The pictures of thousands of Thais crying and wearing black after the death of King Pumipon might lead a sane person to conclude that most Thais were political half-wits with a slave-like mentality. That would be a wrong conclusion.
We have to factor in the royalist military repression. Anyone criticising the king can be jailed under the draconian lese-majeste (insulting the monarch) law. Added to this is the green light given by the junta for mobs of fanatical royalists to “deal” with dissidents.
This is also one of the explanations given for the “cult of the dead king” in a recent article by Narisara Viwatchara in New Mandala. She also mentions the mysticism surrounding the monarchy and state-funded king promotion.
But these reasons are not enough of an explanation.
It is also not very useful for anyone to talk about “brain washing”. Any explanation that says that “Thais have always held their kings in high regard” is also historically wrong.
We must explain how millions of Thais came to voluntarily love Pumipon, despite the fact that he never did anything useful for Thai society. This phenomenon is also despite the fact that royalism goes against the class interests of the majority of Thais. Royalist ideology is used to enforce inequality and lack of freedom and democracy.
The Marxist theory of alienation helps us to understand how millions of Thais came to voluntarily love Pumipon by explaining that widely held beliefs and appearances are often not based on the truth. We can also understand when socialisation and coercion can work and when it fails.
Socialisation is not the same as “brainwashing”, as the latter term implies “stupid” people whose brains have been warped. Thai royalists are not royalist out of stupidity, although the content of their beliefs is objectively stupid.
The capitalist ruling class boosts its power by getting us to believe that such things as the market, the family or the monarchy are “natural and good institutions”. This socialisation relies on feelings of a lack of power and insecurity among the general population.
Thailand has no welfare state and the labour movement is not yet powerful enough to collectively enable citizens to stand up and fight for equality. The quality of life for most people seems to depend on big powerful people due to a lack of confidence that ordinary people can bring about change.
This feeling of fear, and lack of status and confidence in Thai society, is encouraged by the ruling class because it helps to socialise people into believing that the monarchy is a powerful benefactor. It is not just an instrument to strengthen the monarchy, but the entire modern Thai capitalist class, especially the military. That is why political leaders, the military, the civilian bureaucracy and corporations all support and promote the monarchy.
It is important to note that this devotion to the king is not an unchanging thing. After the 1932 revolution (which overthrew the absolute monarchy) or during the Communist Party’s struggle during the 1970s, millions of Thais hated the monarchy.
This is evidence of how ruling class socialisation, which leads to an alienated belief in lies, can be overcome by mass struggle that allows people to see their own strength and ability to determine their future.
By struggling against the dictatorship in a collective manner, the mass Red Shirt movement for democracy in recent years led millions to cease revering the monarchy. This was especially the case when the royalist military dictatorship shot down unarmed pro-democracy activists in 2010.
This effect may now have been mitigated to some degree by the deactivating of the Red Shirt movement. Nevertheless, I would be willing to bet that millions of Thais would be happy if Thailand became a republic, especially after the death of Pumipon and the prospect of the disliked Wachiralongkorn becoming king.
To challenge the collective madness or the “cult of the dead king”, which is gripping the population, we need to build a mass pro-democracy social movement against the military dictatorship.
Such a movement can develop the fight into a struggle for socialism. Such a movement will inspire people with the confidence that they have the potential power to determine their own futures.
[Abridged from uglytruththailand.wordpress.com. Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a Thai socialist and journalist who has been in exile since he was charged with lese majeste for a 2006 book criticising Thailand’s monarchy.]