Monarchy Under Construction, Bangkok

By Sara R. Curran, Professor.

Insight from Bangkok, Thailand.

A peaceful, weekday morning in the heart of Bangkok and I am actually cool and refreshed with the windows wide open, in spite of the 32°C mid morning temperature. Outside the proximity of birds chirping, the clinks and clangs of pots being washed in the downstairs apartment, the splash of water as someone hoses down a car or cleans a driveway, and the murmurs of voices between neighbors conveys a feeling of routine peacefulness. The tuk-tuks, motorcycles and bustle of Pahol Yothin Road are a very distant sound and hardly disturbing. I am back in Thailand after a three-year hiatus due to my own administrative responsibilities and time constraints (and not due to any diminished desire to remain engaged with colleagues and friends in Thailand).

On this first morning, with some trepidation (bred by memories of the overwhelming, chaotic energy of Bangkok), I ventured out to the main road in search of coffee. In years past, walking out to the main road of any Bangkok neighborhood meant steeling oneself for the onslaught of sidewalk vendors, motorcycle cabbies’ entreaties, and speeding cars that brushed so close to the walkways that pedestrians sucked in their breath with each passing car in the hopes that would buy them a bit more space and avoid injury. This time, while I had geared myself up for the onslaught as I approached the main road, I was surprised at how easy it was to time my street-crossing without fear, how each passing car moved by slowly (and quietly), and how the pace of a weekday morning seemed slower and quieter. Almost peaceful!

Finding my way to a coffee shop, a sweet and pleasant exchange with the coffee shop’s barista ensued – [in Thai] “Oh! You speak a little bit of Thai!” Me – “Not really, just a little bit.”  Barista – “Why?  Do you live here?” Me – “No, no.  I am just one of those people that comes and goes frequently.” — Then, I made my way back to my apartment with a cup of iced coffee in hand and settled down to read the Bangkok Post. The sense of changed atmosphere from my morning walk was reinforced when I read the story under the headline – ‘Top cop enters Thai PBS fray.’ Despite the seemingly aggressive headline, the news story struck me as a markedly thoughtful and comprehensive account of a major shift in public, political discourse that would have been unimaginable six years ago during the Thaksin administration or even 20 years ago, when I first arrived in Thailand in 1993. In brief, Tob Jote Prathet Thai (Answering Thai Questions) is a talk show and documentary that is intended to present balanced perspectives on a wide array of challenging issues. In a five-part series broadcast on the Thai Public Broadcasting Station (Thai PBS), the show examined the “Monarchy Under the Constitution.”

The ‘fray’, mentioned in the news headline, emerged as a result of the abrupt cancellation and then re-broadcasting of the last segment of the series. The segment was dedicated to a debate about the role of the monarchy in Thailand and the airing of the segment fed a furor that swirled around the legal concerns codified in section 112 of the Thai constitution, often referred to as Lese Majeste. Coinciding with the front-page story was a back page guest columnist essay by Songkran Grachangnetara that describes clearly the multi-sided standpoints and the possibilities of a continued monarchy that might be held above the political fray and thereby allow for balanced debates about the role of the monarchy. It’s a remarkable claim.

What surprises me about these front and back page stories are the thoughtful, frank, but careful ways that Thais are searching for and trying to create discursive space that allows them to continue to honor their monarchy, celebrate traditions, move towards less divisive politics and political turmoil, maintain hard won ground for progressive and transparent governance, and address human rights concerns. However, I am cautiously optimistic and imagine a uniquely Thai solution in the near future.  It remains to be seen whether my optimism about a Thai solution that overcomes divisions is well founded, especially as the monarchy faces an imminent transition. However, my optimism is rooted in what I discovered as I dug beneath the surface to see where else these debates were occurring. It doesn’t take much research to see that these particular news items were not momentary blips on the media screen, but represent ever-widening circles of thoughtful discussion across many sectors of Thai society.
Links that might be of interest.

1. Council on Foreign Relations, Asia Unbound

2. Kevin Hewison for New Mandala

3. Global Voices Online

4. Prachatai’s blog

5. The ‘Tob Jote Prathet Thai’ series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.


Sara R. Curran is a Professor in the Henry M. Jackson School for International Studies and the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs. She is also the Chair of the International Studies Program, the Director of the Center for Global Studies, and the Associate Director for the Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology.