Magazine article The American Conservative

Thailand Runs Red

Magazine article The American Conservative

Thailand Runs Red

Article excerpt

Demonstrators claiming democracy's mantle threaten the centuries of stability monarchy has provided.

STANDING ON BANGKOK'S Sukhumvit Road last month, I watched the cavalcade of Red Shirt demonstrators on their way to dump hundreds of gallons of blood at the entrance to the prime minister's home. Aside from a few pedestrians who watched with transparent sadness and anxiety, everyone was at least pretending to have a great time. But it was clear, even at that point, that the Red Shirts were not there to make friends or negotiate; their list of demands would be met or they would have to be forcibly removed.

Any talk of organized political factions identifying themselves by the color of their shirts and hitting the streets in the name of an iconic, misunderstood, and persecuted leader should make Westerners - of a certain age and experience, at least - uneasy. In the case of Thailand's insurgent Red Shirts and their rivals, the pro-government Yellow Shirts, apprehension would not be misplaced. The behavior of the Red Shirt leader, exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, reeks of demagoguery. He and his rivals personify political immaturity and irresponsibility.

Perhaps because social ethics have always been the business of the monarch, Thailand's democratic institutions exist in a state of arrested development. Free and reasonably honest elections produce parliaments that pass laws and governments that administer them, giving the appearance of democratic process. But legitimacy - a matter of identity and loyalty - resides elsewhere: in this case, with a 1,000-year-old, very Buddhist monarchical system that has somehow survived into the modern era.

We tend to think of monarchies in European terms. Are they absolute or constitutional? Does the monarch reign or rule? Although the Siamese kings had complete personal control of decisions until the 1920s, the most significant roles of the monarchy here have always been more subtle. Culturally, the monarch is the embodiment of national identity and custodian of the ritual purity necessary to sustain harmony in the complex universe of Theravada Buddhist cosmology. This is how the chaos that stalks neighboring Burma or Cambodia has been kept at bay here.

Thai people believe quite sincerely in all of this, and there's a substantial body of historical evidence that the system works. But now the monarchy is under domestic and international attack in unprecedented ways; it may indeed be failing.

Most Thai people I talked to believe that if the monarchy were functioning as it has in the past, Thailand would never have reached this level of social discord and political instability. The "shirts" are symptoms, not the cause, of this crisis. Sophisticated Thais fear that neither the West nor China understands their monarchical system or takes any interest in its preservation.

Throughout the turmoil that afflicted the region in the decades after the end of World War II and European imperial rule, Thailand has managed to navigate treacherous waters with superb skill. One of the cognomens of Chairman Mao was "The Great Helmsman." In this part of the world, proven repeatedly over 60 turbulent years, the undisputed Great Helmsman is a quiet, gentle, wise, vastly experienced man named Bhumipol Aydulet, otherwise known as Rama IX, the ninth Chakri Dynasty King of Thailand. His personal virtues have undergirded one of the few remaining indigenously legitimate systems of state to survive the twin Western plagues of imperialist rapacity and communist vandalism.

An anecdote will perhaps illume the depth of anxiety in the psyche of Thais who fear for the monarchy. In the late '80s, I watched the film "The Last Emperor" in a Bangkok theater. The movie depicts the compelling personal tragedy of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China, who was overthrown in 1911 and wound up as a Japanese puppet-prince in the doomed creation called Manchukuo. The story had a real meaning for Thais, who are well aware of the horrors that befell their Chinese cousins as the delusion-ridden Imperial court gave way to an unremitting sequence of disasters - war, economic collapse, famine, plagues, tyranny, and vicious repression of a scale and duration inconceivable to Western sensibilities. …

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