Thailand may still have been officially mourning the death of King Bhumibol the Great after 70 years on the throne, but Bangkok’s famous Khao San Road was alive with partygoers enjoying a lively night out. The bars with their flashing neon lights and prominent signs like “No ID required” were competing with each other to see who could play the loudest music. The “extra strong cocktails” were flowing and waiters ensured that the beer towers were being kept topped up.
Hawkers walked up an down the strip offering anyone who would listen everything from barbecued insects to colourful bracelets with sleazy slogans which are far too rude to repeat here. Masseurs had set up beds on the street and were doing a roaring trade giving Thai massages. And the pedestrianised street was blocked in parts due to crowds gathering to watch fast-moving brake-dancing shows. It was a scene of ultimate chaos.
Popularised by Alex Garland’s 1997 novel The Beach, Khao San Road has become a rite of passage for backpackers heading off on or returning from a trip along the bumpy roads of southeast Asia. The upper floors of many of the garish entertainment buildings are hostels – some of which look particularly sleazy – and have been welcoming those on a budget since the 1980s.
Arriving in Bangkok just few months after the death of the king in October 2016, I wasn’t sure what to expect as his passing ushered in a year of official mourning. In the immediate aftermath Thai TV channels streamed archive footage celebrating Bhumibol’s rule, while numerous events, such the Bangkok World Film Festival and concerts were postponed. The football season was curtailed, advertising billboards and websites went blank and even Bangkok’s sex workers were ordered off the streets.
It seems I shouldn’t have worried about the city being in shutdown. Most of the loud music in the backpacker area was switched off as per its usual 2am curfew, but there were still places that showed no signs of closing. I found one bar, with soft background music being played, that claimed to be open 24 hours.
But in an area of Bangkok that seemed a million miles from hectic Khao San Road, yet would actually be just a few minutes in a taxi if the city’s traffic wasn’t at a constant virtual gridlock, it wasn’t quite business as usual. While tourists could visit the Grand Palace complex – and go inside the splendid Temple of the Emerald Buddha – the main rooms were closed off to foreigners so that Thai people could pay their respects to the late king.
As I explored the colourful courtyards, I couldn’t help but notice snaked around the edge of the site an extremely long line of mourners, dressed head to toe in black. I was told that there was a six hour wait for them to get to stand next for 20 minutes next to the body of the late king in the throne hall and some people had apparently camped out through the night to be here. The military junta, which seized power in 2014, provided free bus, train and boat transport to help tens of thousands of Thai people from all over the country reach the capital.
Bhumibol was a king that was revered by his people it seemed. But was that love constant over his entire reign?
In 2006 thousands of Thais – many wearing wristbands with the slogan ‘Long Live the King’ – joined the celebrations marking Bhumibol’s 60 years on the thrown. He gave an address from the Royal Plaza, only his third in 60 years, as his subjects watched on. The US ambassador, writing in a confidential cable summed up the public mood: “The multi-day gala offered dramatic and often times moving evidence of the nation’s respect and adoration for its monarch…”
Bhumibol was appointed king in 1946, aged 18, in tragic circumstances – his brother Amanda died in a mysterious episode in which he was shot with his own gun in his bedroom in the Royal Palace. It later transpired that it was Bhumibol who had accidentally shot him and for some time the elite was divided as to whether the new king should be forced to abdicate as a result. But Bhumibol returned to Thailand from self-imposed exile in Switzerland and officially took up his duties in 1951.
Over the years he was portrayed – in everything from school textbooks to daily TV news bulletins – as a monarch that cared about his people. Bhumibol was seen as someone who was happy to be hands-on at solving the big issues of the day, be it providing a solution to Bangkok’s traffic problems or supporting rural projects. He presided, according to most accounts, over a happy country that became known as the ‘Land of Smiles’.
Anyone wanting to find kind words about the king during his many years on the throne does not need to look far. Those interviewed by Time magazine in an article which marked his 72nd birthday in 1999 were a case in point. “Thailand wouldn’t be worth living if we didn’t have him,” said a Bangkok flower seller. And a political scientist told the publication: “He is perhaps the only monarch anywhere who has total love and no fear.”
And the Thais quoted by international media in the immediate aftermath of Bhumibol’s death in October were also very complimentary. Indeed the decision of Thai citizen Suthee Arammetapongsawho to post on Facebook, “To be born, to live and to die is normal. Why get so worked up?,” prompted an angry response from fellow citizens when the words went viral. He was forced to abandon his family shop when it was descended on by an angry mob and he also faced 15 years in prison.
But if you take a longer view, praise for the king wasn’t always consistent over the years. As we shall see, the events of late 2006 – just three months after thousands of supporters turned out to mark his Diamond Jubilee – demonstrate. And rather than being above all the political squabbling amongst the elite over seven decades and suggesting that he had restored democracy after military coups, for much of the time Bhumibol was truly calling the shots.
