The cult of a dead king

The Myanmar Times - - News - NARISARA VIWATCHARA news­room@mm­times.com

AS a re­sult of King Bhu­mi­bol Adulyadej’s death on Oc­to­ber 13, Thai­land’s “Big Brother” men­tal­ity has height­ened. Ul­tra-monar­chists are watch­ing over ev­ery­one’s be­hav­iour and scru­ti­n­is­ing their con­ver­sa­tions to de­ter­mine if they may con­sti­tute lese ma­jeste. In this en­vi­ron­ment, mob rule pre­vails.

Im­me­di­ately af­ter the pass­ing of King Bhu­mi­bol, there were re­mark­able mass out­pour­ings of grief from black-clad Thai peo­ple. This has also un­leashed a small but vo­cal force of ex­treme monar­chists, in­clud­ing on­line scouts scour­ing the in­ter­net to pun­ish any­one per­ceived to have in­sulted the king and his fam­ily.

On Oc­to­ber 15, Mai Phaka­porn, a mid­dle-aged woman, was slapped by a fe­male ul­tra-monar­chist af­ter she got off a bus in Bangkok – in front of an uni­formed po­lice of­fi­cer who did noth­ing to help her or to ar­rest the per­pe­tra­tor of this as­sault. She was al­leged to have de­famed the monar­chy in the bus and was over­heard by her at­tacker. It was later re­vealed that the 55-year-old was men­tally ill.

On Oc­to­ber 16, a video livestreamed to Face­book showed a roy­al­ist mob kick­ing and beat­ing a man and forc­ing him to pros­trate him­self in front of King Bhu­mi­bol’s photo and make an apol­ogy for al­legedly in­sult­ing the monar­chy on­line.

Dur­ing the beat­ing, which took place in Chon­buri east of Bangkok, the man was forced to yell out, “I didn’t mean to do it. I love the king! It’s my fault.” His em­ployer ad­mit­ted to giv­ing the man’s ad­dress to vig­i­lantes.

On Oc­to­ber 17, a woman ac­cused of in­sult­ing the heir-ap­par­ent, Crown Prince Maha Va­ji­ra­longkorn, was pub­licly in­tim­i­dated, hit, hu­mil­i­ated and forced to grovel be­neath a por­trait of Bhu­mi­bol in a sub­urb of Bangkok. The 43-year-old, Uma­porn Sarasat, was jeered by a crowd of 500 an­gry monar­chists as she pros­trated in front of the late king’s im­age.

The cult-like frenzy of cry­ing, and the beat­ing of non-roy­al­ist or an­ti­monar­chists Thais, in the wake of their beloved King Bhu­mi­bol’s death, is a re­sult of long-term in­doc­tri­na­tion. This “pro­gram­ming” comes down to three key fac­tors.

First, is the coun­try’s strict lese ma­jeste law, or Ar­ti­cle 112. The laws pro­tect the most se­nior mem­bers of Thai­land’s royal fam­ily from in­sult or threat.

Ar­ti­cle 112 of Thai­land’s crim­i­nal code says any­one who “de­fames, in­sults or threat­ens the king, the queen, the heir-ap­par­ent or the re­gent” will be pun­ished with up to 15 years in prison.

This has re­mained vir­tu­ally un­changed since the cre­ation of the coun­try’s first crim­i­nal code in 1908, although the penalty was tough­ened in 1976.

The rul­ing has also been en­shrined in all of Thai­land’s re­cent con­sti­tu­tions, which state, “The King shall be en­throned in a po­si­tion of revered wor­ship and shall not be vi­o­lated. No per­son shall ex­pose the King to any sort of ac­cu­sa­tion or ac­tion.”

In other words, one can only praise the royal fam­ily. Any slight hint of neg­a­tiv­ity will re­sult in lese ma­jeste and jail terms. In­deed, hun­dreds of lese mejeste pris­on­ers are scat­tered through­out the king­dom. And there are many who have fled over­seas – I am one of them.

This strict law not only pre­vents open dis­cus­sion but forces Thai peo­ple to live in strict rev­er­ence of the roy­als and bow down in un­ques­tion­able obe­di­ence.

The sec­ond is that, for much of his reign, King Bhu­mi­bol was a mys­ti­cal fig­ure.

Ever since the un­timely death of his elder brother, King Ananda, the young Prince Bhu­mi­bol be­came reclu­sive and rarely gave in­ter­views. He was also rarely seen in pub­lic, ex­cept to de­liver the spo­radic New Year or birth­day speech.

In the main, his sub­jects did not truly know him or what he was truly think­ing. In­deed, he be­haved in a way that seemed a lot more like an aloof god or de­tached demi-god than a monarch, or a “lov­ing fa­ther of the na­tion”, as so many have been quick to call him.

How­ever, there were pe­ri­ods, ear­lier in his reign, when he did con­nect with his sub­jects – meet­ing them in the coun­try’s fields where he dis­pensed de­vel­op­ment largesse and his wis­dom.

But by the end of the 20th cen­tury and start of the 21st, Thais have mainly seen a king who was shrouded by sick­ness, en­sconced by elites, and tac­itly ap­prov­ing of coups that were the salt in the wounds of the peo­ple’s over­turned demo­cratic de­sires.

Third is the yearly pro­mo­tional bud­get from tax­pay­ers’ money, which is used to pos­i­tively por­tray the royal fam­ily pub­li­cally. Thai­land’s rul­ing junta has sig­nif­i­cantly in­creased the bud­get of this well-oiled PR ma­chine – al­lo­cat­ing up to 18 bil­lion baht, or around US$513 mil­lion.

This mas­sive sum of money is used to pay for news and pub­lic­ity ma­te­rial about the royal fam­ily and the monar­chy across tele­vi­sion and ra­dio sta­tions through­out the day, seven days a week.

In ad­di­tion, the bud­get pro­vides for the pub­li­ca­tion of tee­ter­ing piles of pro­mo­tional book­lets for chil­dren in el­e­men­tary and high school. The huge posters of the king hang­ing in all ma­jor street cor­ners also come from this find. All this pro­pa­ganda is paid for by the peo­ple.

Which raises the ques­tion: Is the monar­chy loved from true ado­ra­tion, or is ado­ra­tion merely the prod­uct of ad­ver­tis­ing? – New Man­dala

Narisara Viwatchara was charged with lese ma­jeste in 2009 for post­ing an ar­ti­cle about the royal cou­ple in an in­ter­net chat room. A war­rant for her ar­rest was is­sued. She was alerted and fled to the United States.

Photo: EPA

A mourner holds up a por­trait of the late King Bhu­mi­bol Adulyadej at a com­mem­o­ra­tive event on Oc­to­ber 22.

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