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Thai king sees his influence waning

Image: Thai King Makes Appearance On Coronation Day
Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej arrives at Siriraj Hospital after he marks the 60th anniversary of his coronation at the Grand Palace on May 5 inBangkok, Thailand.Athit Perawongmetha / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

After deadly street violence 18 years ago, a military strongman and a pro-democracy activist prostrated themselves at the feet of Thailand's king as he lectured the bitter enemies before television cameras like schoolboys after a playground brawl. No more blood was shed on Bangkok's streets.

Today, as Thailand repairs its violence-scarred capital and tries to heal deepening social divisions, two crucial questions hang over the unnerved kingdom: Why didn't King Bhumibol Adulyadej intervene this time, and what is the future of an institution that did so much to hold the country together for more than half a century?

During the two-month crisis, which killed 88 people, injured more than 1,800 and reduced landmark buildings to ashes, the aging and ailing monarch remained virtually silent despite widespread appeals for his intervention — a dramatic contrast to times when just a few words from the palace were enough to pull Thailand back from brink.

Both the anti-government Red Shirt protesters who seized areas of downtown Bangkok and pro-monarchy groups issued the pleas, saying only Bhumibol could save the day.

It is unlikely Thailand will see a replay of 1992, when the king called in Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon, who had earlier staged a coup, and Chamlong Srimuang, leader of mass bloody protests against the strongman. Even then, the king stepped in after the fighting had ceased, "because he has to be sure he has made the right move," said Craig J. Reynolds, a Thai expert at The Australian National University.

The king has been hospitalized since Sept. 19, is confined to a wheelchair and appears frail. His health is cited for his silence by many Thais, with some speculating that he is also just too depressed to act at seeing the country spiraling downwards toward the end of his nearly 64-year reign.

'Slow to weigh in'
But there may be other reasons. The king in recent years has lost some of his semi-divine aura as opposing political camps sought to drag him into the political fray, often using "lese majeste," a law criminalizing offenses against the monarchy punishable by up to 15 years in prison, as a weapon against one another. If Bhumibol had acted, or acts now, the old magic may not work, thus further weakening the institution.

Some academics and persons with close knowledge of royal affairs say the king probably could not have stopped the latest violence because the conflicts are too deeply rooted and his words no longer sacred.

"The last thing he wants to do is to try and fail to use his influence. This explains why even at the height of his health and powers, he typically was slow to weigh in," said Danny Unger, a Thailand expert at Northern Illinois University.

Other things have also changed, including the very discussion of the monarchy's future — a topic once taboo or merely whispered about.

Numerous anti-monarchy websites have surfaced — although they are routinely blocked by censors in Thailand. In academic circles, there is debate whether royal rule has hindered democracy's progress.

Succession also is an issue. By all evidence, Bhumibol is widely revered, but Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, his probable successor, lacks the king's stature and experience, and earlier had to publicly deny stories of nefarious activities. Among the Red Shirts, abiding respect for the king does not necessarily carry over to other members of his family and the institution as a whole.

"Senior advisers in the court and various institutions would be thinking about how the monarchy must be changed to be in tune with changes in Thai society since the economic boom of the early 1990s," Reynolds said.

'Learn to grow up'
Royalists maintain that despite the periodic interjections to restore calm, the king has fundamentally always held himself above the political fray, and that stepping into Thailand's worst crisis in modern history would have just intensified the conflict as one or both sides tried to claim his favor.

The monarchists say the king has no more power than the queen of England, only moral authority based on his lifetime of good deeds, and that it is not fair that Thais depend on a sick, 82-year-old man as in the past.

"People should learn to grow up and solve the problems by themselves," said Siriporn Nogsuan Sawasdee, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

Bhumibol, the only king born on U.S. soil, acquired this remarkable authority in large part through grueling labor on behalf of the have-nots, especially in rural areas. During the 1970s and 1980s, he traveled 18,600 miles each year by car, helicopter and sometimes hiking into remote villages to solve problems of water, food, health, education and even family squabbles.

Helped by a highly active palace publicity machine, reverence for the world's longest reigning monarch soared as he made personal connections with thousands of villagers across the country.

"They say that a kingdom is like a pyramid: the king on top and the people below. But in this country it's upside down," the king once told The Associated Press in a rare interview, jokingly pointing to his neck and shoulders. "That's why sometimes I have a pain around here."

The tainting of the royal image may have begun in 2005, when self-proclaimed protectors of the monarchy known as Yellow Shirts took to Bangkok's streets for mass protests of then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who many believed planned to overthrow the institution.

Politicians and others accused one another of having broken the lese majeste law, often presenting fanciful evidence. Some were jailed on charges of insulting the king or his family.

Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 military coup, which his supporters say was ordered by the head of the king's Privy Council, Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda. In 2008, Queen Sirikit attended the funeral of a slain Yellow Shirt protester, furthering suspicions of the pro-Thaksin Red Shirts.

"It has been clear since 2006 that the current powers that be within the palace sit on the anti-Thaksin side of politics," said Andrew Walker of The Australian National University. The government also has accused certain Red Shirt leaders of a republican plot against the monarchy.

Damage to the monarchy from the recent crisis remains to be assessed.

"For now, the Red Shirts still love their king. The anti-monarchy Reds do exist, but they are not the majority," Siriporn said.

"The monarchy remains the center of Thais' hearts. The absence of intervention from the palace in this unrest sets a precedent for the role of monarchy in times of crises in the future," she said. "If we want to pursue real democracy, there is no place for the higher institution to be involved."

It is not clear, Reynolds said, whether the royal establishment will be easily amenable to the changes required in years to come.

"The Thai monarchy is not a monolithic institution," he said, adding there are four main palaces: for the king, the queen, the crown prince and Crown Princess Sirindhorn. "They each have their supporters in the public and in various institutions. The members of the royal family have cultivated these linkages through the many decades of the reign."