Monarchy in spotlight: tensions that threaten new turmoil in Thailand

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A controversial report based on leaked documents suggests members of the royal family are vying for power before election

Thailand's monarchy, for decades presented as the glue that has held the country together through turmoil and strife, is described as being disorientated and deeply divided, in secret diplomatic cables revealed yesterday.

While members of the royal family have been projected as having a role above politics, an account based on the cables and published just days away from an election that is likely to plunge the country into fresh turmoil, suggests various key players are actively competing for power and political leverage.

The ailing 83-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has long been the focus of speculation about his health, has lost much influence to Queen Sirikit, deemed to have been distant from him for many years and who has indicated support for the opponents of the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Within the palace walls and beyond, there is deep anxiety over the issue of succession and whether the King's unpopular son, the Crown Prince, or his more popular daughter, will assume the throne when he dies.

Understanding the role and influence of the monarchy is crucial for a proper analysis of Thai society. Yet public consideration of these issues is all but impossible for Thais. Strict defamation laws prohibit any discussion of the monarchy that is deemed harmful.

The law, increasingly used to clamp down on dissidents and political opponents, carries a jail sentence of 15 years. The media is often threatened and is obliged to self-censor. It was against this backdrop Andrew MacGregor Marshall, the journalist who has written an account based on US diplomatic cables initially obtained by Wiki-Leaks, resigned from a news agency in order to publish it. Mr Marshall claims his employer, Reuters, declined to, knowing the problems in store.

Reuters said in a statement: "Reuters didn't publish this story as we didn't think it worked in the format in which it was delivered. We had questions regarding length, sourcing, objectivity, and legal issues. Also, we were concerned the writer wasn't participating in the normal editing process that would apply to any story Reuters publishes."

A spokesman for the US State Department, meanwhile, declined to "comment on materials, including classified documents, which may have been leaked", or on their authenticity.

At the centre of the swirling anxiety Marshall details is King Bhumibol, the world's longest-reigning living monarch. Confined to hospital for much of the past two years, the King has widespread respect from the public. The same cannot be said for all those around him. "It is hard to overestimate the political impact of the uncertainty surrounding the inevitable succession crisis which will be touched off once King Bhumibol passes," the then US ambassador Eric John is recorded as saying in a confidential July 2009 briefing for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"Over the past year, nearly every politician and analyst, when speaking privately and candidly, regardless of political affiliation or coloured perspective, has identified succession as the principal political challenge facing Thailand today."

The person due to succeed the King is Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, a thrice-married playboy with a reputation for a lively temperament. One US dispatch suggests: "Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn neither commands the respect nor displays the charisma of his beloved father, who has greatly expanded the prestige and influence of the monarchy during his 62-year-reign."

Many within the royal establishment have worked hard to air-brush the image of the Prince. His mother, Queen Sirikit, is reported as telling an audience in the US in 1981, that her son was something of a "Don Juan ... women find him interesting and he finds women even more interesting".

But in 2007, a video emerged which seemed to show the Prince and his third wife, Princess Srirasmi, in an intimate poolside dinner celebrating the birthday of his beloved white pet poodle, Foo Foo. "A disturbing video of the Crown Prince and his wife is in wide circulation here," alleges one of the US dispatches, apparently sent to Washington. "The wife is wearing nothing but a G-string and a smile as she lights the birthday candles . The video shows servants waiting on the tables and the flash of photographs being taken. According to a number of contacts, this is being passed around on DVD, both in Bangkok and in the provinces; the tawdry incident has provoked more (but whispered) criticism of the CP."

One cable notes unsubstantiated speculation that the Crown Prince has a medical condition. It says the Prince spends much of his time in Germany, his third wife lives in a Bangkok palace and that when he flies to Thailand he stays in a "retrofitted Air Force VIP lounge" at Don Maung Airport.

Marshall says many Thais would prefer the throne to pass to Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. According to a 2005 cable attributed to then ambassador Ralph "Skip" Boyce, the diplomat had discussed the importance of family with the King, at a function. "At one point in the conversation, the King stopped and gestured towards Princess Sirindhorn," says the cable. "The King quietly said, 'I have four children. But she is the only one who sits on the ground with the people. She never married but she has millions of children'."

This narrative of a divided monarchy has emerged just days before Thailand goes to the polls on 3 July. Opinion polls suggest that Pheu Thai (PT), a party financed and led by Thaksin Shinawatra, with his younger sister, Yingluck, as its prime ministerial candidate, are well ahead of incumbent premier Abhisit Vejjajiva and his Democrat party. One poll has given PT a 13-point lead.

Many wonder whether a victorious PT will be allowed to take power. The establishment, which includes elements of the royal court and the army, are deeply opposed to Mr Thaksin and it was conservative forces that pushed the army to carry out a coup to oust him in 2006. Two of his allies, who subsequently served as prime minister, were forced from office amid claims they acted unconstitutionally.

King Bhumibol has been projected as an apolitical figure who intervened in the world of politics only rarely, and then for the good of the nation. In 1992, the King placed himself in the middle of a stand-off between the military rulers and activists, supported by many students, to avoid further bloodshed. Sometimes, Thais refer to influence of the palace or the Privy Council, made up of 19 advisers, as the "hidden hands".

But the last couple of years have seen a more direct role taken by the palace, or more precisely by Queen Sirikit. In October 2008, after a "yellow shirt" demonstrator protesting against the pro-Thaksin government was killed in clashes, the Queen took the unprecedented decision to attend the funeral. The conservative yellow shirts, also known as the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), seized on this.

"Queen Sirikit, departing from the example set by King Bhumibol over decades, has dragged an ostensibly apolitical monarchy into the political fray, to the institution's probable future detriment," alleges another cable apparently written by Eric John. "...Such politicisation of the monarchy at this time appears to create extra uncertainty around the eventual royal succession and it could well boomerang."

The cables also mention her relationship with both the Crown Prince and Princess Sirindhorn. While previously close to the Prince, that relationship may have chilled. The Queen may be looking to position herself in the aftermath of the King's death, some analysts believe, as a possible regent. The Crown Prince was himself previously close to Mr Thaksin. "There are multiple circles of players and influence surrounding the Thai royal family, often times with little overlap but with competing agendas, fuelled by years of physical separation and vacillating relationships between the principals," Mr John appears to have written in a 2009 cable.

In a statement, Kitti Wasinondh, Thailand's ambassador to London, said: "We are not in a position to comment on the working method of the US embassy in Thailand, or on the authenticity and accuracy of the documents, of which the content was apparently based on an individual's personal assessment, subjective analysis, partial secondary quotation, assumption and speculation rather than facts. It must be emphasised Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, which is above partisan politics. In recent years, attempts have been made by certain groups involved in the political conflict to draw the monarchy into the political fray for their own political gains. Such attempts should not be given any credence."

Brian Rex is the pen name of a journalist who writes for 'The Independent'

Extracts from the embassy cables

"It is hard to overestimate the political impact of the uncertainty surrounding the inevitable succession crisis which will be touched off once King Bhumibol passes."

July 2009

"Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn neither commands the respect nor displays the charisma of his beloved father, who has greatly expanded the prestige and influence of the monarchy during his 62-year-reign."

July 2009

"Queen Sirikit, departing from the example set by King Bhumibol over decades, has dragged an ostensibly apolitical monarchy into the political fray, to the institution's probable future detriment."

November 2008

"There are in fact multiple circles of players and influence surrounding the Thai royal family, often times with little overlap but with competing agendas, fuelled by years of physical separation and vacillating relationships between the principals."

November 2009

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