King Pumipon of Thailand was a weak and characterless monarch who spent his useless and privileged life in a bubble, surrounded by fawning, grovelling, toadies who claimed that he was a “god”.
He was a pathetic creature who should not in any way be pitied. His life’s work was in self-enrichment, support for military regimes and the defence of inequality. He played a significant role in preventing democratic rights, the development of social justice and the fair and unbiased use of the law. He did this by legitimising all the worst government policies and atrocities committed by Thai rulers.
In recent years he remained silent while more and more dissidents were jailed, under the draconian lèse majesté law, for merely speaking out against the destruction of democracy. He always remained silent about the killing of innocent civilians by the military. Pumipon was a willing tool of the military, who constantly staged coups and obstructed democracy and the economic development of the Thai people.
For Pumipon, this resulted in great rewards. He amassed so much wealth from the work of others during his reign, that he became the richest man in Thailand and the richest monarch in the world. Yet he preached, through the “Sufficiency Economy Ideology” that his “subjects” should be happy in their poverty and he always opposed any redistribution of wealth. Thailand is one of the most unequal countries in Asia.
His toadies had to constantly project a photo of him with a drop of sweat falling from his nose. The photo was always the same one, since Pumipon seldom did anything to work up a real sweat. Unbelievably, his followers wept when the Palace released a photo of him tying his own shoe-laces without help from any servants. He allowed the use of crawling and special royal language in his presence, without any sense of shame, and he passed on his warped and elitist view of the world to his dysfunctional children.
Pumipon was born in the United States and spent much of his youth in Switzerland. His love of fast cars and the good life resulted in him losing an eye in a car accident. He came to the throne after his elder brother died from gunshot wounds to the head in 1946. His brother’s death was either a suicide or a gun accident, involving Pumipon. Either way, Pumipon was fully aware of the circumstances of his brother’s death, but chose to keep them a secret, allowing three innocent palace staff to be executed and allowing Pridi Panomyong to be falsely blamed for the incident by his political opponents. Pumipon carried on his career as a monarch in this deceitful and spineless manner for the rest of his life.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was used by Thailand’s corrupt and despotic ruler, field marshal Sarit Tanarat, to build a strong coalition between the military and the monarchists. The monarchy had fallen into disrepute and was very unpopular among the Thai people in the 1930s and 1940s, before and after the successful revolution which overthrew the absolute monarchy in 1932.
Even key military leaders had republican leanings in those days. Sarit and the monarchists used the Cold War as a means of building up the prestige of the conservative elites. King Pumipon was systematically promoted as the symbolic figurehead of this “anti-communist” alliance and Pumipon became very fond of Sarit. Even the US government helped out by distributing photos of the king to villagers in rural areas as part of the fight against communism. Any house without such a picture would be deemed as “red”.
When the dictator Sarit died, his deputies, Tanom and Prapart, became the next bunch of corrupt military rulers and Pumipon carried on working with them. Never once did Pumipon ever speak up for democracy or social justice. Never once did he criticise corruption. The military promoted the king and his so-called “Royal Projects”, but over the years these projects had little impact on the standard of living of the majority of Thais.
In October 1973, the military regime was overthrown by a mass popular uprising and Pumipon was called upon by the elites to step in and protect the status quo. This he did by appearing on television and announcing a new civilian government. Thus he also managed to pretend that he was a “democratic king”.
But the dark clouds of class struggle were looming. This was at the height of the Vietnam War and the students and social activists in Thailand were looking for real social change. They were attracted by the ideas of the Communist Party. Pumipon joined up with the military and conservative elites in promoting right wing paramilitary groups, such as the Village Scouts, which attacked the students and the left. The end result was a bloody crackdown at Thammasart University in October 1976.
Pumipon supported this crackdown, the military coup that followed and the general repression and censorship under the new dictatorship. He justified this, saying in December 1976 that Thailand had had “too much democracy”. Left-leaning Thais hated him for this. After the massacre, Thailand was plunged into a civil war between the government and the Communist Party.
By the mid-1980s, the democratic space in Thailand was opening and an elected civilian government came to power. This was toppled by another military coup in 1991. Pumipon supported the military leaders again. However, a mass popular uprising and street fighting in Bangkok in 1992 ended the dictatorship.
