Review of Saying the Unsayable

Søren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager, editors, Saying the Unsayable: Monarchy and Democracy in ThailandCopenhagen : NIAS Press, 2010.  Pp. x, 271; bibliography, index.

Reviewed by Richard Ruth.

On 12 December 2003, Thailand’s national football team (the under 23 group) defeated Vietnam’s squad before a capacity crowd in Hanoi’s My Dinh Stadium. The Thais scored in overtime and claimed the gold medal in that year’s Southeast Asian Games. As the formerly raucous Vietnamese crowd slumped in dejected silence, the Thai captain raised a portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej above his head. Immediately, his players dropped to their knees to wai the monarch’s photograph in worshipful reverence. In displaying an image of the king at their moment of victory the team appeared to be attributing the means to their sporting success – their strength, skills, and prowess – to the influence of their king.

The Thai newspapers carried the arresting photograph of the king’s portrait and the players on their front pages the next day. They put King Bhumibol’s image at the center of what was surely Thailand’s proudest night of the year. The spectacle conveyed in that photographic image was truly awesome to behold. But was it genuine? That is, was the midfield homage a spontaneous and heartfelt expression by proud citizens eager to express their loyalty, love, and gratitude for a long-reigning monarch who had guided their kingdom through six turbulent decades – domestically, regionally, and globally – to emerge as the prosperous and stable nation that it is? Was it all a hollow stunt? A perfunctory gesture? An obligatory expression of devotion staged by the Thai government’s sports authorities who pressed the image into the footballer’s hands to adhere to a palace-generated narrative that places the subjects’ love for the king as the dominant unifying emotion of Thai nationalism? Or was the captain the victim of a complex and unrelenting propaganda campaign orchestrated by powerful figures from Thailand’s various elites – the palace, the military, the business world, and the religious hierarchy – to control his actions, thoughts and emotions through their creation of a kingly image that they could wield to their benefit?  And would outsiders – non-Thais – viewing such a spectacle know which, if any, of these scenarios was true?

Questions like these are at the heart of Søren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager’s Saying the Unsayable: Monarchy and Democracy in Thailand, a collection of essays that examine the creation, amplification, and defense of King Bhumibol’s image. Its stated goal is to challenge (in Kevin Hewison’s phrase) “the total standard view of the [Thai] monarchy” (p. 2). Collectively, the essays argue that the image of the king as beloved by all ranks of the populous is less a genuine reaction to a benevolent and virtuoso monarch than the product of the excessive manipulation of political and religious symbols by those who benefit from such a creation.

The collection is divided into four sections, examining the cultural and ideological foundations of Bhumibol’s kingship, the legal defense of its sacredness through the law of lèse majesté, monarchy’s obstructionist influence on Thailand’s democracy, and the political impulse behind recent efforts to promote a “sufficiency economy” for the rural sector. Together, the four sections present the latest iterations of King Bhumibol’s increasing political authority as the product of new forms of visual media, palace manipulation of increasingly wealthy prosperity religions, and the “spectralization of life under neoliberalism” (pp. 3, 29).  And, unlike many of the ideologically guided thought pieces critiquing the Thai monarchy that have zipped about the Web in recent years, these essays are scrupulously grounded in the scholarly standards of the authors’ academic disciplines. Timely and, I suspect, enduring, they provide valuable frameworks for understanding the latest phase in the evolution of Bhumibol’s kingship and its relationship to politics, the military, and civil society in Thailand.

Does the book challenge the total standard view of the Thai monarchy? Strictly speaking, no. It challenges the intended view. This collection thoroughly examines the most recent efforts at manipulating King Bhumibol’s image by the palace and its supporters to meet the perceived threats to their political and social positions; but it offers only a few examples of how King Bhumibol is actually viewed by Thais, or foreigners for that matter. It is hard to measure the degree to which the quasi-supernatural image examined by Peter A. Jackson, Sarun Krittikan, and others is accepted uncritically by the audience it was created for. The essays, while very strong on the intricacies of the construction of this image, largely ignore examples of its impact.  Such studies certainly would be difficult to pursue; they would probably be dangerous to careers in Thai studies that relied on access to the country; and, most importantly, they would introduce potential harm to the subjects surveyed. But it is not accurate to say that such pursuits would be outright impossible. And the essays could have been strengthened by a few examples of the ways in which this newly formulated image of King Bhumibol affects Thai people, be it in their daily lives or in more extraordinary circumstances such as political rallies.

