Not so Happy Birthdays

Thailand is changing. The two royal anniversaries of mid-2012 were proof that the transition from Rama IX to the next reign is no longer a distant thought but a process in full swing. An analysis of the celebrations for HRH Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn’s 5th cycle anniversary and HM Queen Sirikit’s 80th birthday reveals that the monarchy is no longer what it used to be – and that it probably never will be again.

First, to describe public attendance for the official celebrations in honour of the Crown Prince on 28 July 2012 at the royal field, Sanam Luang, as below expectations would be euphemistic. Frankly, the whole event was an embarrassment. And the fact that, on 12 August 2012, Her Majesty spent her birthday at Siriraj Hospital where she continued to be treated for a “shortage of blood in her brain” it is ever more unlikely that the Queen will function as a regent after the death of her husband to facilitate the transition process – a theory that never seemed particularly plausible anyway. If anything, the birthdays were a reminder that the end of the current Chakri reign draws closer by the day.

One of the most striking features of the royal anniversaries was the lack of effort by the monarchy’s propaganda machinery to effectively promote HRH Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn ahead of the royal succession. What better opportunity to start getting things rolling than the man’s 60th birthday, or 5th cycle anniversary (one cycle comprises twelve years)? There’s a whole lot of work to do on Thai people’s perception of their next King. Yet looking back into history this is not an impossible task. HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej became King when the image of the monarchy was a far cry from what it is today. And what is the never convincingly resolved suspicion of (accidental) fratricide compared to the Crown Prince’s frivolous love adventures, diplomatic mishaps and petty crimes? True, the internet and a changed national and international political environment don’t make the work any easier but is it not about time, from the perspective of royalists, to manage the transition by using their proven ideological tools?

The decision makers seem to disagree. The absence of royal banners on newspaper websites ahead of the Prince’s birthday was just one indicator of the seeming lack of enthusiasm among the promoters of the monarchy. Where in the past readers of online news usually had to click on full-screen reminders of an upcoming royal celebration to access a homepage, the editorial boards had decided not to put those up for the Crown Prince. As for the media coverage itself, there was a marked imbalance between the numbers of lines dedicated to both birthday celebrations. A random comparison between the Thai language newspapers Daily News and Thai Rath reveals that Thai Rath gave the Crown Prince 83 lines the day after the celebrations at Sanam Luang compared to 143 lines for the Queen’s anniversary festivities. Daily News reported the Prince’s birthday over 103 lines versus 287 lines for his mother (the coverage for the Queen stretched across three pages).

Asked for his explanation for the lack of media support for the Crown Prince a journalist answered frankly that, first, the Crown Prince lacks his father’s standing. Second, an excessive promotion of Vajiralongkorn at a time when King Bhumibol is still alive would be indecent: “the heir apparent can never outshine the incumbent”. However, the journalist remarked on the increase of royal TV programs presenting scenes from Vajiralongkorn’s childhood, a time when he was still fairly innocent in the eye of loyal subjects. Whether these attempts to reconnect him with his roots as a male Chakri heir will increase his popularity is a question only time can answer.

For now, it is possible to put an exact number on the difference in significance between the Prince and the Queen, thanks to the release of commemorative banknotes ahead of both the birthday of the Crown Prince and his mother. The Queen is five times more unique than her son. Whereas ten million 100 Baht banknotes were issued for the heir apparent, the special 80 Baht notes printed in honour of the Queen numbered only two million. Also, whereas the 100 Baht notes were circulated in the regular financial system, the 80 Baht banknotes had to be bought for 120 Baht, the surplus reportedly going to royal charities. When I asked at a bank whether I could exchange a regular 100 Baht banknote for one with the Prince on the back I was met with a confused look. It seemed I was the first person to make such a request. Clearly, the Crown Prince is not considered on par with his parents in the media, nor among Thailand’s bankers.

And certainly not among the general public. It was fascinating to watch how little interest the great majority of people showed in the books that had been placed at various spots throughout Bangkok for well-wishers to sign. While waiting at the Siam Paragon shopping mall for a friend to show up I kept an eye on the setup that had just been erected to honour the Crown Prince – consisting of a book with blank pages on a table in front of a life-size picture of Vajiralongkorn and ceremonial objects. Over one hour not a single person stopped to sign the book. Only when the embarrassment became unbearable did one of the mall’s security officers move towards the book to set a good example by signing it. A few, but not many, passersby followed his lead. The commemorative books for the Queen, on the other hand, were much more popular and filled up relatively quickly with good wishes.

The role of shopping malls was a remarkable one. Whereas in previous years tents with exhibitions for the Queen’s birthday were usually set up around Sanam Luang or along Ratchadamnoen Avenue in the old city, this year the main exhibition sponsored by the Prime Minister’s Office was – to my knowledge for the first time – set up at the Central World shopping mall (no such grand exhibition was held for the Crown Prince). In four different locations on the ground floor of the mall – parts of which were burned to ashes in the wake of the crackdown on the red shirt protests on 19 May 2010 – people were invited to reminisce about the “good old days” when the Queen was touring the countryside and promoting Thai arts and crafts. A fashion show presented clothes made of Thai silk. A grand installation at the center of the mall – stretching across five levels with a huge portrait of the young Queen in the middle, topped by white peacocks – invited customers to stop and hang well-wishes on the base of the structure. Two exhibitions reminded visitors of the Queen’s contribution to the country’s development.