When it was clear that the army had lost, Pumipon appeared again in public in order to claim his democratic credentials. But scores of people had been killed. Democratic elections were held and the political elites fell over each other to grovel and praise the “Great King”, while promoting and re-promoting his “super human talents”. By doing this they increased their own legitimacy. Pumipon lapped this all up and probably came to believe himself that he was divine.
One of those elite politicians was Taksin Shinawat, who won repeated elections because his party had serious pro-poor policies. The vast majority of the Thai electorate enjoyed real and immediate economic and social gains from these policies. This was in stark contrast to the king’s supposedly good works over many decades. Going with the flow as ever, Pumipon praised Taksin’s brutal War on Drugs, in which 3,000 people were killed by extra-judiciary means.
Taksin’s influence among the majority of the electorate eventually enraged his rivals among the conservative elites: the army, the bureaucracy and the conservative political and business classes. The result was the 2006 and 2014 military coups and the subsequent destruction of democracy. Pumipon was a willing tool in these coups too, allowing his name to be used by the army and the royalist thugs who had laid the ground for such coups. He never once had the courage or the integrity to help prevent the growing political crisis. In fact, Pumipon has never built stability for Thai citizens and never managed to “hold the country together”. He is a symbol of naked class oppression.
When the army gunned down nearly a hundred civilians in April and May 2010, Pumipon remained silent. He was old, but he could still speak, often making speeches to newly appointed judges. This event alone was enough to show that having a king as head of state was at best a complete waste of public money. This event, and the two military coups, have raised serious questions in the minds of millions of Thai citizens about the so-called benefits of having Pumipon, or anyone else, as king. There is now a strong republican sentiment throughout Thailand. But it faces real repression.
Many wrongly believed that Pumipon was powerful and ordered the 2006 coup and even the 2010 killings. By the time of the 2014 coup, he was so incapacitated by old age that he probably had limited awareness about what was happening. This did not stop general Prayut from using him, however.
The fact is that Pumipon never had political power. His role was always to provide a strong ideological legitimacy for the elites and their actions, especially the actions of the army. Pumipon was never brave or resolute enough to be a political leader. He was the bright fairy on top of the Christmas tree. His ideological role was not just about defending the military and the undemocratic elites. His reactionary “Sufficiency Economy” ideology was designed to oppose any redistribution of wealth and to support neoliberalism by opposing state intervention to alleviate poverty. All sections of the Thai elite sought to use him for their own benefit. This included top businessmen, including Taksin, and the civilian and military bureaucrats.
Pumipon lived a life of luxury built on lies. He was promoted as the “Father of the Nation, loved by all”. Yet his son, the crown prince, is a half-wit and a bully, hated by many. He oppresses all women by publishing naked pictures of his women on the internet.
Pumipon was supposed to be a “genius”. It was claimed that he led a “simple life”. Yet any criticism of his actions or those of the royalist elites would be harshly punished by the use of the lèse majesté law. This is why many obituaries about him written by foreign journalists will continue to repeat the usual lies and nonsense in praise of this pathetic and loathsome man.
Pumipon was a shy and alienated individual, more comfortable in the company of his dogs than that of fellow human beings. Millions of Thais will hope that his death will open the door to progressive changes to society. But they will be disappointed because nothing is automatic.
We must continue the fight for democracy and social justice and we still have to deal with the military and Pumipon’s reactionary successor. It is time for a genuine democratic republic. The amassed wealth of the Thai royal family and all their palaces should be turned over to the people in order to build a welfare state. Shed not one tear for Pumipon. Instead, think of those who were killed in his name by the military and all the people who will have to suffer from the long drawn out and very expensive funeral rites.
Lazy journalists will claim that the long-running political crisis was all about the succession. But the main reason for the decade of political crisis was never about the king’s failing health or succession but can be traced back to the 1997 economic crisis and the attempt by Taksin Shinawat to modernise Thai society. The Asian Economic crisis was the spark that exposed the existing fault-lines in Thai society, and the actions of political actors in response to this eventually led to a back-lash against democracy by the conservatives.
The King is dead! Long live the Republic!