This omission aside, the essays on the digital-age monarchy are strong and immediate. Jackson’s “Virtual Divinity: A 21st-Century Discourse of Thai Royal Influence” serves as the anchor essay for the volume. Drawing together a rich body of scholarship on the Thai monarchy, Jackson demonstrates how the modern reformulation of the devaraja discourse – beginning with Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat’s heavy-handed manipulation of royal symbols in the early 1960s – facilitated King Bhumibol’s steady accumulation of political influence over the last half century. He argues that a more profound intensification of the contemporary image has occurred since 1997 as the palace’s manipulation of new media technologies and the expanding market economy provided novel opportunities to project an image of King Bhumibol as a divine protector of the Thai nation. Jackson puts this recent projection of the king’s sacred power in the broader context of a global rise in religion born of “mediatization of social life and the spectral effects of neoliberal capitalism” (p. 32). He places the exponential duplication of King Bhumibol’s image – in photographs, film clips, television specials, Web-sites, designer shirts, bumper stickers, and billboards – alongside similar efforts at sacralization of political symbols through image reproduction from around the world.  Would the sacral power attributed to King Bhumibol in our era enable his apotheosis as a divine protective spirit in the next? Jackson leaves us with the fascinating possibility that King Bhumibol’s image could enable the present king to morph into a virtual Bodhisattva capable of exhibiting influence on future generations of Thais.

Sarun Krittikarn’s “Entertainment Nationalism: The Royal Gaze and the Gaze at Royals” is an intriguing examination of King Bhumibol’s visuality – his image as the viewer and the viewed – that supports many of Jackson’s contentions. Sarun argues convincingly that the king’s image has largely replaced his essence, and that entertainment has surpassed ideology in importance in the post-Cold War era. He posits that the chief relationship between the monarchy and the people – especially Thailand’s urban middle class – is mediated through mutual observation, a two-way gaze between the monarch, who is seen to photograph and observe his subjects, and the people, who view a constant stream of images of King Bhumibol throughout their day.  In his study he examines the emergence of photographs, nightly news reports, and royal symbols as the medium through which most Thais observe their king. He assesses various academic studies of King Bhumibol’s portrait as a panoptic apparatus maintaining constant surveillance on the population. In some studies, the image is presented as an Orwellian Big Brother face that enforces a national ethos woven from strands of the king’s philosophies, talents, and ideas with an unsmiling severity appropriate to an age of crisis; in other studies, the king’s portraits are interpreted as the vigilance of a warm and concerned father figure who blesses the goodness he observes while discouraging the wayward with the positive example he sets.

Sarun comes closest to answering the question of reception in his short description of “Thongdaeng fever,” a national obsession with the Thai street dog that King Bhumibol adopted and brought home to the palace. The king’s book about the dog’s adaptation to palace life was embraced by many Thais, as were the official Thongdaeng shirts and other paraphernalia on which the dog’s image was emblazoned. Reading Sarun’s short description of the episode, I found myself wondering whether you could examine the extent of the king’s influence by looking beyond the many who bought Thongdaeng polo shirts and examine those inspired by the king’s example to forsake poodles, huskies, and other “inter” dog breeds and to adopt street dogs instead.  I would love to know if any such subjects did this because they admired the king’s merciful action or because the related merchandise had, even briefly, made Thai street dogs fashionable?

Other essays that come close to gauging the direct influence of King Bhumibol’s evolving image are those that concern the promotion of the sufficiency economy as his reported brainchild. Søren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager frame the sufficiency-economy scheme within the context of “etho-politics” movements, and trace its adoption by various state agencies as a means to control and discipline a citizenry that is increasingly eager to have its say in national politics. They demonstrate that the scheme – often derided for its simplicity – is a potentially complex force to be wielded by both monarchists and their opponents in future political contests. In a similar vein, Andrew Walker’s “Royal Sufficiency and Elite Misrepresentation of Rural Livelihoods” takes the scheme at its word and puts it to a test. The anthropologist undertakes in his chapter a theoretical application of the program to a farming community in northern Thailand.  Using economic models and ethnographic techniques, he concludes that such a plan is overly simple and, ultimately, unworkable today. In fact, as his research indicates, only a small minority of Thailand’s present farms would be ideal for the plan. To apply it to the flexible and varied agricultural enterprises worked by most farming families – many of whom are now working profitably with large commodity traders with ties to regional and international markets – would require a profound restructuring of Thailand’s agricultural and labor sectors. If such a scheme is incompatible with the economic and social realities of rural Thailand today, why would the representatives of so many of Thailand’s leading institutions push it?  His conclusion is that the sufficiency economy scheme’s purpose may not have been to improve the lot of Thai farming folk but to undermine Thaksin’s political influence over them. Walker acknowledges that the “esteemed status” (p. 259) of King Bhumibol’s ideas discourages further investigation like his, but he suggests that the validity of the total standard view of the monarch will be properly evaluated only when other scholars pursue studies of the ideas that provide its ideological underpinning. His study is an inspiring example for further such pursuits.