 

The Queen at CentralWorld: On 19 September 2010, red shirt demonstrators had drawn anti-royal graffiti on the enclosure around the burned down parts of CentralWorld. One of the messages read “whale-free area” (khet plot pla-wan; “whale” referred to the Queen). Sirikit was back in full force in 2012.

Why this shift of the exhibitions from Sanam Luang to Central World? Was this another chapter in the ongoing fight over the meaning of this specific urban space? Or was it an attempt to remind Bangkokians of the monarchy’s contribution to Thailand’s prosperity as represented by the shopping mall? Whatever it was, the shift can certainly be read as an adaption on the part of the promoters of royalism to changing social conditions – which does not speak for the current strength of the monarchy whose champions now act less than they react. Maybe the promoters were no longer certain that Thais are still loyal enough to spend their long weekend in the heat of Bangkok’s old royal city which – as a result of the relocation of government buildings to the north of Bangkok and attempts to turn the area into an outdoor museum – is increasingly empty of people and removed from the everyday lives of most Bangkokians. Did the organizers recognise that Thailand has changed, that window shopping and a family dinner at a Korean restaurant in an air-conditioned shopping mall seems more attractive to many than the dull free food handed out to visitors at the royal anniversary celebrations at Sanam Luang? How much symbolism can one read into the fact that the monarchy now goes where the people are and that fewer people go where the monarchy used to be?

On the day of the Crown Prince’s birthday, 28 July 2012, none but the poorest members of Thai society showed up at Sanam Luang. Apart from government officers and employees who had been ordered to parade on the royal grounds which make up the southern part of the field, mostly men and women in unwashed clothes came for the free food and beverages offered to them. Members of the middle class, dressed up for a royal occasion – a familiar sight for anyone who has ever attended such events in the past –, were completely absent. As if realising the embarrassment, the security guards suddenly declared the tents that were set up for ordinary visitors a VIP area, asked the three dozen representatives of the lower strata of the people (prachachon) to leave their seats and eventually placed them in a corner opposite the tent where Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra would later take her seat before going on stage for a candle-lighting ceremony. The “VIP tents” remained largely vacant for the rest of the evening (for the Queen’s birthday celebrations the same tents were open to the general public because there was a middle-class public to fill them).

Pushed into a corner: A few dozen mostly poor and homeless people were waiting behind a yellow fence at Sanam Luang ahead of the arrival of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra who led a ceremony in honour of the Crown Prince.

The tents that were set up for the Crown Prince’s birthday celebrations remained empty and were declared a VIP area.

The Dark Knight and the Prince: A car exhibition at Sanam Luang in honour of Vajiralongkorn also featured a Batmobile.

When Prime Minister Yingluck finally arrived the prachachon were disappointed yet another time when her black van parked in front of them and Yingluck got off the car on the other side, effectively shutting her off from the sight of the poor. She took her seat across the square, went on stage to lead the ceremony – which was overshadowed by the worst performance of the royal anthem this author has ever heard – and left.

Prime Minister Yingluck led the candle lighting ceremony for both, the Crown Prince and, two weeks later, for the Queen.

The section of Sanam Luang that was set aside for the ceremony was filled with students and employees of government instiutions whose attendance was obligatory.

The celebrations for the Queen were much more popular despite heavy rainfalls. It is, however, an exaggeration to state that Sanam Luang was “packed” on 12 August as the Bangkok Post would have it. Most of the photos disseminated in the media depicted government employees and marching bands that had been ordered to appear anyway. Despite the relatively strong attendance for the Queen’s anniversary festivities the number of people dwarfed when compared to the celebrations for King Bhumibol’s 80th birthday in 2007 which stretched from Sanam Luang along the entire Ratchadamnoen Avenue and even spilled over to the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River. Whether the difference in size had anything to do with the respective governments that organised the celebrations – a military junta that excessively promoted the monarchy in 2007 vs. a democratically elected administration whose legitimacy is less dependent on its royalist credentials – is debatable. Maybe it’s just that the king had more fans in 2007 than the Queen has in 2012.

On the Queen’s Birthday the tents that were set up for the public at Sanam Luang were well-attended.

At Siriraj Hospital: On the Queen’s birthday the area dedicated to the worship of the royal patients at Siriraj Hospital was almost empty.

