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King Bhumibol and the unrest in Thailand
Article added on June 7, 2010
  
The Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej (*1927) is the world's longest-serving monarch.  He was born in the United States, educated in Switzerland and came to the throne in 1946. In Thailand, he enjoys godlike status.

On Sunday, June 6, 2010 the Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva announced that the King had endorsed a Cabinet reshuffle. Eight new ministers will be part of the government formed by a six-party coalition which is in control of some 265 seats out of 475 seats in the Lower House.

Is the ailing King Bhumibol still in charge? Although Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, the King has more than once forcefully intervened in state affairs. However, the King is ailing and the crown prince is not held in high esteem. Because of the possible lèse majesté charge, which can result in a prison sentence of up to 15 years, there is no open discussion about the future of the monarchy. Although the King himself said in 2005 that he was not above criticism, many remember the Thai and foreigners who ended up in prison after that date. In 2010, courageously, Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya admitted that Thailand had to become a more open and democratic society”. That will be the path to follow.

Paul M. Handley has written one of the rare books critical of the Thai King Bhumibol (order his book, banned in Thailand: The King Never Smiles, Yale University Press, 2006, 499 pages, from Amazon.com or Amazon.de). He wrote that, in 1947, the palace assets and finances were put in the hands of the Cambridge-educated Thawiwong Thawalyasak who “rebuilt the royal fortune skillfully and aggressively. He persuaded the government to recognize the palace's ownership of property that had fallen unofficially into private hands after 1932. Tens of thousands of people lived in homes and shophouses in the old city, which was originally crown real estate. Thawiwong made these residents resume paying rent to the Crown Property Bureau...” Even the parliament had to pay rent to the King. Thawiwong also made capital investments, partnering with banks and insurance companies.

In 1997, Forbes magazine estimated the King's fortune at $1.8 billion. In its 2008 list of “The World's Richest Royals”, Forbes estimated King Bhumibol's wealth at $35 billion, making him the world's richest monarch. A few days later, the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement that the report attributed wealth owned by the Crown Property Bureau solely to the King. The fortune includes large land parcels and stakes in many companies.




With such a colossal fortune, one wonders why the King has not been able to improve the plight of the rural poor. The violent revolt of 2010, which ended with a military crackdown in Bangkok and a death toll that stood at about 90 and some 1900 injured people, is largely based on the divide between the poor peasants in rural Thailand and the rich urban elite (including businessmen, monarchists and military leaders).

In 2001, after his landslide victory, the populist Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand's Berlusconi”, announced a program of huge credits to all 70,000 Thai peasant villages. He imposed a three-year moratorium on interest payments by indebted farmers and promised to take care of the heavy burden of rotten bank credits. Thaksin understand the divide between the rural poor and the urban rich. A majority of the 44 million Thai voters are peasants. Soft loans and universal health care were appealing programs for them.

Of course, Thaksin Shinawatra is not a holy man. On the contrary. However, in the rural areas, he is still highly regarded because he actually did something for them, whereas too many Bangkok politicians, businessmen, royal courtiers and military leaders were and are corrupt and incompetent too while ignoring them and their needs.

Thaksin Shinawatra stumbled over nepotism, cronyism, corruption and conflict of interest. In September 2006, when he was in New York, he was ousted by the military. The same year, his relatives had sold off their $1.9 billion stake in Shin Corp, the telecommunications company founded by Thaksin, to a state company from Singapore (Temasek Holdings). The fine print: the relatives had sold their shares tax free, thanks to a tailor-made law for the Thaksin family. The outrage in Bangkok about another corruption scandal involving the Prime Minister was not shared by the Thai Rak Thai Party voters. In December 2007, Thaksin's People's Power Party (founded by the members of the outlawed Thai Rak Thai Party) won the post-coup elections.

In October 2008, in absentia, the Thai Supreme court found Thaksin Shinawatra guilty of conflict of interest and sentenced him to two years in jail. At the end of 2008, his political allies were forced out of power. In February 2010, Thailand's Supreme Court seized $1.4 billion of Thaksin's assets on the ground that the money had been acquired through abuse of power, corruption and conflict of interest. At the end of May, Thailand's criminal court approved an arrest warrant on terrorism charges for Thaksin.

In April and May 2010, the Red Shirts, Thaksin's supporters, protested in favor of their former leader and to force the current government to step down. What followed was the mentioned military crackdown, after the protesters had turned down Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's offer of early elections in November 2010.

Today, June 7, the Oxford-educated economist Abhisit Vejjajiva said that the state of emergency would remain but that early elections in early 2011 were possible. In May, he engaged on a reconciliation path. But the country remains divided into Red Shirts - some of whom wish to abolish the monarchy - and the loyal monarchists and anti-Thaksin protesters who pose as Yellow Shirts.

One of the roots of the Thai unrest is the King himself who, according to Paul Handley, had no scruples forging self-protecting alliances with dubious allies. More than once, King Bhumibol endorsed military coups. The royal camarilla repeatedly covered up scandals of the royal family. On the other hand, the King also intervened to re-establish democracy or to oust corrupt democratic regimes such as the ones of Chatichai Choonhavan and Thaksin Shinawatra.

The moment of truth will come the day he dies. The problem may get much worse because the designated male heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn is considered unfit to lead, eccentric, incompetent and disliked by the Thai people. He is also distrusted in military circles for his close ties with Thaksin, who is said to have paid a lot to get the prince's favor. Only the King's daughter, Princess Sirindhorn, a princess of charity, enjoys a positive image.

The King and the royalist elite are not the only force of power in Thailand, but the monarchy is a cornerstone of Thai society. More unrest may lay ahead the day the King dies. - Thai sheet music.



Order the book The King Never Smiles by Paul M. Handley (Yale University Press, 2006, 499 pages) from Amazon.com or Amazon.de. It is one of the rare books critical of the Thai King Bhumibol. Paul M. Handley is a freelance journalist who lived and worked 13 years in Thailand. - Thailand sheet music - Thai sheet music.



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