Telecoms tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra became prime minster in 2001 and was re-elected in 2005 thanks largely to the voters in rural areas. But he was overthrown in 2006, just three months after the king’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, and convicted of corruption in 2008. Thaksin was accused of everything from bringing SARs to Thailand to causing the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.
Some believed at the time that the military and aristocrats did not want Thaksin being in control of parliament when the transition was due to take place following Bhumibol’s death. The military elite worried that Thaskin was getting too close to the controversial Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn – his appointed successor – and they worried that the collaboration between the two would be a dangerous combination, which could lead to them losing influence. They wanted a king that they could manage and it was believed that Thaksin could be a stumbling block on that.
But the military junta was wrong to think that the people would accept the removal of Thaksin and simply move on. There had been many coups over the years, but as the citizens revered the king they tended to believed that he had their best interests at heart and any action taken was to protect Thailand. With Thaksin’s removal it was different. He was a politician – perhaps Thailand’s most popular ever prime minster – that the ordinary people had elected into office. They had hoped the king would step in, but what they didn’t appreciate was that the palace was complicit in the plot.
The conflict between the rural poor and the elite in Bangkok rumbled on for a number of years. ‘Red shirt’ protesters, who had their heart-land in the north and north east of Thailand, blockaded the commercial heart of the capital in May 2010 and demanded new elections. But worse was to come in September when some 10,000 unhappy people turned up from rural Thailand and shouted insults about the king and etched anti-royalist graffiti slogans in Bangkok.
Had Bhumibol had his day?
While the events of 2006 and 2010 may have been a shock to many, in reality they had been a long time in the making. Behind the scenes Thailand has been hugely successful in stopping the world challenging the position of the ruling elite, according to journalist Andrew Macgregor Marshall in his “controversial” 2014 book (which is banned in Thailand) A Kingdom in Crisis:
“The ruling elite use propaganda and enforced behavioural norms to conjure up a fairytale kingdom and even Thais who find royalist fables ridiculous mostly pretend to believe in them and make the effort to behave accordingly. The famous Thai smile is a mask that can conceal any number of emotions. And so Thailand’s people, however unwillingly, generally cooperate in acting out their designated roles in an epic performance directed by the elite.”
For years many ordinary people believed that Bhumibol preferred civilian, rather than military rule and he was seen as someone who won praise for getting democracy back on track. The reality was very different. Bhumibol presided over “a system of absolute power friends,” is how one commentator described it.
Author David Murray wrote in 1996 that “from time to time political parties and a parliamentary system of government have been allowed to operate, usually under prescribed conditions whereby politicians and parliament have been relegated to the position of a bit player on the margins of central decision making. As soon as the politicians have overstepped the bounds placed on their role, the armed forces have mounted yet another successful coup and the country has lapsed again into a period of undemocratic government.”
Thailand’s authoritarian rule in the aftermath of the Second World War (during the conflict it became a vassal state of Japan) was propped up to a large extent by the US. They poured in billions pounds of aid as they saw the Thai regime as an antidote to communism and were therefore happy to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses. The Land of Smiles was, according to Macgregor Marshall and others, a mythical place that didn’t and doesn’t really exist.
Communist regimes seized power in neighbouring countries, such as Vietnam and Cambodia, but this form of rule wasn’t completely immune from Thailand. The Communist party of Thailand gained traction on back of rural resistance in the 1960s and an armed insurgency opposing Bangkok ensued. The King launched the aforementioned projects in rural areas, but whether they actually made a difference is questionable. Some saw the visits as pure media propaganda.
Thailand adopted a system of constitutional monarchy in 1932, following a coup, and ever since then there has been a near constant struggle between (short-lived) elected governments and the military (and aristocratic elite) backing the monarchy.
There have been glimmers of hope in attempts to bring about democracy, not least when in 1975/6 elections were held and the first democratic National Assembly since the 1940s was ushered in. But this milestone was promptly followed in October 1976 by a demonstration at Thammasat University which led to 100 student protesters being massacred. One eyewitness described the carnage to Time magazine:
“Several were beaten close to death, then hanged, or doused with gasoline and set afire. One was decapitated. The bodies of the lynched victims strung up on trees were mutilated by rioters, who gouged out their eyes, slit their throats and lashed them with clubs and chains.”
In the aftermath of the Thammasat massacre – which some say was prompted by a campus play featuring a mock hanging of a character resembling the Crown Prince – authoritarian rule returned to Thailand. Some level of democracy returned in the 1980s, before military seized power again in a coup in 1991. Then in 1992 a civilian government re-emerged following mass demonstrations led by Bangkok’s governor. After a period of stability and prosperity, Thaksin’s Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai party was elected into power in 2001.
