The Thai Monarchy Beyond Bangkok

Commentary by Charles Keyes
161014-TH-king-upcountry-1000.jpg Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit meet with officials in Mae Hong Son province in northern Thailand, Jan. 6, 1968.
Courtesy of Jane Keyes

There is wide consensus both within Thailand and outside that King Bhumibol Adulyadej was as Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times “the keystone of Thailand’s identity and a major unifying force for the country.”

The king’s death, even with a prolonged period of mourning, will lead to a marked diminishing of the legitimating role of the monarchy.

It must be recognized that the monarchy is viewed differently by the king’s subjects who have become increasingly divided politically in the 21st century. The strongest royalists are found among the upper and middle classes in Bangkok and among people living in the northern part of southern Thailand. Thais living outside Bangkok – while most admired or even revered King Bhumibol – developed different perspectives on the monarchy.

In the 1950s shortly after being crowned, King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit began to travel around the country where they were warmly received, especially in northeastern and northern Thailand. The sense of a personal relationship to the monarchy was strengthened in the 1950s when a U.S. agency helped the Thai government distribute images of the king and his family to every household in the kingdom.

From the 1960s into the 1990s the king and often the queen made trips to upcountry areas of northern and northeastern Thailand, often from the winter palace on Phuping mountain above Chiang Mai and more rarely from the Phu Phan palace in northeastern Thailand. The particular interest the king showed in the ethnically distinctive hill people of northern Thailand contributed to these people gaining a more positive image among ordinary Thai.

In turn, many among the hill people developed a sense of personal connection to the king.

The relationship between Malay-speaking people of the southernmost provinces of Thailand and the monarchy is very different to that between other people and the monarchy. The identity of these people is based on their adherence to Islam, their distinctive non-Thai language, and their view that they are heirs to the once independent kingdom of Patani.

Although Patani had long been a vassal of Siam, it was “integrated” into Thailand only in the early 20th century. Integration entailed placing the populace under a system of centralized administration comparable to that used for the other parts of Thailand. The territory of Patani was divided among the provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, Yala as well as parts of Songkhla.

Despite subsequent efforts – an authoritative interpretation of the religious (satsana) pillar of Thai nationalism to subsume any religion followed by citizens of Thailand, and support from the royal purse for Thai Muslims making the pilgrimage to Mecca – the fact that no allowance for distinctive ethno-religious autonomy has ever been made has exacerbated the alienation of Malay-speaking Muslims in Thailand.

In 2001 an insurgency began that has been intractable and neither civilian nor military governments have been able to eradicate it.

As the king became more ill, he made fewer and fewer trips upcountry other than to his palace at Hua Hin in the upper south. The queen long maintained a close relationship with southern Thailand, including the Muslim south. Her own increasing ill health also led her to curtail travels, including to southern Thailand.

Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, despite having been designated as heir to the throne in 1972, has rarely traveled upcountry, preferring to make trips abroad. As the king’s health declined, it might have been expected that the government – especially when under military rule – would undertake efforts to promote the crown prince upcountry, but this has not been the case. Some of the budget allocated by the military government under Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha for promoting the monarchy may succeed to some degree in promoting the crown prince, but the fact remains that the monarchy will continue to be identified with King Bhumibol.

There can be little question that when Vajiralongkorn becomes King Rama X, the monarchy will lack the charismatic aura among all Thai that it has had under Rama IX. This will certainly mean, especially for upcountry Thais, that a military government that bases its legitimacy on defense of the monarchy in Bangkok will become deeply problematic.

Charles Keyes, professor emeritus of anthropology and international studies at the University of Washington in the United States, has since the early 1960s carried out extensive research primarily in Thailand, but also in neighboring SE Asian countries. He has authored, edited or co-edited 15 books, monographs or special issues of journals and published more than 85 articles. His books and monographs include Democracy Thwarted: The Crisis of Political Authority in Thailand (2015), Finding Their Voice: Northeastern Villagers and the Thai State (2014), and Thailand: Buddhist Kingdom as Modern Nation‑State (1987).

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.


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