Some Thais Want Their Political Rivals to Stop Playing the Royal Card

Some Thais Want Their Political Rivals to Stop Playing the Royal Card

JAMES HOOKWAY

Jan. 27, 2014 7:40 p.m. ET

PATHUM THANI, Thailand—For decades, Thais have looked to King Bhumibol Adulyadej to referee political disputes. But with the king now 86 years old, some people here say it’s time to sort out their own problems.

Elevated to almost divine status with the help of the military during the Cold War, King Bhumibol has interceded during flashpoints over the years. Sometimes he has sided with street protesters demanding more democracy and accountability; at others, he has endorsed autocratic military rulers.

Unlike some other Asian royal houses that have faded into the background or, in Nepal’s case, been abolished, Thailand’s monarchy is still part and parcel of everyday life here, despite not having any formal power.

The royal anthem is played before sporting events and before films in movie theaters, while Thai TV news summarizes the family’s activities each day at 8 p.m. Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws penalize criticism of the royal family with prison terms of up to 15 years.

But as King Bhumibol enters the twilight of his long reign, the political divides here in Southeast Asia’s linchpin economy are widening as protesters, many of them invoking the name of the king, try to check the growing power of the country’s elected leaders. And some supporters of the populist government say it is time to stop using the king’s name for political leverage.

“We’re not really supposed to talk about these things in Thailand,” says Wutthipong Kotchathammakhun, a leader of a pro-government “Red Shirt” splinter group here, just north of Bangkok. “But we want people to understand how the establishment is using ‘the sky’ to grab power for itself,” he says, using a common term to refer to the royal family.

The king himself has remained silent on the monthslong standoff playing out on the streets of Bangkok.

The clash represents an almost existential struggle to determine what kind of country Thailand should be in the 21st century. On one side are Thailand’s traditional power bases in the military and technocratic political parties, and in the rival camp are supporters of populist politicians backed by billionaire businessman Thaksin Shinawatra.

In recent weeks, tens of thousands of mostly urban, middle-class protesters have massed on the streets of Bangkok, led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a brawny, 64-year-old political deal maker who has reinvented himself as the leader of what he calls “the people’s revolution.” The crowds are calling for Mr. Thaksin’s younger sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra

, to quit and allow an unelected council to take over and shape Thailand’s democracy to a form more to their liking.

Ms. Yingluck has said she won’t resign and plans to press ahead with new elections set for Sunday, which she is widely expected to win and which the opposition has vowed to boycott.

The protesters aren’t coy about invoking the name of King Bhumibol. During frequent parades around Bangkok’s busy business district, many wear yellow head bands declaring “I Love the King.” Some of their placards accuse Mr. Thaksin, who was overthrown as prime minister in 2006 and now lives abroad, of plotting to usurp the king’s powers—a charge Mr. Thaksin has consistently denied, and which the king hasn’t publicly commented on.

The Thai army also has a strong and visible attachment to the monarchy.

But the more the demonstrators play the royal card—by making lèse-majesté allegations or simply waving royalist placards—the more they risk undermining the institution in the eyes of millions of Thais who have repeatedly voted for the Shinawatras.

“Everything the royalists do is working against the long-term interests of the monarchy,” says David Streckfuss, a Thailand-based scholar and author. “The lèse-majesté laws, trying to secure the positions: any of it, really, is bad for the monarchy.”

Mr. Wutthipong, a rapid-fire talk-show host on a community radio station, leads one of the most visible groups that sprang up to demand the return of democracy after the 2006 coup.

Better known by his nickname, Koh-Tee, he has a yen for donning a beret a la Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara and has constructed a makeshift open-air stage in Pathum Thani. Here, he and his followers complain about Mr. Suthep’s persistent invocation of the king, who has remained silent on the most recent political conflict.

“The royalists don’t want an election. They know they will lose, so they try to seize power any way they can,” Mr. Wutthipong, 49 years old, says, handing out Buddhist amulets to protect security guards at the rear of the stage. He has been questioned by police and released without charge in connection to clashes with Mr. Suthep’s supporters in Pathum Thani.

Other Red Shirt leaders such as Nattawut Saikeua have warned of a mass uprising if the military seizes power again.

Mr. Suthep says he is arguing only for an interim government to pursue his contentious reform plans before elections are held, and aims to prevent the Feb. 2 vote from going ahead. One protester was killed in clashes with Red Shirts Sunday after Mr. Suthep’s supporters tried to stop advance voting, adding to the nine people who already have lost their lives in political violence in recent months.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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