Some have highlighted that his administration was far from democratic. “With little political opposition, Thaksin consolidated power in all ranks of government, stifling press criticism and scrutiny of his administration,” noted my Lonely Planet guide, published in 2016. Yes, there were accusations of corruption, but the book’s assessment of him seems to take a pro-military standpoint – perhaps because they don’t want their publications banned by the junta!
The military and aristocrats become deeply worried by Thaksin (not least because the king was nearing death and Thaksin was close to the Crown Prince), so they formed an alliance and brought about the aforementioned 2006 coup. While the Thai Rak Thai party was banned, it did re-emerge the following year and won elections. And yet again the aristocrats weren’t happy so they staged protestors – which closed Bangkok’s airports for a week – and Thaksin was disposed of for a second time. It was these events that would lead to the 2010 protests and the 10,000 Red Shirts descending on Bangkok from rural areas.
Elections were held in 2011 which brought Thaksin’s sister to power, but she also was removed by a military coup in 2014 (the introduction of an amnesty bill which would allowed for Thaksin’s return was the final straw). It is the junta that seized power then that rules Thailand to this day. Furthermore, the constitution was changed meaning that only a third of seats would be elected.
At the start of last December, it was confirmed that the country’s Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn would succeed Bhumibol on the throne. But it is perhaps an understatement to say that Vajiralongkorn has not yet achieved the same level of popularity as his father. As soon as Bhumibol’s death was announced, the stream of stories questioning the Crown Prince’s appropriateness to rule were re-ignited.
In an article with the headline “Thais in turmoil over Prince Charmless,” the Sunday Times attempted to shed some light on Vajiralongkorn’s playboy image by visiting Tutzing, Germany, where the Crown Prince had bought a mansion in 2015. The piece said that his “lavish, jet-setting lifestyle – and love of women, fast cars and poodles – had raised doubts about his suitability as the next king, let alone as controller of one of the world’s greatest royal fortunes, an estimated £25bn in property alone”. Foo Foo, his poodle, his dog (which died in 2016 and was given four days of Buddhist rites) was appointed air chief marshall it noted.
But within Thailand most are fearful of sharing their true views of Vajiralongkorn as a result of the military strictly enforcing lese majeste, a law which punishes severely any criticism of the monarchy. Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code states: “Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heirapparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.”
When I visited a temple, I heard a tourist ask their guide what people thought of the new king. “He’s fine,” she replied before quickly changing the subject.
Thailand is a country where speaking the truth is not permitted, where people are jailed for simply stating objective facts. That was the conclusion of experienced journalist Macgregor Marshall in his 2014 book. “The only way for Thais to solve their tragic political conflict and find a way to heal society’s divisions is for the country’s people to talk, openly and without fear,” he wrote.
While the Economist described Macgregor Marshall’s volume as “a brilliant book,” the National Police Chief of Thailand considered it “a danger to national security and peaceful and orderly society.” Anyone bringing a copy of a Kingdom in Crisis into the country faces three years in jail.
Looking to the future
After 70 years on the throne, it was perhaps to be expected that Bhumibol’s death last year would make headlines around the world. Despite many unhappy in the aftermath of the events of 2006 few seemed willing to criticise him publicly. Yes, the regime prevents its people from speaking the truth, but at the same time perhaps there really was some genuine affection for him?
Macgregor Marshall suggested in his 2014 book that many of Thailand’s elite didn’t want Vajiralongkorn to succeed his father. They saw him as corrupt and a womaniser, so some went to considerable lengths to sabotage his succession.
But now with his coronation due to take place at some point this year, it seems the ruling junta, which seized power in 2014, will go to any lengths to protect the position of the Crown Prince. The regime even targeted critics who resided abroad. And they reacted strongly to a BBC profile of Vajiralongkorn that questioned his fitness to rule and anyone trying to access the article in Thailand was told access was denied because it contained “inappropriate information.”
Writing in 2014, before the king Bhumibol’s death, Macgregor Marshall said there were “widespread expectations that the succession will unleash a period of severe conflict and instability. But in fact, while it is highly possible that violence will erupt in the days and weeks after Rama IX dies, it is likely to lead to a greater period of stability. Thailand cannot be at peace while he is alive. Only his death can bring the kingdom’s crisis towards a resolution.”
There haven’t yet been the widespread street protests that some predicted would occur when Bhumibol died. And any dissent over the succession of the Crown Prince, was dealt with harshly by the junta. But how long can the suppression of the new king’s critics continue? What happens in the coming months in the Land of Smiles could prove extremely interesting for outside observers.
But while Thai people mourn, for the backpackers on Khao San Road, the party goes on. Despite the apparent sadness at the king’s passing, the last thing the government wants to do is destroy all-important tourism industry.