The late Thai Princess Galyani Vadhana, whose body will be cremated at a funeral costing US $9 million
Thailand’s monarchy is protected by some of the strictest lese majeste laws in the world preventing the royal family from insult, meaning any discussion of the palace’s role in politics is stifled.
AFP | Nov 13, 2008
BANGKOK (AFP) — Thailand’s political upheaval may briefly halt for the funeral this weekend of the king’s sister, but the royal event comes at a time of rare tussles over the palace’s loyalties, analysts say.
Princess Galyani died of cancer in January this year aged 84, and from Friday Thais will be asked to dress in black for three days, while television stations will be urged to keep their output tasteful.
This austerity will contrast with a nine-million dollar cremation ceremony, with thousands of soldiers accompanying Galyani’s remains to a gilded funeral pyre built from scratch in central Bangkok.
“It all adds up to a sort of Buddhist deification, which is of course part of the construction of the Thai Buddhist monarchy,” said Paul Handley, author of a biography of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, “The King Never Smiles”.
The funeral comes at a time of widening chasms in Thai society, as a protest group — the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) — continues its street campaign to bring down the government elected in December 2007.
“(The PAD) claims the defence of the crown as its main platform so it cannot morally intervene or act up at this very important royal event,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
The PAD says the ruling People Power Party is too close to Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted premier they accuse of corruption.
Thaksin’s enormous popularity with the rural population, who twice voted him in, infuriated Thailand’s traditional power base in the palace, military and bureaucracy — the backbone of the PAD’s support.
Draping themselves in yellow T-shirts to show loyalty to the deeply-revered king — yellow here represents Monday, the day of the king’s birth — PAD supporters claim they are protecting the monarchy from alleged attack by Thaksin and his allies.
When two protesters were killed and nearly 500 people injured after clashes with police in Bangkok on October 7, the king’s wife Queen Sirikit donated thousands of dollars towards their medical expenses.
She also attended the funeral of one of the people killed — a move protesters hailed as proof of royal support.
“The inference to royal backing and the royalist support has never been so blatant,” Thitinan told AFP.
Thailand’s monarchy is, however, protected by some of the strictest lese majeste laws in the world preventing the royal family from insult, meaning any discussion of the palace’s role in politics is stifled.
David Streckfuss, an American historian of the Thailand’s lese majeste laws, said that 32 such cases were currently being investigated by police — the largest number in decades.
“A lot of the dialogue occurring is centred around the question of the other side’s loyalty to the monarchy,” he said.
“It is more difficult to get to the reality of whatever the situation is because everyone needs to speak in coded language.”
King Bhumibol has over the decades cultivated an image as a constitutional monarch above political tussles, only wading into politics in the 1970s and in 1992, ordering military dictatorships to end bloody crackdowns.
The only indication of his views about Thaksin came in April 2006 after the first round of PAD protests, when the king gave a rare address implying that recent elections were undemocratic. The courts swiftly annulled the poll.
When the military overthrew Thaksin five months later, they claimed to be protecting the monarchy, although the king’s top adviser Prem Tinsulanonda always denied any royal backing of the putsch.
As the current PAD protests drag on with no end in sight, the king has so far stayed silent.
“King Bhumibol seems to be less involved right now, and his top adviser General Prem and Queen Sirikit appear to be the main voices from the palace,” said Handley, whose book is banned in Thailand.
The king’s exalted status and increasing age are also giving rise to a largely unspoken worry about what will happen when his reign comes to an end.
The king was hospitalised last year, causing great concern to a nation that has relied on his moral guidance during his 62-year reign.
“The setting sun of the king’s long reign is the background against which the battle of attrition for Thailand’s soul is taking place,” Thitinan wrote in a recent essay for the academic “Journal of Democracy”.