from Asia Unbound

Royalty in Austere Times

Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej is pictured before taking a boat trip from Siriraj Hospital pier in Bangkok July 7, 2012.

August 24, 2012

Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej is pictured before taking a boat trip from Siriraj Hospital pier in Bangkok July 7, 2012.
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In today’s Washington Post, there is an excellent overview of how the austerity programs in many countries in Europe have led to pressure on monarchies to cut costs and reduce their lifestyles. Most notably, the criticism has extended to even the Spanish monarchy, which for years in Spain was all but exempted from public and press criticism because of the role that King Juan Carlos played in the late 1970s and early 1980s in helping to promote democratization and to prevent a coup from succeeding. The very socialists who, in other countries, might have been used to criticizing the monarchy usually avoided any critiques of Juan Carlos, as the socialists had benefited enormously from the democratization period, dominating the Spanish government for years. Now, however, Juan Carlos’ habits have become fair game for the press, and a recent secret safari that he took to Botswana to shoot elephants, while Spain faces the most severe austerity program in Western Europe, has led to a major backlash against the monarch. The article notes that many in the public, media outlets, and many politicians, are calling on Juan Carlos to drastically cut his annual spending and to be much more transparent about how he is spending money on royal activities.

Though it may be able to hold off such inquiries for now, via harsh lèse-majesté laws and the genuine reverence the monarchy enjoys, the Thai monarchy could learn some lessons from Juan Carlos. Like the Spanish king, the current Thai king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, has truly earned a high degree of respect from many Thais over the course of his lengthy reign. But that respect, and the fact that the king’s reign is strongly supported by a core of arch-royalists in Bangkok, does not mean that questions are not increasingly being raised, in private, about the royal family’s finances. Even the royals seem to understand this in Thailand; the recent, royally-approved biography of the king’s life contained significantly more information on the Crown Property Bureau’s finances than any royally-approved book had in the past. But that initial transparency only fuels a hunger for more —though Thais will not say so in public. On social media sites, and in private conversations, discussion of the Crown Property Bureau now is far more common than in the past.

For his part, Juan Carlos, even at his advanced age, has always been highly attuned to public opinion and, in July, announced he would be taking a pay cut voluntarily, according to the Washington Post story, in tune with the austere times. A model for other monarchs?