Thai king was a weak puppet for the elite — the people need democracy

Protest in Bangkok against the 2006 military coup. King Pumipon was a willing tool of the army and royalist thugs in the coup.

Thailand’s King Pumipon Adulyadej died on October 13 aged 88, after more than 70 years on the throne. Thai socialist Giles Ji Ungpakorn has been in exile since he was charged with lese majeste (insulting the monarch) over a 2006 book criticising the king’s support for a military coup. Below he assesses the monarch’s role as a block to democracy and social justice.

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King Pumipon was a weak and characterless monarch who spent his useless and privileged life in a bubble, surrounded by fawning, grovelling toadies who claimed that he was a “god”.

He was a pathetic creature who should not be pitied. His life’s work was self-enrichment, supporting military regimes and defending inequality.

He played a significant role in preventing democratic rights, the development of social justice and the fair and unbiased use of the law. He did this by legitimising the worst policies and atrocities committed by Thai rulers.

In recent years, Pumipon remained silent while more and more dissidents were jailed under the draconian lese majeste law, for merely speaking out against the destruction of democracy. He remained silent about the killing of innocent civilians by the military.

Pumipon was a willing tool of the military, who constantly staged coups and obstructed democracy and the economic development of the Thai people. For Pumipon, this resulted in great rewards. He amassed so much wealth from the work of others during his reign, that he became the richest man in Thailand and the richest monarch in the world.

Yet Pumipon preached that his “subjects” should be happy in their poverty and he opposed any redistribution of wealth. Thailand is one of the most unequal countries in Asia.

Pumipon allowed the use of crawling and special royal language in his presence without any sense of shame. He passed on his warped and elitist views to his dysfunctional children.

Privileged youth

Pumipon was born in the United States and spent much of his youth in Switzerland. His love of fast cars and the good life resulted in him losing an eye in a car accident.

He came to the throne after his elder brother died from gunshot wounds to the head in 1946. His brother’s death was either a suicide or a gun accident involving Pumipon. Either way, Pumipon was fully aware of the circumstances of his brother’s death, but chose to keep them a secret. He allowed three innocent palace staff to be executed over the incident and then-prime minister Pridi Panomyong to be falsely blamed for the incident by his political opponents.

Pumipon carried on his career as a monarch in this deceitful and spineless manner for the rest of his life.

During the late 1950s and early ’60s, he was used by Thailand’s corrupt and despotic ruler Field Marshall Sarit Tanarat to build a coalition between the military and monarchists. The monarchy had fallen into disrepute and was very unpopular among the Thai people in the ’30s and ’40s, with a successful revolution in 1932 overthrowing the absolute monarchy.

Even key military leaders had republican leanings in those days. Sarit and the monarchists used the Cold War as a means to build the prestige of the conservative elites.

Pumipon was systematically promoted as the symbolic figurehead of this “anti-Communist” alliance. The US government also distributed photos of the king to villagers in rural areas as part of the fight against communism. Any house without such a picture would be deemed as “red”.

When Sarit died, Pumipon carried on working with the dictator’s successors. Never once did Pumipon speak up for democracy or social justice. Never once did he criticise corruption.

The military promoted the king and his “royal projects”, but over the years these projects had little impact on the standard of living of most Thais.

In 1973, the military regime was overthrown by a mass popular uprising and Pumipon was called upon by the elites to step in and protect the status quo. This he did by appearing on television and announcing a new civilian government. Thus he managed to pretend that he was a “democratic king”.

But the dark clouds of class struggle were looming. This was at the height of the Vietnam War and students and social activists were looking for real change. They were attracted by the ideas of the Communist Party of Thailand.

Pumipon joined the military and conservative elites in promoting right-wing paramilitary groups, such as the Village Scouts, who attacked student activists and the left. The result was a bloody crackdown at Thammasart University in 1976.

