Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Between Polygyny and Monogamy: Marriages of the Political Elite and the Thai Regime of Images

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Between Polygyny and Monogamy: Marriages of the Political Elite and the Thai Regime of Images

Article excerpt

A well-known photograph of King Chulalongkorn (r. 1868-1910) shows him with eleven of his sons at Eton College in the United Kingdom. Published a few days after the king's passing, the original caption of the picture read, "The Siamese Succession well provided for" (Illustrated London News 1910). The eleven sons of Chulalongkorn shown in the picture are neatly posed according to their heights, in a way that suggests their ages and thus perhaps their places in the line of succession. However, this latter assumption would be a misconception. In Thailand royal succession was not based on age alone. Rather, a prince's place in the line of succession depended on a number of factors, one of them being one's mother and her status. Through the time of Chulalongkorn Thai kings, and the Thai political elite more generally, practised polygyny. The sons of Chulalongkorn shown in the picture taken at Eton had several different mothers. (1) They embodied the political importance of polygynous marriage under the pre-1932 absolute monarchy. And yet another well-known picture of Chulalongkorn shows the king with a very different kind of family: a monogamous one. The photograph portrays Chulalongkorn with Queen Saowapha and their five sons. No reference allows the viewer even to suspect that the king could have any other wives. This picture of the royal family seems to be in line with monogamous notions of a nuclear family.

These two very different pictures show that the king both practised polygyny and performed monogamy. They appear to represent a transitional stage in a country undergoing wide-ranging modernization. The monogamous family only performed by King Chulalongkorn was apparently transformed into practice by the kings that succeeded him and adopted by law in 1935. With the legal adoption of monogamy, Thailand's modernization process as it related to the family seemed to have reached its conclusion. Nevertheless, almost a century later the Thai political elite continues to straddle polygyny and monogamy. Family pictures of politicians today feature only two to three children who share the same parents. Most contemporary politicians seemingly have monogamous marriages. Yet, time and time again, newspapers report on politicians' allegedly having minor wives. Is the Thai political elite practising monogamy or polygyny? Do the family portraits of contemporary politicians represent reality? Or are they just examples of the "Thai regime of images", which Peter Jackson characterizes as a form of power that polices and controls actions and discourse in the public sphere, while leaving the same actions unchallenged if they take place in private (Jackson 2004)? If so, the family pictures of politicians' could present the public image of a heterosexual monogamous life, while polygyny and non-normative sexualities are tolerated when politicians practise them in private and they do not come to the attention of the public. Polygyny and monogamy would in that case coexist as multiple truths.

This article seeks to resolve these questions through an examination of the institution of marriage as members of the Thai political elite have practised it since the promulgation of the 1935 law. It draws both on textual evidence such as memoirs, cremation volumes and newspaper articles and on extensive interviews with Thai politicians and their relatives. I conducted ninety-five interviews during two stretches of fieldwork, February-August 2010 and May-August 2011. The majority of interviews were semi-structured interviews conducted either at parliament in Bangkok or at the offices or homes of politicians. Participant observation during the 2011 election campaign, weddings and funerals also offered the opportunity for less formal interviews. The main objective of fieldwork was to investigate kinship politics in Thailand. The role of politicians' marriages emerged as a significant theme during the interview process. Politicians may represent a narrow social group. …

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