a politically engaged royalty out of the bottle. The powers that be are desperately trying to put it back in.