Today is Father’s Day in Thailand. It is also the birthday of Thailand’s king. This is not a coincidence. In Thailand there are two mutually irreconcilable visions about the nation and the king, both present in two holidays five days apart. Today Thais (including the students here at Legacy Institute) have off of school or work because of the King’s Birthday. Some business are closed the whole week, like an independent coffee shop I normally walk by on the North side of the moat, and sometimes stop in for a fruit smoothie and a little bit of CNN International. In five days, Thais celebrate Constitution Day, when Thailand ceased to be an absolute monarchy and became a Constitutional Monarchy bound by the rule of law. These two visions are irreconcilable.
I have no doubt that the King of Thailand, King Bhumibol Adulyajeh, deeply loves his country and desires their best long-term interests. There is no question that he desires sustainable and gradual development and deeply hates the rise in materialism and destructive plantation monoculture that is going on all over Thailand, as little as he can do about it. Nonetheless, for the king and queen to have Father’s Day and Mother’s Day  on their birthdays is an entirely different picture than a constitutional monarchy where even the monarchs and the royalist defenders of the monarchy are subject to the rule of law in their own actions. It is a simple fact that no electoral mandate will endure in Thailand unless those civilian politicians are seen as acting in the best interests of the crown, and that those who speak out against the crown are subject to lengthy jail sentences for sending anti-monarchial text messages, or even “liking” anti-monarchial Facebook pages. Rest assured, this blog is not one of those.
Nonetheless, there is a great tension between the extreme deference given to the Thai ruler according to Thai law, which means that even a foreigner in a bus station at 8:00AM, or at the beginning of a soccer match, or just before the start of a movie at the cinema has to stand up with arms at his side when the royal anthem plays for several minutes, and the fact that Thailand is, officially, a constitutional monarch where even the actions of the king and the military (the chief backer of the monarchy, it would seem) are subject to the law. Lest we forget, the Thai Constitutional Monarchy began in 1932 after a tense but bloodless coup in which a Constitution was forced upon the seventh ruler of the Chakra Dynasty . There is still a widespread belief that the common people of Thailand are like children, unfit to rule and unprepared for democracy, and having the birthdays of the monarchs as Father’s and Mother’s Day for Thailand seems to support this notion at least implicitly.
As an American, and a pretty egalitarian one at that, this is a very foreign mindset. As an American, no more prone to give deference than the vast majority of my people, I consider the fathers of my country to have been those brave and intrepid rebels who threw off the yoke of colonial bondage and delivered a constitution that required deep personal responsibility and gave great freedoms to ordinary citizens such as myself. Their being dead a long time ago is a great aid to honoring and respecting them, because it is easier to honor the great dead than to be faced with the far more difficult task of honoring those who live here and now and whose mistakes and blunders are immensely harmful to the lives of those who are expected to honor them. This is one big reason, aside from my being a part of a particularly disrespectful generation in a particularly ill-inclined culture to respect and reverence for authority, why even the biblically mandated respect for authority and honor for parents is a hard enough standard to meet, much less the even greater honor typically accorded to oriental monarchs that is wholly foreign, if not hostile, to my worldview.
Some day (not today), Thailand is going to have to decisively answer which vision of the monarchy is going to be enforced by law. Are kings (and rulers in general, whether political or military or religious) the servants of the people whose job it is to ensure the best interests of the people and to serve at the pleasure of the common folk, or are rulers the parents and lords of the people, demanding blind loyalty and extreme, even worshipful reverence, regardless of the good will or competence of the particular ruler? It is a fateful decision, and one that I am glad I do not have to answer for Thailand specifically, since it is the business of the Thai people themselves. My opinion on the matter in general is sufficiently well known for readers of this blog (or people who know me personally) to be superfluous to mention. For now I remain an interested and concerned observer in the matter, in the hope that honor may be given to those for whom honor is due, and that love and respect be given with pleasure rather than coerced under threat. For forced love is not love.