The section on the defense of the royal image includes only one essay, a surprisingly modest offering, if one considers the recent focus on the topic. And yet as compensation David Streckfuss’s “The Intricacies of Lese-Majesty” [sic] can be read as two essays that complement each other. Streckfuss offers a historical perspective of Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code – the legal apparatus used to enforce laws against lèse majesté – by analyzing its evolution in the context of similar laws used in Germany to defend Emperor Wilhelm II at the turn of the twentieth century. Streckfuss’s decision to dedicate more than half of his chapter to Germany’s early struggles with reconciling democracy and semi-sacral kingship suggests some of the strategies of evasion that some Thais use when cryptically critiquing the present monarchy by examining other monarchs from earlier eras or from foreign kingdoms.  But he does not shy away from hard questions about the potential limits of Thailand’s use of the law of lèse majesté and its incompatibility with a democratic system that recognizes free speech and other basic civil liberties within a constitutional framework.  His essay outlines recent efforts by the palace’s protectors to expand Article 112’s application. The recent use of the law goes beyond its stated function to protect the king, the queen, and the potential direct successors to include now entities that had formerly lay outside the chapter’s purview. Streckfuss’s analysis of the law’s application to the royal anthem, King Bhumibol’s economic theories, and even questions about the limits of royal power conjure up the possibility of authoritarian excess in Thailand’s future.  While he could have examined other cases of the treatment of lèse majesté in the aftermath of absolutism, his choice of Germany before the Great War seems likely to spark uncomfortable questions for the historically minded. Any discussion of Germany’s political struggles during the early twentieth century is certain to convey hints of a potential slide toward totalitarianism. Whether this suggestion is intended or not, Streckfuss concludes his essay with a grim portrait of a Thailand tyrannized by supra-legal projection of monarchical sanctity. He describes a “corrupt edifice of national identity that is antithetical to democracy, human rights, and the truth” (p. 138).

Streckfuss’s work also demands that we consider the title of Saying the Unsayable. Is it accurate? Are the authors offering ideas that are prohibited – truly unsayable –in Thailand? One strength shared by many of the essays is their invocation of earlier studies of King Bhumibol and the Thai monarchy. Such scholarly acknowledgements undermine the contention that these topics were always verboten. And many of the studies cited were published in the last decade, well within the time frame of increased sensitivity toward potential insults to the king.  So what is unsayable? On one hand, it is impossible to imagine this book being sold in Thailand, especially in the current atmosphere of heightened fear over the increased applications of Article 112.  And yet in the year and a half since the book was released none of the authors, to my knowledge, has been singled out for defaming the image of the monarch with his or her scholarship. Is it possible that English-language academic studies that critique the image of the king lie beyond the concern of those who would wield Article 112 to protect the image they have created? Probably not. Calls for punishment against foreign academics have emerged regularly from the virtual mob monitoring any perceived slight to the king, his image, or the Thai monarchy. The four Thai authors (two of whom use pseudonyms) are, of course, even more vulnerable to such attacks. In the current anxious atmosphere it is easy to imagine all of these scholars becoming targets of not only legal action but violence as well.  And for that reason the courage evinced by the essays is one of the most satisfying – and even exhilarating – aspects of reading through the collection.

One curious aspect of this project is the collective conception of the monarchy. King Bhumibol has been on the throne for so long that he has become synonymous with the monarchy itself. Too often the essays – despite their careful articulations – conflate the institution with the man. “The monarchy” and Bhumibol (as person or image) are not the same entities. Likewise, the essays fail to include other members of the royal family who have demonstrable political and social power – Queen Sirikit, for example – in their analyses of the Thai monarchy. But the real blind spot in this narrow focus is Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. A few of the essays allude to him, but none dedicates more than a sentence or two to him. And none acknowledge his role facilitating the successful reformulation of the mystique surrounding his father. Some of the recent intensification of the total standard view of King Bhumibol is efficacious, I would argue, because of the comparatively negative example of a Thai royal figure presented by his son and presumed successor.

Also, the same apparatus that constructed, projected, and defended King Bhumibol in the last decade has pursued similar albeit more modest efforts with the crown prince and other members of the royal family. Acknowledgements of these other royal projections are few in this volume. A collection of essays dedicated to monarchy and democracy in Thailand would have been strengthened by extending the analytical framework beyond King Bhumibol to include Queen Sirikit, Crown Prince Maha Vajrialongkorn, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, or others.

