The model of the king’s water aerator and the giant “shrine” to his achievements in Bangkok’s Rama IX park. Source: Asean Economist
Thailand’s unappealing military junta is crushing the kingdom’s spirit and preventing reform of a critical institution: the monarchy.
Lying behind so many tensions in Thailand is the fate of the ailing 88-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej. He is hardly seen in public these days and some analysts believe the military is determined to hold power when he dies in order to protect its privileged position in Thai society.
His face adorns every lamppost in the kingdom and there is a concerted effort to boost support for his less-popular eldest child Maha Vajiralongkorn as he prepares to take the throne.
Few Thais feel the same affection for him as they do for his father, the world’s longest-serving monarch.
Even before the 2014 military coup, the nominally free Thai media was unable to discuss the role of the monarchy, being forced into using cryptic phrases that are often ambiguous or misleading.
Rama IX park in Bangkok’s eastern suburbs was landscaped to honour Bhumibol and a large, secular pagoda in the middle of the park is indicative of many of Thailand’s problems.
The giant concrete wigwam would make an ideal spot for orchestral performances. Music would waft across the lake that surrounds the building. Unfortunately, the only music that could be performed there would be the king’s own jazz compositions as the entire building is a shrine to the monarch.
The auditorium would make an excellent theatre for Shakespeare but the bard’s political themes would no doubt prove unpalatable to the authorities. Performances would probably have to be restricted to the shows written by members of the royal family.
So the impressive structure is almost entirely unused.
It has displays dedicated to the royal polymath, showing how he studied the M16 assault rifle and modified its design for the manufacturer, his mastery of Thai farming, photography, music, yachting and other endeavours.
In the attractive park’s many ponds float contraptions with large paddles that are designed by Bhumibol to aerate water.
A model of one sits on top of a plinth in the park with plaques in different languages explaining how it was the king’s personal design to solve the nation’s freshwater problems.
It is noticeable that the machines throughout the park are seldom turned on and it would be a challenge to find one in use outside Thailand, where the royal seal of approval carries less weight.
The Thais are forced to mark time while their monarch remains alive but incapable of restraining his generals. The people are stuck in a human-rights limbo until the military decides it is time to relinquish power.
Their fate is made more galling by the democratic progress of Thailand’s great rival, neighbouring Myanmar.
As Myanmar casts off the shackles of decades of dictatorship, Thailand is increasingly regressing into a military tyranny, where people are imprisoned for criticising the king’s dog, foreign ambassadors are threatened for speaking out and there are numerous unexplained deaths.
Ratchapakdi Park’s giant statues
The military recently around US$12 million constructing seven 14-metre statues of Thai kings in Ratchapakdi Park on army-owned land near the resort town of Hua Hin.
The term “park” is used loosely as it is actually more like a giant car park with little foliage.
Allegations of corruption hang around the enormous structures, with US$11,000 donations assigned to a single palm tree and a seat at a Chinese fund-raising banquet costing US$38,000. But the army cleared itself after a one-week investigation and although it was forced last month to launch a second probe.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak wrote in the Straits Times: “The park reeks of extortion, commissions and misallocated public funds now lining private pockets, but the several military-appointed committees invariably came up with exoneration, even though the justice minister (also a retired army general) conceded that graft took place.”
This week saw the return of two of the military’s old foes, ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck.
In a charm offensive they were distributing books praising their achievements in a move that suggests the family wants to return to power and is keen to irritate the junta.
Thailand’s military-backed royalist elite despises Yingluck and Thaksin. But they remain hugely popular in their traditional powerbase in the country’s north and northeast, partly on the back of populist policies like subsidised health care and loan schemes.
This mass support gives the Shinawatras a solid parliamentary majority whenever democratic elections are held.
Many analysts believe their party would still comfortably win a general election, which the junta has vowed to hold next year although several efforts have been made to delay previous polls.
It might be an overstretched analogy but the plight of Egypt since 2011 presents parallels with the Thai malaise.
Both countries have a large middle-class elite and military centred on a culturally dominant capital but are incapable of winning a democratic majority in a proper election.
The middle classes and the military in both Thailand and Egypt are, however, more than capable of preventing a democratically elected government from ruling effectively, creating the inevitable tendency towards a return to junta rule after brief experiments with democracy.
While the popular choice in Egypt appears to be the Muslim Brotherhood or its allies, in Thailand the agrarian population has largely backed Thaksin’s parties at the ballot box in recent decades.
Members of the so-called elite in Bangkok muse about how democracy should be manipulated to give them disproportionate power at the ballot box.
Many members of the largely fair-skinned Thai elite, often of Chinese descent, have a thinly veiled contempt for the rural majority that backs Thaksin and his allies.
The darker skin tones that are prevalent among manual workers are associated with the Thaksin supporters, explaining the willingness among many in Bangkok to abandon democracy until the people can be persuaded to elect a more appropriate prime minister.
While Thailand battles a bloody Muslim insurrection in the deep south, new diplomatic tensions with the west, a democratic impasse at home, a human-rights crisis and a monarchy in a period of instability, one message is abundantly clear: the military does not have the answers.
The beach opposite Ratchapakdi Park near Hua Hin. For all its faults, Thailand remains a delightful country.