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Thailand: Talking about the King

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15 April 2010 16:39

Beyond the borders of Thailand, the Thai royal family is, at last, a topic for frank discussion by the media. As the King has fought for life in a Bangkok hospital since September, the prospect of the Crown Prince taking the throne has seen the taboo crumble – outside Thailand. 

The royalist forces inside Thailand have cranked up the lese majeste law. Internally, the taboo is ruthlessly policed and vigorously enforced by the courts. Beyond Thailand, the taboo is one more element of the Thai façade that has fallen away during the long political agony since the military overthrow of Thaksin in 2006.

Two lengthy reports illustrate how the taboo has been given the last rites by media safely outside Thailand. The Economist's three-page report on Thailand's succession is brutally frank (and truthful) in describing the Crown Prince, Maha Vajiralongkorn, as 'widely loathed and feared'.

What was once only Bangkok gossip is now carefully reported. This was a standout bit from The Economist:

For Thais used to King Bhumibol’s virtues, which include monogamy, Buddhist piety and old-fashioned thrift, the crown prince is a poor substitute. Salacious stories of his private life are daily gossip. A video circulated widely in 2007 showed his third wife, known as the “royal consort”, at a formal dinner with the prince in a titillating state of undress. Diplomats say Prince Vajiralongkorn is unpredictable to the point of eccentricity: lavishing attention on his pet poodle Fu Fu, for example, who has military rank and, on occasion, sits among guests at gala dinners.

The TV version of the succession nightmare is an excellent program aired on Tuesday evening on the ABC's Foreign Correspondent by Eric Campbell. ABC management agonised over running the program — and the potential impact on its Bangkok bureau — but eventually decided to say boo to the taboo.

Campbell was careful to state at the head of the piece that the ABC's Bangkok bureau was not involved in its production. With that bow to Thai law, he then dissected the Crown Prince. The infamous video of the Prince and his topless wife singing Happy Birthday to Fu Fu has now migrated from the web to ABC TV.

Campbell's report made good use of an interview with Paul Handley. His book, The King Never Smiles, is banned in Thailand and eagerly sought by members of the Bangkok chattering classes any time they are abroad. The publication of Handley's book must stand as the moment when the outside world began to ignore Thai law. His work laid a firm framework for foreign media to stand on.

Watching Eric Campbell's report, I reflected on how it must have seemed a great idea all those years ago to bring the Crown Prince to Australia to finish his education and then go for officer training at Duntroon. My only meeting with the Prince was at a small dinner hosted by Kim Beazley in the late 1980s when the Thai royal was making a return visit to Canberra. The Prince seemed reserved to the point of shyness and his hesitant English suggested not much of Australia had rubbed off on him at Duntroon. He seemed devoted to his pipe as a prop to avoid conversation.

From some of the party footage in the Campbell report, that pipe is still clenched between the princely lips. Unfortunately, as the king fades, the moment for the Prince to remove it and speak with his own voice is approaching. Pity Thailand. And contemplate one great fear obsessing the powerful courtiers around the King – that Thaksin's lavish links with the Prince might provide the golden ladder for Thaksin's return from exile.

Photo by Flickr user ccdoh1, used under a Creative Commons license.

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