Sunday, December 07, 2008

"A Right Royal Mess"


I stood with thousands of Thais on Friday night holding candles as fireworks exploded overhead, shouting "long live the King!" three times:

sohng phra ja reern
sohng phra ja reern
sohng phra ja reern

It was exhilarating and intoxicating. The large field of Sanam Luang was filled to capacity and hundreds of dignitaries and representatives of various interest groups stood on the distance stage below a huge portrait of the world's longest-ruling monarch. Holding their lights aloft, everyone sang patriotic songs to the music of a military band that I pretended to know. Near me were groups of nurses, scouts and even a contingent of Sikhs. It was the 81st birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as Rama IX.

The King, however, did not attend his birthday party. He was ill, and the previous night had failed to deliver an annual birthday message to his subjects, the first time in anyone's memory. Last year, I was in the yellow-clad crowd when he drove by with his Queen to ceremonies at the Grand Palace next to Sanam Luang. I caught a quick glimpse of the man his unofficial biographer says never smiles. Six months younger than England's Queen Elizabeth II, His Majesty has been unwell for some time. A few days before his birthday, he had presided at the annual review of the troops, but he seemed stiff and uncomfortable. The King was hospitalized a year ago for a month from a possible stroke and he was seen to have difficulty walking at his sister's televised funeral two weeks ago. Some think he has Parkinson's. But speculation abut the King's health or his political views is outlawed by a strict lèse-majesté law in Thailand which is used by all factions to demonize the other side, an anomaly among today's democracies.

Believed to be above ordinary politics, in the past King Bhumibol has intervened dramatically to end political divisions in Thailand. A few months ago he told judges to "do your duty," and observers believe this gave cover to the "judicial coup" that last week toppled the current government (a selective legal decision that ignored competing parties). But he was silent when a long-running anti-government demonstration took over government offices and shut down two Bangkok airports for a week, disrupting the work of civil servants, causing tremendous economic damage and inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of travelers. The Queen, however, attended the funeral of a protester, giving tacit support to their goal of overturning an elected administration. Non-Thais have struggled to understand why the army and police ignored numerous government pleas to end the harmful protest.

This is now changing with a cover story in the current issue of The Economist, a British magazine that will undoubtedly be banned in this country. Rather than quote from the article and get myself in trouble, I will offer a link to the introduction, "The King and them," and to the full article, "A Right Royal Mess," and you can read for yourself the rumors that dare not be spoken in Thailand. Because of the airport disaster, and the necessity to understand why, commentators around the world are beginning to to investigate the historical roots of Thailand's crisis. All roads appear to lead back to the throne, although a long-term resident from Australia told me yesterday that the military here pulls all the strings and is firmly in control. While the sit-in ended and the airports opened right after the court brought down the government for vote buying in the 2007 election, there was no obvious connection between the two events, no clear reason why the demonstrators could declare victory and go home for something that had little to do with their harmful actions. The International Herald Tribune, the Guardian and Times of London, and Asia Times' analyst Shawn W. Crispin have all offered their ideas and theories.

At the birthday celebration, the color yellow was not as much in evidence as last year when the King turned 80 with much fanfare. Yellow is the color for Monday in Thai culture, the day the King was born (in the United States in 1927), and therefore is associated with the monarchy. But anti-government demonstrators had appropriated this color which now immediately identifies their members. I went to Sanam Luang with my ex-girlfriend Pim (we had gone together the previous year) and she works for Thailand Post in Banglamphu. I innocently wore yellow, thinking it the proper thing to do, but she was in pink. I learned that postal employees could no longer wear yellow or red, the colors associated with government supporters. It sounds like gang warfare in Los Angeles between the Crips (blue) and the Bloods (red). But most commentators are now calling the political struggle in Thailand a "class war" between an urban middle class (yellow) and the rural poor (red). In booths alongside Sanam Luang I saw much red and pictures of Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled former prime minister; opinions about him have sharply divided the country.

There was no violence between the two sides on Friday night when everyone paused to honor the King, the man who is revered by Thais as semi-divine. Standing in for him on the eve of his birthday were his son and two daughters (one of whom I saw in-person earlier in the week). The problem is not so much the King, according to the articles and blogs I have read this week, but what happens when he dies, the problem of succession. His personal charisma transcends the institution, and his son, by all reports, is neither respected nor loved. Some think the King wants his older daughter, the unmarried Princess Sirindhorn, to succeed him, while Queen Sirikit prefers the much married Prince Vajiralongkorn. He was clearly in the lead with his central roles at public ceremonies this past week.

This has been a dismal week for love. Pim asked to see me and I thought she wanted to talk about my blogged belief that she had lied to me, about love and about the reasons she left. But dialogue is difficult here, for cultural as well as linguistic reasons. Lying for Thai women is often less from self-centered cruelty than a respect for the other's feelings. We enjoyed the afternoon and evening together, reliving old times, but when she abruptly said good night near her apartment, I felt my heart break all over again. She had been affectionate when we were together, but it was apparent that there was no agenda behind it. It's always easier for the one leaving to be friends with the one left behind (I learned that when my second marriage fell apart), and although she clearly enjoyed my company ("we like to do the same things," she told me with a smile), I was not yet ready to be just a friend, the former lover. So I sent her the message that there would be no friendly "next time" for us.

George, who is recovering from an operation to replace his knee, sent me the message that he was ready to learn where I found so many women to date. I told him that "I would not wish this frustrating quest for love on my worst enemy." This week I've been stood up twice, the second time by a woman with whom I've corresponded for over a year who had offered me tantallizing promises that I discovered were mostly empty fantasies. A woman to whom I loaned money disappeared when repayment was due. Others play online games. But I pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again. I have a date today at The Mall, a big shopping development in the Bang Khae suburb for lunch and maybe more. On Tuesday I will meet a woman who is studying for an MBA, someone closer to my age (but still far off). And later this week I am contemplating a trip back to Koh Lanta where an email correspondent practices massage and wants to see me. I could use a laying on of hands right now.

Happy Pearl Harbor Day.

1 comment:

Roxanne said...

Hi, Will:

I have been so busy since September with Arabic class, I have fallen behind in everything. Class ended yesterday and now I am trying to catch up.

You have been busy. I've read all of the blog entries I've missed. I love the photograph of you with your students, posted on November 30th. I especially like the body language of the students.

I hope that you are doing well. Have a safe and healthy holiday season.