The sharper edge to traveling in Asia

WoWasis Banned Book review: Thailand, ‘A Kingdom in Crisis’ by Andrew MacGregor Marshall

Written By: herbrunbridge - Mar• 19•15

MarshallKingdomCrisisThe most talked-about topic in Thailand is also the least talked-about. The controversy on succession plans revolving around the eventual death of King Rama IX, Bhumibol Adulyadej is something everyone discusses, but only in private. To do so in public invites a prison sentence under Thailand’s draconian lèse-majesté laws. As Andrew MacGregor Marshall points out in his A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century (2015, ISBN 978-1-78360-057-1) you can even be imprisoned for an offense seemingly as small as suggesting that the King’s portrait doesn’t belong on a wall. What the book doesn’t say is that the King’s name isn’t even mentioned in Thai pressrooms. Instead, he’s referred to as “a very important person,” or some such, while his son, the legal heir to the throne, Crown prince Vajiralongkorn, becomes “a very important person’s son.” And even with this verbal legerdemain, the conversation is extremely hushed.

Marshall’s book, essential to understanding the intricacies surrounding Thailand’s palace, police, military, and ruling class, has been banned in Thailand. It’s easy to see why. The author provides a comprehensive and unexpurgated written background of the potential crisis of royal succession in a manner that would never be allowed in Thailand. He frames his book within a historical context, discussing, among other things, the story behind the public and political deification of past and present kings, Rama IX’s accession to the throne after the death of his brother, Ananda (Rama VIII), and the disquietude over the potential male heir.

A recurrent theme is the involvement of the United States in building what the author refers to as a “fairy tale” in its efforts to thwart communism in Southeast Asia:

Over the decades, thanks to propaganda efforts of the USA, the Thai establishment’s efforts to inculcate royalism, pliant local newspapers and a Western media that lapped up the fairy-tale narrative of an exotic land with a monarchy courageously combating communism, a now-familiar narrative emerged. Thailand was a haven of freedom and harmony in a troubled region, a country full of charming and obliging natives who lived carefree lives, all thanks to the immense hard work and unrivalled moral authority of the saintly saxophone-playing King Bhumibol.

Sarit [Thanarat, Thai army leader] encouraged the royal couple to travel around the country; the rapturous welcome they received in rural areas demonstrated the persistence of old beliefs that the monarch was a semi-divine figure. The Western media joined in the deification of Thailand’s fairy-tale king and queen. But real power lay with the army and the United States. Sarit – and Washington – saw Bhumibol as a puppet whose popularity and sacred aura of royalty could be usefully harnessed to legitimize their control.

The author goes on to describe the physical deterioration of the King and Queen Sirikit and offers a well-researched analysis of the red-shirt and yellow-shirt political factions, as well as the impact of the now-exiled business tycoon and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Marshall postulates on the tea kettle that is Thailand ready to boil over when the king nears death:

Assuming enemies of [Crown Prince] Vajiralongkorn remain in control of the privy council and the military, then when Bhumibol dies a contested succession is highly probable. [Princess] Sirindhorn and her allies will attempt to keep news of the king’s death secret for as long as possible, and will probably keep him artificially breathing on a respirator, to give them time to prepare a decisive strike against the crown prince. It will require an element of constitutional chicanery – some legalistic basis will have to be found to justify blocking Vajiralongkorn, perhaps by falsely claiming that the king left instructions on a posthumous change to his choice of heir, or invoking Article 10 of the 1924 Palace Law, or leaking details of crimes allegedly committed by the prince or diseases he is believed to suffer from to justify claims that he is unfit to reign. There will also have to be a military element to the plan; Vajiralongkorn is aware the royal succession is likely to be contested and has been quietly consolidating power over the past decade, putting allies in important ministries and institutions, and expanding his personal force of soldiers who report directly to him. He is ready to fight for his right to reign if necessary. Thailand’s military would need to quickly find a way to neutralize the crown prince’s forces – and perhaps capture or even kill him. After that, some way would need to be found to ensure parliament formally approved their alternative candidate for monarch. And all of this needs to happen quickly. If the plan hits a roadblock, for a few days or even a few hours, it is likely to fall apart and Vajiralongkorn will be king.

The book is a masterful analysis of the political machinations of a most complex country. Along with David Streckfuss’s Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason, and Lèse-Majesté and Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles, it is essential reading for those desiring to know what goes on behind the scenes in terms of the power structure that defines the Land of Smiles. It’s doubtful if any of these books will appear in Thai bookstores with the foreseeable future.

Marshall’s book is a classic guide to the events that have lead Thailand to where she is today and a sobering pointer to what the near future may hold. Buy it now at the WoWasis eStore.

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  1. […] this year, we reviewed an important book, banned in Thailand, Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s ‘A Kingdom in Crisis,’ which describes the history and reinforcement of laws such as Article […]

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