Sunday, March 18, 2007

FOR THE PEOPLE, ALWAYS

BANGKOK POST, FRIDAY JUNE 9, 2006
COMMENT / DIAMOND JUBILEE


For the people, always

A good king makes possible a self-identification, not in the abstract as in the people or the state, but in the easily perceived and palpable form of an extraordinary national representative, the constitutional monarch

By PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

The first and only time I set eyes on His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej was in July 1971. My Thai host family had briefed me well for the occasion. They held the King in the highest esteem and proudly displayed photographs of graduation ceremonies and charitable donations that had momentarily brought them together with their beloved king, the people's king.

One day, without much advance warning other than to be told to shower and dress neatly, I was taken to Wat Boworn, which had been, my Thai mother and sisters explained, the home of another heralded member of the Chakri Dynasty, King Mongkut.

After pondering the fate of the monk-turned-monarch and trying to digest the gist of Buddhism from a pamphlet intriguingly titled, ''Why are we born?'' I was directed to stand with a thickening throng of people just outside the temple gate.

''The King is coming! The King is coming!''

Soon a creamy yellow limo marked with the royal insignia pulled up and a hush went over the expectant crowd.

Being young, American, and thus a little bit foolish, I waved excitedly at the king in contravention of more demure Thai behaviour. His Majesty waved back. I was thrilled.

Looking back 35 years to that distant fleeting moment, and the strong after-image that endures to this day, it is hard to believe that King Bhumibol had already reigned for a quarter of a century at that point.

The extraordinary length of His Majesty's popular reign has meant, in effect, that almost no one in Thailand (excepting those well into their sixties or above) has even a remote idea of what Thailand was like without him.

Thus an identification with King Bhumibol, by stature of the exalted office but more especially by the individual merit of a lifetime of good works, is an indelible part of what it means to be a modern Thai.

Even a foreigner like myself who has maintained a regular engagement with Thailand over several decades cannot escape the feeling of having grown up with the King.

When I returned to the New York suburbs after my exchange student experience in Thailand, I brought with me treasured gifts from Thai friends that helped me keep alive the wonderful memories of my time there. Along with a gold chain, Buddha amulets, teak elephants, silk shirts, hilltribe shoulder bags, temple incense and the like, I had in my Marco Polo suitcase a calendar portrait of Thailand's first family. I put it up in my room during my freshman year at Cornell University, in part because it reminded me of things I did not want to fade from memory, but also in anticipation that my Thai roommate would feel more at home. Alas, the portrait came down at his insistence, for his journey was a parallel but reverse image of mine; he wanted to be more American as much as I wanted to be more Thai. Still, we were both thrilled when the King judiciously interceded in the political upheaval of Oct 14, 1973 and his magical status in my eyes remained intact.

As an intermediate student of Thai, I grew interested in the complexities of Rachasap until I read somewhere that the King, when meeting foreigners, preferred speaking English or French, and even with fellow Thais, he preferred straight talk to elaborate linguistic protocol.

There was a period after Oct 6, 1976, when the possibility of Thailand going communist was on many minds, and as a student of Southeast Asian studies, I read assiduously literature and essays that might shed some light on why this was happening. I read Jit Phumisak, Kukrit Pramoj, Suwat Woradilok, Sulak Srivaraksa, Seni Saowapong, Buddhadhasa Bhikku and even some fragmentary, politicised literature that was coming out of the jungle under the stamp of the Thai communist party.

Despite shared worries for the future, my Thai friends, almost to a person, assured me that no matter what should happen, the King would be part of the solution. The merit of this view seemed to hold forth during the generally agreeable rule of General Prem Tinsulanonda, who was reportedly close to the King and also shared some of the popular royal attributes of graciousness, earnestness and humility.

Any doubts about His Majesty's merits as the people's king were washed away with the brilliant and judicious royal intervention in mid-May 1992 that ended a violent jostle for power and set Thai democracy back on course, with people power winning the day.

Since the 1950s, the Thai monarchy, as has been researched and documented by scholars at Cornell and elsewhere, served as a stabilising role during the ideological tug-of-war as the so-called West and the so-called communist bloc vied for global dominance.

After the dislocation caused by US losses in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia followed by the demand for the withdrawal of US troops from Thailand, there followed the bloody reactionary violence of Oct 6, 1976.

During that deeply troubling juncture, it seemed for a while that the east wind would prevail over the west wind.

A number of Thai friends, normally proud and sometimes borderline xenophobic, were suddenly desperately interested in acquiring green cards to the US or moving investments abroad or even going into exile.

Yet somehow the centre held, and Thailand muddled through this difficult period. The mean-spirited Sino-Soviet split as played out in Indochina and in the rear bases of the Communist Party of Thailand conspired to neutralise the guerilla movement and in the best tradition of Thai political flexibility, former communist enemies of the state were welcomed back into the fold of mainstream Thai society without recrimination, under an amnesty programme sponsored by Prime Minister Kriangsak Chomanan with the support of US President Jimmy Carter.

If the Thai monarchy performed as expected in the minds of cold warriors worried about the rising wind from the east, it also performed, and continues to perform, a valuable unifying function in the post-Cold War world in which religion has replaced ideology as the organising principle for contested political space.

Given the cultural saturation of Theravada Buddhism in much of Thailand, it is tempting, though inaccurate, for tourist and traditionalist alike, to see Thailand and Buddhism as part and parcel of the same national essence. This was memorialised in the traditional slogan Chart, Satsana, Mahakasat (Nation, Religion, Monarchy).

One way in which the monarchy can help the centre hold during an age of alleged civilisation clash is to offer a non-religious allegiance to the idea of being Thai.

A good king makes possible a self-identification, not in the abstract as in the people or the state, but in the easily perceived, emotionally satisfying and palpable form of an extraordinary national representative, the constitutional monarch.

Although my farang world is far removed from the isolated villages of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala, and there is a significant difference between a sometime resident and a born citizen, I think I share with many Thai Muslims the sense that a wise and benevolent king is in a real sense my ultimate protector in Thailand. Much of the King's outreach has been cast in this role, as the protector of minorities and outsiders, just as the great kings in ages past were protectors of those marginal to mainstream society, whether it be the Yuan emperor taking Marco Polo under his wing, or the Japanese emperors whose Kyoto imperial palace even today is ringed with now more-or-less socially integrated descendants of the former Burakumin outcaste community.

As such, a shared respect for an extraordinary monarch may provide the best way to mend the torn social fabric of Thailand's deep South. A successful reconciliation requires finding common ground and common identity outside the confines of religion and the coercive aspect of the state.

During the past year, when excessive greed on the part of a few individuals again seemed to threaten the generally tightly-knit fabric of Thai society, the King quietly pleaded for reason and justice to prevail.

As an American of Irish descent, I was brought up as a republican and democrat, well-versed in the perils of British monarchy, the plainspoken rejection of which has shaped both American and Irish political ideology.

But as a sometime resident of Thailand, I have been privileged to see a wise and benevolent king bring justice, identity and pride to a people struggling with an imperfect import of America's imperfect democracy.

Long Live the King!