Disclaimer: Warwick ASEAN Conference would like to clarify that all opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ and editors’ own.
BY NICOLE CHEUNG
Phuket has long been renowned for its glittering nightlife – bars and nightclubs line Bangla Road in Patong, blasting The Chainsmokers’ newest hits whilst friendly Thais approach wide-eyed tourists, recommending “ping-pong shows” with a wink. However, on 13 October 2016, entertainment venues fell silent, and drinking alcohol in public was banned to mourn the passing of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The nation-wide restriction on celebrating ‘joyful events’ for the next 30 days at the expense of a dip in tourism marks the country’s immense respect and love for the late King, who is regarded as integral to Thailand’s national identity and unity.
Amidst the country’s turbulent political history, the late King acted as a force for continuity and tradition, using his influence to alleviate instances of civil and political unrest that threatened the stability of the country. The late King is looked upon as the ‘People’s King’, and his long reign has arguably come to define the Thai monarch. As such, with the passing of the late King and uncertainties regarding the succession of the throne, Thailand is thrown into a state of anxiety and upheaval. While the impact of the late King’s passing on Thailand’s political stability has been widely discussed by foreign reporters, it might also be worthwhile to consider the effect that the late King’s passing will have on the country’s national identity.
Thailand’s national identity may be broadly defined as the union of characteristics unique to the Thai society and its people. This has allowed Thailand to maintain a strong sense of cultural identity, or “Thainess”, amidst the deluge of external influences and threats throughout its long history. Arguably, Thailand’s national identity and unity is founded on two fundamental characteristics – its monarchy and its dominant religion, Buddhism.
Buddhism, followed by 93.6% of the population, has long played a symbolic role in shaping Thailand’s national identity. However, in recent years, Buddhism has increasingly contributed to the political and cultural alienation of Thai Muslims, majority of whom reside in Southern Thailand. Recent terror attacks in Hua Hin and Phuket, suspected to be acts committed by the South Thailand Insurgency, suggest that religious tensions between Buddhism and minority religions may have heightened significantly in Thailand. Given the potentially divisive nature of religion, we therefore suggest that the monarchy might have played a larger role than religion in cultivating national unity in Thailand, by instilling a sense of national belonging among the non-Buddhist Thai community.
The monarchy, which has traditionally been a significant pillar of Thailand’s national identity and unity, serves as a unifying force for different ethnic and political groups under the shared loyalty to the monarch. The Thais’ admiration for the late King is evident – his portraits are displayed proudly in living rooms, shops, and public spaces throughout the country. The Thais’ respect and love for their monarch are also witnessed on an international level – when English football club Leicester City, owned by Thai businessman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, won the Premier League title in May 2016, the Thai staff were quick and eager to celebrate their victory by bringing the late King’s portrait onto the soccer pitch after the match.
In recent years, while there have been increasing reports of political unrest between the two divided political camps, the less-publicised conflict between the Thai Muslims and the state has also continued to heighten. Amidst Thailand’s divisive society, the late King seems to be a rare point of commonality. While Buddhism is the religion most commonly practiced by Thais, the late King recognised ethnic minorities and was able to connect and integrate with them, gaining the trust of Thai Muslims by visiting mosques and interacting with community leaders. As a result, Muslim representatives in Thailand have pledged their loyalty to the monarchy instead of the government, encapsulating the late King’s unifying presence within the country.
However, the legitimacy of Thailand’s monarchy is increasingly at stake. We argue that the legitimacy of the monarchy is necessarily conferred by the late King’s personal popularity among the Thais. The personal legacy of the late King is likely to outweigh the traditional form of unity amassed by the monarchy as an institution. While the respect the late King received in his early years of reign might have been borne out of an obligation to tradition, it has gradually developed into something akin to love with the many commitments the late King made to better the lives of the Thais. In a response to the New York Times, Thanthai Kaenwong, a bartender, proclaimed his love for the late King, expressing that the late King is “the father of all Thais”. Artist Kitithat Ekanansiri, who was interviewed by Al Jazeera, also mentioned that “The king is [his] life”, and the “centre of Thais”. This is representative of the semi-divine status accorded to the late King. Unfortunately, the admiration and popularity enjoyed by the late King do not necessarily render legitimacy to the monarchy in the 21st century, as scholars, media, and pro-democracy activists continue to lend increased scrutiny on the role of the monarchy.
The legitimacy of the monarchy will continue to come into question if Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who has yet to build a following akin to the late King’s, ascends the throne. At the same time, the Thai military junta, the institution’s ultimate defender, is actively policing the behaviour of Thais with the increasing use of its lèse-majesté laws, contributing to a culture of fear in Thailand. In addition, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn’s personal relationship with ousted former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, continues to raise concerns among the military junta. With the late King’s passing, it appears that Thailand will continue to face uncertainties in establishing the legitimacy of the monarch, as well as in relieving tensions between ethnic minorities regarded as living on the fringes of Thai society, and the state. These factors are likely to eventually take a toll on Thailand’s national identity.
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