from Asia Unbound

Progress or Backsliding in the Debate Over Thailand’s Monarchy?

March 20, 2013

People hold pictures of Thailand's king Bhumibol Adulyadej as they wait for him to arrive at the Anantasamakom Throne Hall in Bangkok.
Blog Post

More on:



Over the past two weeks, Thailand, and the international Thai studies community, has seen several unprecedented open debates about Thailand’s monarchy and its future course. On Thai PBS, which is generally acknowledged to be the best television channel in Thailand, an interview program held over the past two weeks a series of relatively forthright discussions, with both royalists and critics of the current monarchical system, on the future of the institution. The conversations were thorough (as thorough as they could be in Thailand) and thought-provoking. For three days, the Thai PBS program attracted far more attention than the channel—which generally cannot compete with the sports, soap operas, and other attractions of other Thai channels—normally gets. The conversations were relatively open, in a country where harsh lèse-majesté laws still keep any tough criticism tightly capped, and they were informative, both to Thais and foreign viewers. They were a milestone, really the first such discussions on Thai TV. And yet after three days, pressure from ultra-royalists led the channel to can the monarchy discussions and even shut down the interview program entirely. Now, Thai PBS may be walking back on that decision, but at any rate, the on-air monarchy discussion is over.

At the same time, foreign journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall, based in Singapore, has been posting online a series of cables, mostly drawn from British archives, that reveal intense politicking by the king during previous periods of Thai unrest, as well as the king’s longtime conservative political bent and suspicion of democracy in Thailand. Although the cables will not be that shocking to anyone who has studied Thailand’s modern history, they will be to many Thais. Quite a few Thai friends and acquaintances believe that MacGregor’s cables are getting widely circulated among educated Thais, even though his own website is usually banned in the kingdom.

Are these signs of greater openness about the monarchy in Thailand, or signs that Thailand—at least its elites—are becoming even more unwilling to contemplate the future, and even harsher toward those who do so with an open mind?