Friday, December 05, 2008
AN ABSENCE TO REMEMBER
fter all the recent conflict in Thailand, with the nation literally isolated and held hostage by a political activist group, Thais were keenly anticipating the annual address by their king -- traditionally given on the eve of his birthday. Today Bhumibol Adulyadej turns 81 years old.
Yesterday afternoon, thousands came to the Chitralada Palace to offer their best wishes, and to catch a glimpse as he arrived at the reception hall. There he receives his birthday greetings from a broad spectrum of Thai society invited for the occasion, including government ministers and other national officials. What follows is the only lengthy address he will make to his people during the year. The King normally takes the opportunity for a "teaching moment," addressing current problems with advice and suggestions, and generally fulfilling his role as guiding light and Strength of the Land.
For the first time since his coronation, he wasn't there.
The fallen hearts could be seen in many confused faces as the open vehicles arrived at the hall with other members of the royal family. His Majesty and his usual companion for the event (his favourite dog, Thong Daeng) were absent. Inside the hall, the Crown Prince was seated next to an empty throne. He offered a very few words of appreciation and wishes for the people's health and prosperity on behalf of his father. Then Princess Sirindhorn (the people's favourite possible heir, affectionately called "Prathep") came across the stage and knelt at the microphone, speaking more directly to the assembled worriers. (The event is carried live on radio, broadcast later in the evening on television.)
His Majesty was feeling very weak, she said, and had been unable to eat food. He is on saline solution, and seems to be suffering a respiratory infection. His doctors advised him to rest as much as possible. Personally, I think he's suffering from a broken heart.
Red Shirts vs. Yellow Shirts, pro-Thaksin vs. anti-Thaksin; pitched battles in the streets, moving on to gunfire and grenades -- all of it over the most divisive figure in Thai politics, now an exile fugitive from justice. The Yellows, appropriating the King's colour for their own benefit, had seized the seat of government with occupation, then our link to the world, holding the country for the ransom of their political preference. What good king would not have a broken heart, to see his nation behave in such a way?
A year ago yesterday, I quoted former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun (probably the best PM in living memory, himself appointed by coup makers, and who served only a year in office):
"I have often said that the status that our King has risen to after 60 years' reign is something that he has earned. It is not a hereditary thing. When he was made a King at the young age of 17 or 18, nobody knew what kind of King he was going to make. But I think that by his diligence and by his determination and dedication, he has developed into a very good King," Anand said.As it turned out, the airports stand-off was resolved this week when the Yellow Shirts declared victory and went home. The Constitutional Court had ruled the dissolution of three government parties, the largest of which is the Thaksin proxy party. The Prime Minister, Thaksin's brother in law -- among dozens of other of the parties' executives -- was banned from "playing politics" for five years. This of course had nothing to do with the "People's Alliance for Democracy" actions, but was simply the upholding of previous Supreme Court decisions. The PAD claimed it as their own victory in any case.
"When you talk about our King, he is not only a great King, but he is a good King. I make this distinction, for you can be great man with so many shortcomings and so many faults, but when you say he is a good man, to me it means more. So to me, the fact that he is a good King personally means to me much more than that he is a great King. To be a good King, to be a good man, is something you have to earn. You do not inherit [it]."
The Alliance had taken control of Government House in August, and the two airports early last week. During the course of these actions, at least 7 people have been killed and many injured -- nearly all of them in conflict between the Yellows and the Reds, as both of these had their thuggish "guards" armed with clubs, knives and guns. Radio stations on both sides were attacked with firearms and bombs, and the occupations of Government House and the domestic airport were attacked with RPG's. PAD goons at the international airport captured police personnel (who have been scrupulous in avoiding violence), in one case "interrogating" the officer and placing him under "arrest." A policewoman was paraded on their stage for abuse before being sent on her way. Journalists at one airport had their car shot up by the PAD "guards."
Now government workers are beginning to get back into their offices at Government House, which was vacated before the airports stand-off had ended. They are shocked at the amount of damage done, and the number of valuable things that have been stolen during the long occupation. Very many people who may have sympathized with the goals of the Alliance are now absolutely disgusted with them.
People who were sitting-in at the airports are now telling their stories. Once they joined, there was no way out. No one was permitted to leave, and everyone's citizen card was confiscated by the organisers. One young man who wanted to leave on the same night the PM resigned was badly beaten, shot, and thrown into a canal for dead (I heard he survived). The next morning, the airport was voluntarily cleared.
If His Majesty's absence yesterday has caused some Thais to reflect on their own possible contribution to his ill health, it would be a good lesson. As sickening as I found the whole anarchic exercise, one can only wonder how the Strength of the Land would have felt about it. He has devoted his life in full measure toward the development and progress of his people. I believe he is the main reason why this country didn't succumb to the grisly China-sponsored communist insurgency of the 60's and 70's. After all he has done to keep this country free, in leading by example, a source of pride and nationhood, it must have been difficult for him to watch the past few weeks and months.
The Thai people, on the whole, cannot think of their country without him. It's too empty, too difficult to imagine, so they don't. Let them contemplate that now -- especially those "leaders" who have propelled their various "movements" and brought the country into such ruin and international disrepute. Let them contemplate what their country has which no other does, and probably no other ever will (actually, only the Tibetans have a comparable relationship with their monarch, but no country).
Many people here today are feeling yesterday's absence quite deeply. He has never not been there on December 4, and this year he wasn't. A massive introspection is called for today, particularly on the part of those "leaders" and "activists" who need to remember why they are here in the first place.