THE old Indonesian proverb “Raja alim disembah, raja zalim disanggah” (A pious king is worshipped, a despotic king is defied) can probably explain what is now going on in Thailand. The current waves of street protests mark demands for reform in the royal family and the resignation of the prime minister.
The first demand is very complicated and can only materialise very gradually, but the second demand will be much easier for the Thai political elite to realise.
Sooner or later, the royal family has no choice but to readjust itself to the global wave of democratisation, and the military has few alternatives but to stop the long-held coup tradition and let civil society determine the future of the great nation.
Thailand is one of Asean’s most important members. It was in Bangkok that Asean was born, on Aug 8,1967.
Thailand is now in a serious leadership crisis and probably in its most critical situation in the last few decades. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha looks very confident he can handle the protests, which have occurred almost every day. The former army general has also played down the power of social media and the aspirations of millennials, many of whom are under 30.
However, the PM has to sleep with two “enemies” now: the king and the new army chief.
The situation would not have turned critical had Prayut voluntarily stepped down two years ago, just before Thailand took its turn as the Asean chair. Now, he has ruled the country for six years, which is just too long for a coup leader, as other generals may want a taste of power themselves.
I had a personal experience with Prayut in 2018. It was a scary moment for me.
On July 31,2018, The Jakarta Post printed my commentary titled, “Don’t let Thai junta leader chair Asean next year”, just as Asean foreign ministers were holding their annual meeting in Singapore. Afterward, Singapore was expected to hand over the regional group’s rotating chairmanship to Thailand.
“Who’s [the] Jakarta [Post]? Did Indonesia say this? Did the Indonesian government say this? Media is media. End of story, ” Thai media quoted Prayut as saying in reaction to the piece.
“Why? Why do you ask this sort of question? Any more questions that could stir up conflict?”
In the article, I argued that Indonesia should push other Asean members to prevent the military junta leader from chairing Asean because he had toppled a democratically elected government. The Thai junta did not deserve the position amid a wave of democratisation in the region.
“Thailand’s neighbors should help it to regain its reputation as not just a role model for economic development and good governance, but also as a nation that ensures civilian supremacy.”
Of course, according to the Asean schedule, Thailand chaired the bloc last year. On March 24,2019, Thailand eventually held a general election. Just do a Google search to find out how the Thai people reacted to the result.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej ruled the country for 70 years until his death on Oct 13,2016. He was internationally acknowledged as a leader who guided his nation to sustainable prosperity and stability. There have been 13 military coups since 1932, but the king was always in full command of the government and was adored and respected by the people.
But his son, Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, clearly did not inherit the authority and enormous spiritual power from his father. Thai friends often describe their prince as a “womaniser and big spender”, while his sister, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, is quite popular in Indonesia.
Since his coronation in 2016, the new king has been in the international media spotlight – but simply because of his many mistresses, love affairs and extravagant lifestyle. He spends much of his time in Germany. Young people in Thailand are upset with the king, especially amid the recession as a result of Covid-19.
It is likely beyond even the wildest imagination of the Thai Royal Palace that a Thai queen would be humiliated by antigovernment protesters with their antiroyal chanting. It has never happened before. Reuters reported that the unforgiven embarrassment came as the royal Rolls Royce motorcade carrying Thai Queen Suthida and Crown Prince Dipangkorn drove past
jeering demonstrators outside Bangkok’s Government House on Oct 14.
King Maha did not issue any statement about the public harassment of the queen. But PM Prayut ordered more crackdowns on student protesters. The incident shows that the target of the protests is not only PM Prayut, who seized power in 2014, but also the royal family, despite the lese majeste law.
It is only a matter of time before Prayut will reap the karma.
The newly appointed army chief, Gen. Narongpan Jittkaewtae, is naturally on top of the list of potential new coup leaders.
“I will protect and develop the army so that it stands as a key institution of security that sustains the nation and throne, ” Narongpan, who succeeded Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, said last month.
Thailand needs the monarchy as a key unifier of the nation. But the country cannot ignore the young generation’s quest for a modern and law-abiding institution. The monarchy has to adjust itself to the new era of Thailand. For Prayut, six years in power is more than enough. He was outraged by my simple article two years ago and questioned my motives.
I, like many Thai people, only want him to demonstrate his statesmanship as a true general by listening to the vox populi and following his conscience. — The Jakarta Post/ANN
The writer is a senior editor at The Jakarta Post.
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