Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Homosociality in Modern Thai Political Culture

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Homosociality in Modern Thai Political Culture

Article excerpt

'Nai nai' samai ratchakan thi 6 [Men of the inner palace during the sixth reign] By CHANAN YOTHONG

Bangkok: Matichon, 2013. Pp. xxxi + 294. Notes, Bibliography, Plates, Drawings.

'Watthanantham nakrian chai luan khong "wajirawut witthayalai" nai yuk "rongrian mahat lek luang'" [The all-male student culture in Vajiravudh College when it was the Royal Pages Bodyguard School], Warasan an 4, 1 (Apr.-June 2012): 179-87.

One of the most intriguing social spaces in Thai history is the court of the sixth Bangkok king, Vajiravudh (r. 1910-25), and the circle of young men he cultivated there. These men were deeply loyal to the king, and he to them. The relationships were emotional, affirming, intense, and physical; for many of the men, these close relationships of their youth lasted into adulthood and marriage, if they married, and many of them did.

It is said, rather too coyly, that the sixth reign was controversial. The more forthright assessment both at the time and in the decades since is that it was a disaster. Vajiravudh became heir to the Siamese throne unexpectedly in 1895, when the Crown Prince, his older half-brother, died of typhoid in his late teens. The king was not all that interested in governing, nor was he very good at it, so the argument goes. He spent extravagantly on his courtiers as well as on himself, and by the end of the reign, the kingdom's finances had fallen into disarray. To avoid personal bankruptcy, a foreign loan had to be raised for the king. (1) 'The prestige and dignity of the throne took a great beating under his irresponsible rule,' says one Thai historian, and 'his reign became a nightmare for those who had spent their lives in strengthening and serving the monarchy.' (2) Cartoonists at the time mocked the king's competence, tastes, and appearance mercilessly; a British official writing back to London towards the end of the reign reported that the local press referred to Vajiravudh as 'Baldy' and 'Fatty'. (3) The king was powerless to put a stop to the ridicule. So much for royal absolutism. It would not be stretching the evidence to say that much of what King Bhumiphol, the incumbent monarch, has done in his six decades on the throne has been aimed at recovering from the disaster of the sixth reign. Successful dynasts have long memories and are haunted by the poor reputations of their predecessors.

Vajiravudh's preference for the company of men, indeed his insistence on the company of particular young men, led to the appointment of favourites who had neither the experience nor the rapport with the bureaucracy and senior members of the royal family to manage the affairs of state. (4) About the male favourites and what intimacy with them might imply for modern Thai political culture, discretion has been the better part of frankness. It is only recently that historians writing in English, let alone in Thai, have felt able to say that the king was homosexual. (5) Public discussion of sex in the lives of the high and mighty is taboo, a private matter, particularly for members of the royal family. Many Thai people over a certain age find such discussion offensive.

Benjamin Batson, who offers a constructive verdict on the reign, said guardedly that the king surrounded himself 'with male courtiers from relatively obscure backgrounds'. A thesis written by Stephen Greene in the early 1970s devoted a section to 'royal favourites', but did not explore the connections between these men, their careers, and the king's personality, except to say that they wielded much power. (6) Another historian was forthcoming about criticism of the king's homosexual lifestyle at the expense of the nation, yet could not gauge the extent to which this was public knowledge and what it might have meant for the emerging public sphere. (7) Benedict Anderson was possibly the first modern scholar to break the taboo and use the 'h word' in 1978, saying that the 'politics, style, and mistakes' of the reign cannot be understood without taking into account the king's homosexuality. …

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