Thailand as we knew it is now at an end

Thailand as we knew it is now at an end

When it comes to public readership, I was taught more than 30 years ago to write invariably in the third person. The time has come for change and exception because there is no better way for me to describe what has just happened in Thailand. What was once unimaginable when I was a schoolboy eventually became inevitable, and now is undeniable in my midlife.

After an extraordinary reign, Thailand is without King Bhumibol Adulyadej for the first time that almost anyone can remember.

His passing means the Thailand that many Thais and I have known has come to an end. That Thailand is now at risk of being assessed on its most recent decade or two rather than in its entirety of 70 years. Although we are incentivised to think that the here and now and our immediate era are more important than what came before, putting Thailand in perspective requires a long look back and to view the conditions and circumstances that prevailed at the time. A retrospect, in turn, can lay the basis for the viable and optimal prospects ahead.

Indeed, some knives are already out just hours after the end of the reign. Sceptics, critics, detractors and those with dissenting voices who previously suffered under Thailand's entrenched monarchy-centred socio-political hierarchy are up and about, ready to go on the march. Some of their qualms and critiques will be fair but many will sound like they're grinding axes, biased and bent on vindictiveness and retribution for the shortcomings of what transpired and decidedly ignorant of alternatives that could have been worse.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

Global media competition to get the long-awaited Thai story out and to nab the juiciest scoops in the fastest fashion will intensify international scrutiny on Thailand under a tentative new reign. Because the Thai authorities, led by men in uniform, are ill-equipped to handle foreigners' prying and probing eyes, it is likely that we will see tension between Thai stakeholders at home and the world outside.

Nevertheless, the outside world should know that King Bhumibol's passing is a once-in-a-lifetime and intensely personal experience for most Thais. It is somewhat akin to John F Kennedy's untimely death in 1963 that brought an end to a Camelot-like era for Americans when they felt good about themselves, their country and its place in the world. It also may be similar to the demise of other father-like figures such as the Soviet Union's Vladimir Lenin in 1924 and China's Mao Zedong in 1976, or South Africa's Nelson Mandela and Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew more recently.

Yet the Thais' passionate regard for their late monarch can come across as deity worship characteristic of born-again evangelicals in America or enforced adoration common in North Korea. To be sure, in the Thai kingdom, the late monarch enjoyed reverence and respect that was organic and bottom up.

It was during the Cold War in the 1950s-80s that King Bhumibol made his mark when Thailand had to make its way in a treacherous neighbourhood, at once challenged by the threat of communist expansionism. Understanding the Cold War context and conditions and Thailand's place in them is necessary to appreciate how and why Thais have a deep affection for and bonding with their late King. At the time, the pillars of the Thai state -- nation, religion and monarchy -- struck a collective chord. The resulting unity and stability enabled economic development and kept communism at bay. Challenges to the established order, with the military-monarchy-bureaucracy triangulation as its anchor, were put down, including the left-leaning student-led movement in the mid-1970s.

In that long period, Thai schoolchildren sang martial songs each morning in addition to the national anthem, an orderly time when we knew what to expect and where our place in the Thai socio-political hierarchy was, reinforced by socialisation and indoctrination in classrooms and living rooms where only state-run media could enter.

Back then, running water was limited to certain hours, electricity blackouts were common, and television was available only during weekday prime times and weekends. It was a lonely and foreboding, yet clear-cut, time when we saw Indochina being engulfed by communism and Burma turning inward. Apart from the defence treaty alliance with the Americans, we had nobody to turn to but ourselves.

At that time when Thailand needed strong and steady state institutions and Thais were in need of national guidance, King Bhumibol became the individual uniquely fit for the task. He went all over the country to promote education, healthcare, water management, infrastructure development, and many projects for public welfare. Such a role would not have been so important had it not been desperately needed. And any other individual put in that role may not have worked so hard simply because he did not need to and because there were more comfortable and convenient choices to choose from.

But King Bhumibol did it anyway. People saw and have appreciated it since. After having done so much for so long, the late King earned and accumulated so much moral authority that the Thai people placed him at the apex of society.

There will be views and arguments in the coming months and years that the political order set up around the late King on the back of the military-monarchy-bureaucracy axis has impeded democratic development and stunted democratic institutions, that economic development over the long reign was unfairly distributed, that Thailand is left with a military dictatorship and a much weaker monarchy to carry itself forward. These points are not invalid and will be the grist for historians in the months and years to come.

But how Thailand has been should be viewed in comparative terms. By the standards of its neighbourhood, Thailand has not fared so badly. Turbulence and tumult are not uncommon when a country transitions out of a 70-year-old political order. Having weathered imperialist times, two world wars, and the Cold War, Thailand now stands as a 70-million-strong market with a 400 billion-dollar economy, with gifted geography as the centre of mainland Southeast Asia to boot. It has so much going for it now that derives from the Cold War years.

The late monarch's lasting legacy may well be the critical mass that has accrued over his reign, where there are too many stakeholders and vested interests in Thailand's viability and survival for it to fail.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

An associate professor at Chulalongkorn University

An associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, with more than 25 years of university service. He earned his MA from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and PhD from the London School of Economics where he was awarded the UK’s top dissertation prize in 2002.

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