Tears in the Land of Smiles What will Thailand do without its father?
For most of us, Thailand is synonymous with exotic beaches, wildlife safaris, and tropical fruit unheard of in our part of the world – a well-deserved, yet too narrow portrait. Less is known, to the international public, about its social fabric and political struggles, although there are important evolutions to observe and discuss in these areas. Long story short, Thailand is one of the very few countries currently governed by a military junta, following a successful overthrow of the elected civilian government in May 2014, the second episode of its kind in the last decade. In fact, this country carries a long history of abrupt regime changes, having survived 19 coups in the past century, out of which 12 successful ones. In its oscillations between military authoritarianism and constitutional democracy, Thailand represents an interesting, rare mixture of monarchy, military rulers and civil politicians, being open and modern, yet unique in Oriental specificity.
Against this backdrop of political unrest, both tourists and investors may sometimes be driven away at the expense of economic growth, since the country’s economy is largely based on tourism and foreign investment. Despite the modern roads, luxurious resorts and impressive buildings that may trick the eye, Thailand is still strongly affected by poverty and inequality. While the latter phenomena are mostly noticeable in rural areas or small towns, Bangkok itself is also a city of strong contrasts, with lofty skyscrapers rising next to poor shops where owners sell everything they can in order to make a living. Economic growth is therefore crucial for Thailand to solve its pressing economic problems, yet, as in any other society, economics and politics are inextricably linked, which places the need for (political) stability at the core of the entire issue.
Mourning the late sovereign
However, not too long ago, the country went through what can be considered as the most challenging times in its recent history, being covered in a shroud of unprecedented sadness following the death of its longtime leader. In October 2016, Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who was also the world's longest-reigning monarch, passed away at the age of 88, after 70 years as head of state. The country entered a one-year mourning period, while the formal coronation of his son, although officially named as the king’s successor, might be months, or even years away. It feels like time has frozen for Thailand, and nothing else seems to matter in these moments of collective grief and mourning. Meanwhile, in the absence of an officially appointed king, the current chairman of the Privy Council (the committee of the monarch’s advisors) is serving as regent pro tempore. While media outlets worldwide massively reported this news, their focus has been on describing the event or providing travel advice to foreigners visiting the country during the one-year mourning period. Yet, what matters more is how the Thai people perceive and cope with the death of their king, and the implications of the passing of a father to the nation for their future.
Against warnings issued by international media, tourists are barely impacted by this new, somber context. All that is requested from them is common sense behavior – nothing different than the usual behavior based on respect, decency and good manners people should usually have, no matter the context. Nevertheless, the locals’ response is what might be surprising for an outsider. In fact, one cannot understand the momentousness of this event and the sadness it brought among its nation until actually seeing how the Thai people still grieve for their king. Pictures of King Bhumibol placed at the entrance of most buildings, on highways, and in almost every intersection across the country, and hundreds of meters of black and white cloth meticulously hanged around the fence of every public institution highlight for the passers-by the importance of Thailand’s loss. Moreover, messages of mourning on cars and buses, black ribbons on every worker’s uniform, and hundreds of people dressed completely in black waiting for hours in line at the entrance of the Grand Palace in Bangkok (where the remains of the king rest) – they all speak highly about the central place the former monarch holds in the heart of Thailand’s people. For us, the Europeans, such a strong display of grief may seem surprising. Indeed, presidents come and go, political leaders are disliked rather than venerated, and the monarchies that still exist in Europe adopt a less personalist approach. But for Thailand, the monarchy has a sacred dimension, and Thai people revere their king with a quasi-religious fervor.
Looking for a new balancer
It is widely recognized that King Bhumibol played a pivotal role in the development of modern Thailand, being seen as a stabilizing parental figure in a country affected by political turmoil and numerous coups. Despite being a constitutional monarch with limited formal powers, his huge popularity gave him great moral authority and informal influence, which he exerted with unifying purposes, acting as a liaison between the military, the politicians and the people. Throughout his reign, the king has been put in the position to work with both military-dominated and democratically elected administrations. Its supporters point out that it is exactly this which made him an excellent mediator who, while accepting his limited constitutional powers, managed to work well with whichever regime prevailed in Thailand.
Through their existence, or through their disappearance, political leaders have the power to change the faith of a nation. In the case of Thailand, the death of King Bhumibol created a vacuum at the heart of Thai politics, paving the way for a a new, uncertain era. During the recent period of political calm that started after the 2014 coup, the Thai economy managed to recover, but now political instability could take over as the status quo changes, with consequences over the economic life. King Bhumibol managed to skillfully maintain the balance of power in Thailand's turbulent political environment, and observers claim that now the balance may tilt. The question is to which side?