‘Too much democracy’

Pumipon supported this crackdown, the military coup that followed, and the general repression and censorship under the new dictatorship. He justified this by saying in 1976 that Thailand had experienced “too much democracy”. Left-leaning Thais hated him for this. After the 1976 massacre, Thailand was plunged into a civil war.

By the mid ’80s, democratic space in Thailand opened up and an elected civilian government came to power. But it was toppled by a new military coup in 1991, which Pumipon again supported.

However, in 1992, a mass popular uprising ended the dictatorship. When it was clear the army had lost, Pumipon appeared again in public to claim his democratic credentials.

Democratic elections were held and the political elites fell over each other to grovel and praise the “Great King”, while promoting and re-promoting his “superhuman talents”. By doing this, they increased their own legitimacy.

Pumipon lapped all this up and probably came to believe that he was, in fact, divine.

One elite politician who helped to promote Pumipon’s image was Thaksin Shinawatra, who won repeated elections due to his party’s pro-poor policies. The vast majority of Thai people enjoyed real gains from these reforms.

But, going with the flow as ever, Pumipon praised Thaksin’s brutal “war on drugs”, in which 3000 people were killed by extra-judiciary means.

Thaksin’s influence among the people eventually enraged his rivals among the conservative elites: the army, the bureaucracy and the conservative political and business classes. The result was the 2006 and 2014 military coups against elected governments and the destruction of democracy.

Pumipon was a willing tool in these coups too, allowing his name to be used by the army and royalist thugs. Despite claims, Pumipon never built stability for Thai citizens and never managed to “hold the country together”. He was a symbol of naked class oppression.

Coups and massacres

When the army gunned down nearly 100 civilians protesting for democracy in 2010, Pumipon remained silent. It was this event, and the two recent military coups, that raised serious questions in the minds of millions of Thai citizens about the so-called benefits of having Pumipon, or anyone else, as king. There is now a strong republican sentiment throughout Thailand, although it faces repression.

Many wrongly believed that Pumipon was powerful and ordered the 2006 coup and even the 2010 killings. By the time of the 2014 coup, Pumipon was so incapacitated by old age that he probably had limited awareness about what was happening. This did not stop Thailand’s military ruler, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, from using him to claim legitimacy.

The fact is that Pumipon never had political power. His role was always to provide ideological legitimacy for the elites and their actions, especially the army. His ideological role was not just about defending the military and the undemocratic elites. His reactionary “Sufficiency Economy” ideology was designed to oppose any redistribution of wealth and support neoliberalism by opposing state intervention to alleviate poverty.

All sections of the Thai elite sought to use him for their own benefit. This included top businessmen, including Thaksin, and the civilian and military bureaucrats.

Pumipon lived a life of luxury built on lies. He was projected as the “Father of the Nation, loved by all”. Pumipon was supposed to be a “genius”. It was claimed that he led a “simple life”.

Yet any criticism of his actions, or those of the royalist elites, would be harshly punished by the use of the lese majeste law. This is why many obituaries about him written by foreign journalists will continue to repeat the usual lies and nonsense in praise of this pathetic and loathsome man.

Millions of Thais will hope that his death opens the door to progressive changes to Thai society. But they will be disappointed, as nothing is automatic. We must continue the fight for democracy and social justice and we still have to deal with the military and Pumipon’s reactionary successor.

It is time for a genuine democratic republic. The amassed wealth of the Thai royal family and all their palaces should be turned over to the people in order to build a welfare state.

Shed not one tear for Pumipon. Instead, think of those who were killed in his name by the military and the people who will now suffer from the long drawn-out and expensive funeral rites.

Lazy journalists will claim that the long-running political crisis was all about royal succession. But the main reason for the past decade of political crisis was never about the king’s failing health nor succession.

Instead, it can be traced back to the 1997 Asian economic crisis and the attempt by Thaksin to modernise Thai society. The economic crisis was the spark that exposed the existing fault-lines in Thai society. The actions of various political actors in response eventually led to a backlash against democracy by the conservatives — and today’s royal-endorsed military regime.

[Abridged from Uglytruth-Thailand.]