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As Ever, the Last Word in Thailand
Resolution of Election Crisis Affirms Enduring Influence of Long-Serving King
By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 28, 2006; A17
BANGKOK -- His subjects began crowding the roadside more than an hour before the motorcade of the king of Thailand was scheduled to pass before the white, crenelated walls of the Grand Palace. They claimed patches of shade across from gleaming fairy-tale spires, spreading newspapers on the sidewalks to sit and wait for a glimpse of the world's longest-reigning monarch.
As the procession approached on May 5, the steamy morning clamor of downtown Bangkok melted into hushed silence. The crowd rose to its feet. The loyal and the curious pressed palms together in a gesture of greeting and respect, heads lowered but eyes uplifted in hopes of spying the king's dispassionate, almost somber, visage through the window of his cream-colored Rolls-Royce.
As Thailand prepares to celebrate the 60th year of the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej next month, such regal pomp could hardly seem more anachronistic. But this accidental monarch, who took the throne at age 18 after the death of his older brother, has again demonstrated in recent weeks his grip on the affections of millions of modern Thais and his enduring relevance to the country's troubled affairs of state.
Last month, with the kingdom's prime minister facing intense pressure to resign for alleged corruption, and with parliament unable to convene after inconclusive elections, Bhumibol went on television to suggest that the courts could break the impasse by nullifying the vote and ordering new elections.
It was advice that could not be refused, Thai analysts said. "If the judges don't annul the election, they'd be going against the king's wishes, and that's unthinkable in Thailand," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University. Within two weeks, the country's constitutional court ordered a new election.
It was a rare intervention by Bhumibol, who has "touched politics," as Thais say, on average less than once a decade during his reign.
Some analysts worry that palace intervention in time of crisis may impede the maturation of democratic institutions. But each time, his action has proven decisive, such as in 1992 when he helped end the military's bloody suppression of pro-democracy riots by castigating the prime minister and his chief adversary on national television, prompting a return to civilian rule.
"When there is a political void, when there is a real imminent threat to democratic rule, then he would use his reserve power to show the way, to provide the guiding light or possible answer to a crisis," said Anand Panyarachun, who has twice been prime minister.
His tremendous sway with his subjects resides less in law than in the respect he has accumulated by keeping a disinterested distance from the rough and tumble of Thailand's often unsavory politics.
He has offered a steadying presence in a country that has had 16 constitutions and nearly two dozen prime ministers during his time on the throne. The rites and superstitions of the monarchy -- the royal plowing ceremony this month, for instance -- offer reassurance in times of uncertainty.
With the king's son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, presiding, holy men led sacred white oxen along a field across from the Grand Palace in the centuries-old ritual. The beasts were then offered plates of rice, maize, sesame seeds and other food but chose an offering of grass, a sure sign, the soothsayers reported, of plentiful crops.
This favorable omen received widespread press coverage, even beyond the normal 8 p.m. royal news, when Thailand's half-dozen television stations suspend their standard daily fare to air updates on the king and his family.
For several minutes each evening, the stations broadcast nearly identical footage, sometimes depicting the king in white uniform officiating from his gold throne at palace ceremonies, sometimes showing loyal subjects prostrating themselves before the monarch and his family, offering gifts and other tribute in ornate gold bowls.
These rites date to an absolute monarchy that fell to a bloodless military coup in 1932. Fourteen years later, Bhumibol, then studying science in college in Switzerland, was called upon to reign as a constitutional monarch.
He abruptly switched his studies to law and political science before sailing home to Bangkok. But he did not abandon his passions. The king remains an avid photographer, and the royal portraits that hang outside government buildings and behind store counters often portray him with a camera around his neck. He is also an accomplished composer and jazz saxophonist who has jammed with the likes of Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton.
To Thais, he is known as the father of development. He has launched, by official count, almost 3,000 social welfare projects, in such areas as irrigation, agronomy, forestry, fishing and health. People lovingly hang his portrait in their homes and rise to honor him at the start of every movie, as his image appears on the screen and the royal anthem plays.
"I'm afraid one day I won't be able to see the king anymore," whispered a tall, 50-year-old woman with long hair who turned out in the tropical heat to watch the motorcade. She said she tried to attend every one of his public appearances. "He's getting old. This year he'll be 79. He doesn't smile much any more."
In a country with a freewheeling press and spirited debate, few people dare to publicly contradict the king, fearing police attention.
Charges of lèse-majesté, or insulting the dignity of the monarch, have been leveled repeatedly in recent months against protagonists in the current political struggle. A complaint was filed against the chairman of the national election commission on grounds that he defended the April vote after the king suggested it be nullified as undemocratic. Police have filed similar charges against protest leader Sondhi Limthongkul for remarks he made at a March demonstration. Sondhi has said he was misquoted.
When a campaign of largely peaceful protests began last year against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra over allegations of corruption, many demonstrators looked to their sovereign. They waved banners in yellow, the royal color, and donned caps that declared, "We Love the King." Some protest leaders called on him to appoint a new prime minister to oversee constitutional reforms.
"We want Thaksin to start showing proper respect for our king. We want the king to save us," said Taveesak, a garment exporter.
The efforts to wrap the anti-Thaksin campaign in yellow were not appreciated by senior officials in the palace, according to Thai and longtime resident Western observers who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of discussing the king. The king, according to sources close to the palace, feels ill at ease with his role as political backstop. He is reluctant to act unless he is guaranteed to succeed.
But the palace was at the same time growing weary of Thaksin's autocratic administration. Some influential members of the king's privy council telegraphed through statements and actions that they thought it was time for the prime minister to quit, the longtime observers said.
To defuse the street campaign, Thaksin called snap elections for early April. But the main opposition parties boycotted the polls. Though Thaksin's party again won a big majority in parliament, the body could not legally convene because several dozen seats remained vacant.
Two days after the election, the prime minister paid a private visit to the king at his beachfront Klaikangwon Palace to give notice he intended to step aside. During the royal audience, the king said little, commenting only that the political situation was confused, according to the Thai and resident Western sources. When Thaksin said he was planning to resign, the king simply nodded.
But with the parliament still unable to meet, Thaksin was powerless to turn his formal duties over to a successor. A second round of voting failed to fill all the vacancies and end the stalemate. Exasperated, the king spoke out on April 25, rebuking the ruling party, the opposition and the country's judges. Bhumibol said it would be unconstitutional for him to act on a "whim" and appoint a new prime minister. He bluntly told the judges to do their duty, "so that the country survives," or resign.
The essence of the king's message to the Thai people, Anand said, was, "Don't pass the buck to me. There is a mess. You've got to clean up the mess. Don't expect me to come and rescue you."
Yet that's exactly what the king did.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company