The volume sidesteps some of the pitfalls common to discussions of the monarchy among Thai studies scholars, in which there is a tendency to equate any positive evaluation of King Bhumibol or the palace as evidence of anti-democratic or pro-monarchical sentiment. Most authors acknowledge divergent opinions without derision.  And yet I found it strange that none of the authors addresses the success of the total standard projection of the image or posits explanations of why it seems to have been embraced broadly throughout Thailand. Also, few seem to entertain the possibility that King Bhumibol may have played a part in crafting this successful image. It is almost always presented as the product of an anonymous circle of highly placed palace functionaries.  As for its success, evidence of this seems obvious; it exists everywhere.  Thais from every social stratum and region display King Bhumibol’s face or royal logo freely in their homes, businesses, and vehicles. They wear his signature yellow (and sometimes pink and green) and buy the products associated with his development ventures. The authors seem reticent to acknowledge that King Bhumibol’s energy, curiosity, and concern – even without the proclaimed virtuosity – made him an extraordinary enough figure to give some truth to the projection. The virtual image would not be the powerful entity that it is if it had not been built on such an enduringly strong and solid foundation. And it is difficult to imagine another royal figure – Thai or otherwise – able to bear the weight of this godly (or at least super-human) projection.

The most critical essays in Saying the Unsayable are those that concern democracy. Kevin Hewison and Kengkij Kitirianglarp, Nattapoll Chaiching, and Han Krittian (pseudonym) offer essays on the use of Bhimibol’s image to, in most cases, obstruct constitutional democracy throughout the ninth reign.  Hewison and Kengkij draw on a rich vein of scholarship on Thai political discourse to explore the creation of what has become known as Thai-style democracy. In “‘Thai-Style Democracy’: The Royalist Struggle for Thai Politics,” the two political scientists trace the roots of this hybrid notion to the very beginning of Siam’s experiments with constitutional government; they demonstrate how this top-heavy conception of democracy – conceived to justify conservatism and authoritarianism – has thrived throughout Thailand’s post-absolutist era, including the latter decades of King Bhumibol’s reign.  Its endurance, as they illustrate, owes itself in part to the king’s low opinion of what is regarded as Western-style democracy. The authors skillfully frame the recent conflict between Thaksin Shinawatra and the palace as a collision between two political forces that share the same suspicion of a more fully representational democracy. In this narrative, Thaksin, no stranger to authoritarian tendencies, seals his fate by pursuing a mode of populism that has challenged the traditional role reserved for King Bhumibol within Thailand’s peculiar political system.  This thorough and lively presentation of the topic makes it an ideal starting place for anyone who wishes to understand the basic framework of Thailand’s national politics since 1932, and especially the difficulties faced by every Thai democracy advocate in the twenty-first century.

Similarly, Nattapoll Chaiching offers an excellent analysis of what had been viewed as a kind of lost quarter century of royal power. In “The Monarchy and Royalist Movement in Modern Thai Politics, 1932-1957,” he argues that the monarchists did not withdraw into ineffectual obscurity during the political era dominated by actors from the People’s Party; instead, he describes a series of interventions by royalists that enabled the revival of royal power in those decades between the overthrow of the absolute monarchy and the reemergence of kingly political power during the Sarit era. Nattapoll shows how King Prajadhipok began this era of push-back by undermining the People’s Party’s earliest constitution through his insistence on the preservation of governing principles from the pre-democratic era. The result is a revisionist thesis that demands re-evaluation of the notion of a “democratic king” in Thailand’s post-war political formula.

One of my favorite essays in this collection addresses the King Bhumibol image briefly and obliquely. In his essay “Culture of Monarchy: A Repertory Theatre through Time,” Martin Platt provides a historical and literary context for the recent high-tech attempts to amplify the present Thai king’s image. He presents court poetry from the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya kingdoms to demonstrate that Tai courts have always sought to project a changing repertoire of kingly qualities to address specific political contingencies as they emerge. The evolution of King Bhumibol’s image in the Thaksin era fits this pattern of courtly manipulation of royal attributes as a strategy of defense against threats to the institution’s power.  Platt’s concise presentation of court poetry and its political circumstances provides a welcome perspective to the sometimes anxious atmosphere conjured up in the other essays. But in drawing upon the literary exultations of the distant past, Platt reminds readers of the source of the tension surrounding the Article 112 debates: it is too easy to see monarchies as anachronistic political institutions in democratic nations of the Internet age.

These are the best of times and the worst of times for Thai studies scholars. We are delighted to observe and critique a shifting Thai socio-political landscape from various vantage points, from the streets of Bangkok and from the comfort of our distant computer monitors. We also watch in horror as violence and instability blights another generation of Thais eager to pursue the democratic promise of a comprehensive and representative constitution while recognizing the traditional institutions common to popular and personal notions of Thai-ness.  These essays are valuable guides to all scholars of Thailand trying to make sense of changing ontological landscapes as they are transformed – for better and worse – before our eyes. It is difficult to gaze at a royal billboard on Thanon Ratchawithi or a hastily scrawled anti-Article 112 graffito on a nearby road without considering the rich and sophisticated analyses in these strong essays. And for that reason, I would recommend this engaging volume as required reading for all scholars working in Thai studies.

Richard Ruth teaches history at the United Sates Naval Academy.  He is the author of In Buddha’s Company: Thai Soldiers in the Vietnam War (2010).