On the Phra Sumen Road, Bangkok.
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Reflections on the King’s Speech
By Joe Whitman, 14 December 2013
The conflict in Thailand took a brief break on 5 December 2013 in a mark of respect for King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s birthday. Most years, depending on his health, Thais look forward to the His Majesty’s annual birthday speech for inspiration and instruction. Previous speeches, often unscripted, have exceeded an hour and usually contain messages that provide guidance in difficult times or glimmers of hope in times of deep strife.
In contrast, his speech this year was marked by its brevity. Its contents was not full of the wisdom or timely counsel of speeches in years past. To anyone watching, it was clearly evident that the king’s health is continuing to fade. At a time where Thailand once again has found itself deeply mired in political conflict, both sides looked to the king for instruction. However this time around, the king was unable to provide that guidance and made it clear that he would not be stepping in to adjudicate this round of conflict.
The self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s electoral victories in 2001 and 2006 were driven by rural, mostly poor… voters in the north and north-east of Thailand. His… policies, including subsidised health care, low-interest agricultural loans and injections of cash into villages, gave his supporters a level of social and economic mobility that they had never previously experienced and turned Thaksin into an unstoppable force on election day. Thaksin’s rise and popularity inspired fear among the urban middle and upper class that he envisioned himself as the patron of big business and the rural poor. Thaksin was using his power at the ballot box to install a new social and political arrangement which would bypass traditional elites, who with their old money, privileged positions and connections to the monarchy would find themselves rendered redundant in Thaksin’s Thailand.
During previous fits of violence, the elites have halted the rise of Thaksin and managed to retain their exalted societal status several times: in 2006 with assistance from the military, in 2008 with a compliant judiciary. In 2013 they are hoping for a people’s coup.
What the king’s appearance on his birthday showed to all Thais was something that those close to the monarchy must have known for some months; because of his ailing health, the royal succession is looming. For Suthep and his elite allies, their fear of the rising “Thaksin regime” is not just aimed at the premiership of Yingluck and their allegedly corrupt cronies, but it is also evidence of their concern that the monarchy may also become a puppet under the control of the Shinawatra clan.
There has been a long standing rumours around the Bangkok elite that just as the voters in the north have been seduced by Thaksin’s handouts, so has the …
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