Junta ramps up its royalism with mass loyalty ceremony
Thailand approves $358 million cash handout for poor
From civil servants to school children, soldiers and celebrities, tens of thousands of Thais took part in a mass “oath of loyalty” yesterday to the country’s recently deceased monarch. King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s death on October 13 after a seven-decade reign has sparked mass displays of grief and left the politically-divided nation without its only unifying figure.
Yesterday’s ceremony, which was ordered by the country’s arch royalist junta leadership, was a vivid illustration of both Thai devotion to their late monarch and how the country’s military rulers have further ramped up the kingdom’s well-oiled royalist propaganda machine since Bhumibol’s death. Junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who seized power in 2014, led 3,000 civil servants in a ceremony in Bangkok in front of a giant portrait of the king. “We will remain in allegiance to all the kings of the Chakri dynasty until we die,” Prayut said in the oath, which called on Thais to “respect the law” and emulate the king’s teachings.
The scene was repeated up and down the country with all public servants, state employees and armed forces personnel expected to take part. Thai television channels broadcast footage of children on their knees forming a giant representation of the number 9 - a reference to Bhumibol’s official title Rama IX. Channel 3, Thailand’s most popular entertainment channel, showed its large cast of celebrities dressed in black, taking the oath and singing the royal anthem.
The military has long portrayed itself as the ultimate defender of the monarchy, often using perceived threats to the institution as justification for many of the 12 successful coups they have carried out since the end of absolute rule in 1932.
The relationship was reciprocal, with Bhumibol signing off on their coups. Many saw their 2014 putsch as a move to ensure they were in charge ahead of any succession. Bhumibol’s named successor is Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who has yet to attain his father’s widespread popularity or unifying status. Vajiralongkorn surprised many and veered from tradition by asking to delay his proclamation as king in order to grieve with the nation, according to the junta. That caused initial concern that the succession was unclear, something the junta denied. A military source said yesterday the expected proclamation date was December 1 when Thailand’s rubber-stamp parliament, the body which announced the new monarch, will next meet.
Handout for poor
Meanwhile, Thailand’s military leaders yesterday announced $358 million in cash handouts for some of the kingdom’s poorest people, a surprise giveaway from a junta that decried subsidies by the civilian government it toppled. The move comes as Yingluck Shinawatra, whose democratically elected administration was kicked out in a 2014 coup, faces up to a decade in jail over a generous rice subsidy aimed at the rural poor.
Since seizing power junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha has railed against the rice scheme, which cost Thailand billions of dollars, and vowed to end Thailand’s culture of “populist” government subsidies. But in its latest sop to an increasingly hard-up public, Prayut said $358 million in cash handouts would be released next month. “It’s a measure to help low-income earners,” he told reporters adding the move would be a “stimulus to the economy that would trigger more spending”. Those earning under 30,000 baht ($845) a year will receive a 3,000 baht one-time handout while those earning between 30-100,000 baht will be given 1,500 baht.
Farmers are not included in the latest handout because they had already received financial help, he added. The military has stifled opposition to its rule by clamping down on rights but has found economic success more elusive. Although the economy has picked up since the coup-with a forecast growth rate of 3.2 percent this year - high household debt, weakening exports, slumping foreign investment and low consumer confidence crimp what was once one of the region’s strongest economies.
Farmers, especially in the enormous rice and rubber sectors, have been hit hard by low commodity prices this year. The economic wobbles have seen the junta resort to the kind of populist tactics they vowed to end. Earlier this month the junta approved a rescue package of at least $1.3 billion in subsidies for farmers who agree to delay selling their crops to avoid a glut. Rice is Thailand’s staple dish and one of its main agricultural exports, but also has major political significance as farmers are the backbone of a pro-democracy movement that the junta has suppressed.— Agencies