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The King and US

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
November 16, 2012
Washington Monthly


On the train hurtling through the center of the city, the crowd of people packed in tight and holding the hand straps, are all wearing nearly identical attire: yellow polo-style shirts with a royal crescent on them, yellow hats, and pins displaying the face of a slim, serious-looking older Asian man. Many wear wristbands with his face as well, and carry signs and flags covered in yellow and with more pictures of his face. Departing the train in the central business district, I pass giant billboards showing the man in a variety of poses: bending down low to speak with a villager prostrate on the ground before him; standing in fields handing out advice to farmers; pinning decorations on soldiers. Makeshift signs praising him hang out of store windows, and pictures of his face adorn nearly every shop, restaurant, and even the smallest street stalls selling cheap noodles or curries. Later in the day, when I head to one of the movie theaters to catch a showing of a subtitled American film, everyone in the theater stands erect and motionless before the showing, as music plays for several minutes and the screen shows a gauzy montage of the beneficent leader. No one dares sit for a second during the montage - people who have done so have been berated, attacked by other cinema-goers, and even arrested for daring to show disrespect to the leader.

North Korea? Uzbekistan? Chavez's Venezuela? No, these scenes are of Thai King Bhumibhol Adulyadej , who has ruled his country for more than six decades. Thailand is a relatively open country with a free economy, and a society highly connected to the Internet, not the kind of place a Kim Jong-ilesque personality cult might exist. It held free national elections last July, and the Thai monarchy is a constitutional one. The king is only a ceremonial head of state and politicians really rule the country.

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