Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Saying The Unsayable

Saying The Unsayable
Saying The Unsayable, edited by Soren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager, is a fascinating collection of academic papers discussing the political role of the constitutional monarchy. The editors argue that the monarchy is inseparable from politics, up to and including Prem Tinsulanonda's alleged role in the 2006 coup; a similar point was made by Paul Handley in his Bhumibol biography The King Never Smiles, though Handley's book is banned in Thailand whereas Saying The Unsayable is available here legally.

The book's subtitle, Monarchy & Democracy In Thailand, arguably requires inverted commas around one word: 'democracy' is an ambiguous concept in Thailand, as Kevin Hewison and Kengkij Kitirianglarp recognise in their chapter on Thai-Style Democracy. Controversially, they write that "it is important to acknowledge the palace's involvement in the events that paved the way for the military's seizure of power". (Two former prime ministers have previously confirmed this: Thaksin Shinawatra in a 2009 Financial Times interview, and Samak Sundaravej according to WikiLeaks.)

Peter A Jackson begins the book with a chapter titled Virtual Divinity, noting that "Bhumibol has become enveloped by a symbolism and discourse of magico-divinity". Implicit in the media's spiritual and supernatural descriptions of the King, and in the ubiquitous public reproduction of his image, is the notion that the King should therefore be unconditionally venerated. (Indeed, article eight of the constitution states that "The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship".)

Discussion of the monarchy in Thailand is, of course, overshadowed by the lèse-majesté law, which prohibits any criticism of the royal family (for example: The Economist, 6th December 2008; Tribune, 8th May 2009; Foreign Correspondent, 13th April 2010; and The Guardian, 15th December 2010), as discussed by David Streckfuss. Saying The Unsayable's publication in Thailand demonstrates, however, that The Unsayable is becoming increasingly sayable.

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