One remarkable feature of the Queen’s birthday was the attempt to reconnect her with the poor. The main device was the revelation that she had donated a total of 20 million Baht to help residents in Bangkok’s Bon Kai area who were affected by the May 2010 events. The information (http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/local/306008/her-majesty-donates-b22m-to-bon-kai-traders-victims-after-street-riots) was spread by an aide to the Queen. A follow-up story (http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/local/307123/riot-hit-community-honours-queen) in the Bangkok Post reported that the Bon Kai residents organized celebrations for the Queen’s birthday in their community to thank her for her support, to prove their allegiance to the monarchy and to fend off accusations that they were supporters of anti-royal red shirts. Given that the Queen became a source of red shirt anger after she had taken actions which implied that she was siding with the yellow shirt movement it seems to make sense – at least from the point of view of royalists– to try to paint her as a non-partisan supporter of the poor whose good deeds would have remained unknown were it not for a close aide who “leaked” the information to the press right in time for her birthday celebrations.

It seems that an alms-giving ceremony on the morning of 12 August at Sanam Luang was part of that strategy to win back the hearts and minds of disgruntled members of Thai society. A friend who observed the scene reported that, for the first time, not just monks but poor people too received donations at the ceremony which is customarily held to mark royal birthdays.

It is difficult to make sense of these seemingly disconnected observations and one cannot be certain that there really is a grand strategy which is being followed. Compared with the mass mobilisations for royal birthdays in the past – complete with busloads of people being carried to Sanam Luang and hyperbolic media coverage – this year’s celebrations were definitely tamer even though they were significant birthdays of the two most important members of the royal family after the King. Regarding the Crown Prince this approach might owe to the fact that the next King does not (yet) possess the sacred charisma which has painstakingly been constructed around his father. This is not to say that, if he plays his ceremonial role during the mourning period for his father well, he cannot exceed expectations. Many people might want to cling onto something after the death of King Bhumibol and, after all, Vajiralongkorn is from his father’s flesh and blood (like all successors, Prince Vajiralongkorn possesses a little of what Max Weber termed “hereditary charisma”). And given how much many sections of Thai society – and not just the immediate network – stand to lose from a decrease in royal charisma it is hard to imagine that they will give up on promoting the next king as an ideological tool. For that reason, lèse majesté might be here to stay.

The most elaborate installation for the Crown Prince was erected at Suvarnabhumi Airport, certainly due to Vajiralongkorn’s connections to the Air Force and his reputation as a pilot.

Old aesthetics, new symbols on the back of the installation at Suvarnabhumi: Pictures of Vajiralongkorn in ceremonial uniform, in military attire, benevolently leaning towards the people and next to a military aircraft under the slogan “Long Live the Crown Prince”.

Yet, in light of the remarkable show of disinterest for the Crown Prince’s birthday celebrations and the tame propaganda surrounding them such a change of mind in favour of promoting him seems difficult to imagine at this point. All the same, some may read the birthday celebrations not as tame but as the slow but steady start to the Crown Prince’s public promotion. Is it really just respect for the ailing king that discourages a more outright promotion of his successor? Has the general caution in the wake of an elite settlement which seems to be underway in Thailand anything to do with this? Or could it be that some decision-makers have grasped that the country is in the process of moving beyond the monarchy as the central pillar of the socio-political order? After all, Prince Vajiralongkorn’s 60th birthday was also a reminder of the fact the he too is no longer a young man. Given his own health conditions it is doubtful that the Crown Prince will be able to keep the monarchy stable the same way his long-lived father has done for more than 60 decades. Therefore, the smartest solution would be for the Crown Prince to renounce the throne in one way or another (definitely in a way that does not put the legitimacy of the next king into doubt, which would preclude for example an all-too comfortably timed death as a solution) to allow royalists to press the reset button and call Vajiralonkorn’s four sons home from American exile and place one of them on the throne. As with American-born and Swiss-raised Bhumibol, a young King Juthavachara Mahidol would be a nobody at first and therefore would offer an opportunity to refashion the monarchy in a new mould.

But this is fantasy. Given that the chances of Rama X becoming King Vajiralongkorn are very high one must hope that the promoters of the monarchy have come to realise that royalism is past its prime and, considering the occurrence of overt attacks on the monarchy’s sacred charisma, that it must assume a lower profile to secure its survival. Seen from this angle, the succession would present a solution to, rather than a deepening of, the crisis of royal legitimacy. As the comparison between the birthday celebrations has shown, fewer people are interested in the next king than they are in the current monarchy and, consequently, they do not expect much from the heir to the throne. Lowering the monarchy’s profile would align the institution with these lowered public expectations – whereas a coercive show of force could prove ineffective or, worse than that, lead to disastrous results. Moreover such an institutional realignment would be more in line with modern ideas of how a 21st century monarchy should function.

The dividend of this change of strategy could swiftly pay out. As one Thai informant put it in an interview: “I feel closer to the monarchy now that it is taking a less prominent role.”

Serhat Ünaldi is a PhD candidate at at the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, Institute of Asian and African Studies, Cross-Section Society and Transformation in Asian and African Societies, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. He is the author of two upcoming papers:

2012 (forthcoming). “Modern Monarchs and Democracy: Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej and Juan Carlos of Spain”, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 31(2).

2012 (forthcoming). “Ratchaprasong Before CentralWorld: The Forgotten Palace Wang Phetchabun”, วารสารหน้าจั่ว  (Warasan Na Chua) vol. 9.

About Serhat Ünaldi, Guest Contributor