Don’t talk about the king

As a journalist, it was inevitable that the thing that was always going to pique my interest about Thailand would also be the most controversial – the absolute devout relationship that most Thais have with their king.

Ever since we got here, I have been dying to raise the subject with our various hosts. But I quite simply haven’t known how. After all, our guidebook repeatedly stresses the need to treat the monarchy with extreme deference – and to be honest I wasn’t certain that deference was something I could convincingly pull off in such an alien culture.

A couple of days ago, we decided to experience the thrills of a Bangkok cinema. As the Royal Thai Anthem came on, the audience was asked – in both English and Thai – to stand in honour of the current king, Bhumibol Adulyadej. We were then treated to five minutes of regal waving and general public appearances. It was a truly thrilling experience, but not something I could see really catching on in British cinemas.

Had anyone suggested that I got up in honour of Queen Elizabeth II, God bless her (naturally), I’d probably have chortled with laughter – and remained seated. Gestures may also have been made in irreverence of the situation – not directed specifically at the Queen, who is almost certainly a harmless old dear, but at the monarchy in general. A daft, somewhat outdated institution.

But here there was absolutely no hesitating, let alone laughing. No question about it. We would all stand.

Of course, all of this piqued my interest even more – and invigorated my determination to truly understand the bond between ordinary Thai citizens and their king.

Yesterday, I finally plucked up enough courage to broach the subject with someone that we are staying with in Chiang Mai.

Wisely, I decided to ask a non-native American, rather than a Thai. Unwisely, perhaps, I chose a crowded vegetarian restaurant for our discussion.

What I learnt was interesting.

Thai folk, our host told me, absolutely adore the current king. And justifiably so, he added. (I felt that words such as these, coming from a well-traveled expat, held more than a whisper of integrity).

He has done great things for the country, continued my host, and proceeded to tell me how he had taught many hill tribes around Chiang Mai to grow temperate fruit and vegetables (such as apples) themselves rather than import them.

The thing they adore, he said, is the king rather than the monarchy. After all, there are few Thais these days who remember a time when the king wasn’t king.

This of course provoked the inevitable question: “Does the king have any heirs?”

A sharp intake of breath, and a very stern look. The slight lowering of the head. Then a quickly-whispered warning.

“One never asks what happens after… wards,” breathed our host, looking anxiously around at the other tables. We were surrounded by Thais. “But I’ll tell you what I think.”

He then shook off his air of deference for a moment, and proceeded to tell stories about the king’s only son, something of a play boy, who apparently had been up to all sorts of naughty stuff (our host wouldn’t say quite what).

“It would be better if the throne passed to his eldest daughter,” he said.

I found myself starting to contrast Thailand to Japan, another country where the monarchy is held with no small measure of esteem.

Throughout history at school, we were always taught that the Japanese Emperor was the closest thing to God that mere mortals could hope to encounter on Earth. This was why General Douglas MacArthur wisely decided he would not face the humiliation of being tried for war crimes. Perhaps one of the most sensible decisions he made during the war.

But our trip to Japan last year taught us that, now, such importance has faded. The Emperor may still be held with greater reverence than the British monarchy, but the young no longer seem as much  in awe of him as their parents did. At least, this was certainly the impression that we got, from the people that we spoke with.

But this does not seem to be the case in Thailand. The king has lost none of his original shine.

It really will be interesting to see what happens afterwards. I just want to find some Thais who are prepared to talk about this.

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One Response to “Don’t talk about the king”

  1. Emilio Says:

    What!? Did you say the Thai king has not lost his “shine”? Come off it! King Bhumibol’s image has taken a massive dive from which he will never recover.

    In 2007, when foreigners first began to be arrested for allegedly “insulting” this arrogant individual, the criticism has not stopped, most of it from Thais I may say.

    Supporters of the Thai king should accept that the king is no longer the “unifying” force in Thailand, not only that, King Bhumibol is blamed by many people for the crackdown against Red shirt freedom fighters.

    It’s hardly surprising really. The king he is against lese majeste law, then stays silent when people like Chiranuch Premchaiporn are arrested. No wonder Thai people stand up quickly at the local cinema when the Thai king’s tired gingle comes on.

    The King of Thailand needs to get his act together.

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