After more than an hour and a half of one of the most disturbing and uncomfortable ceremonies I have ever witnessed (on television), I could bear to stand it no longer. An elderly and frail king in a wheelchair sitting mostly alone at a table trying to look at elephants and singers and some type of flautist through binoculars (but unable to hold them steadily), the sight of people bowing down at his feet while an aide pushes the wheelchair, and the canned footage of his past picking of rice in the same field where he was present today, or of the help of the army during the flooding last year, were just too much to take in. At least the elephant jousting was a good sight, but about everything else about the hour and a half was deeply troubling.
Over this past week, for what precise reason is unclear, there were furious attempts for the family of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (the Chiang Mai-bred younger sister of the former Prime Minister Taksin Shinawatra, currently in exile and seeking reconciliation with the corrupt military elites who threw him out of office in a coup about six years ago) to buy a plot of land that the king of Thailand had “harvested” in a photo op on May 14, 1996 that is common stock footage in videos shown here before every movie or play as well as twice a day that serve to glorify the Thai monarchy. The land cost 20,000,000 baht (about $650-700,000) to purchase from four owners, and was given as a “donation” to the king and queen, where this “historic plot” of land was dedicated today in a ceremony that seemed to make little sense except in a bizarre political way . After all, taking a plot of land from its economic purpose and donating it to an unproductive and parasitic royal establishment would be like stealing from an olive tree or a fig and giving it to a thistle . The land would be better used growing food to feed people than it will as a monument to a king’s supposed love and concern for the people of Thailand.
At any rate, this afternoon the royal entourage came by car to the area of Thong Makham Yong (with the rest of the poor plebians, including some people in rather fancy dress uniforms) either running to catch up with the slowly moving vans or walking in a more stately fashion behind the royal party. I had been told by my boss, of course, to set up the television for all of the students there right now to watch, but it was the foreigners among us (myself included) who were most caught and disturbed by what was seen. The rest of the people who watched it occasionally (and only briefly–none of the students stayed there to watch it for very long) thought it was beautiful and had no other feelings about it that were expressed. For me, hearing the people shout “long live the king” (at least, I think that’s what they were saying in Thai) over and over and over again to a frail king whose spark of life is very dim was rather unsettling. Though when my boss called me about the ceremony yesterday to tell me to set up the television, he expected the king to be walking on his own power, no such evidence of his health was present today, as the king did not even have the power to lift his arms for long, much less stand or walk. It felt like a goodbye, a final ceremonial show, not like a mighty return to strength. Sadly, the king seemed like the area of Ayutthaya itself, a sad and faded reflection of what has seen far better days. The few times that the camera pointed to him, he did not look happy at all, neither did the people marching next to the elephants.
There was no holiday today from what I know of, no specific ceremony today that was involved. The royal ceremony seemed intent on showing the power and majesty of the king, of reflecting on the ancient and noble history of Ayutthaya, the once fabled capital of Thailand before it fell to Burmese armies in 1767, as well as showing the damage of the flood, the role of the monarchy and military in flood relief efforts, and the phoenix-like renewal of the area and their appreciation for all that their king has done for the nation . I am not cut out to be a courtier, as that sort of propagandistic ceremony is deeply uncomfortable for me to watch, much less participate in. But it is unclear how deeply the symbolism of the area is meant to reflect the behavior of the present Thai monarchy. After all, the specific location where the celebration today was held had a statue (frequently shown in the ceremony) where Queen Suryothai sacrificed her life to save her kingdom, and the current Queen of Thailand feels a close tie with that particular Thai queen. It is quite possible that the ceremony’s main purpose is to show what sort of sacrifice the monarchs have made (in health and well-being, perhaps) for the well-being of the Thai people. After all, for a divine right monarchy to endure, there must be a feeling that the prosperity of the people depends on their submission to a righteous and legitimate monarch whose rituals and actions alone can keep the threat of anarchy and decay away.
It remains unclear just how successful this ceremony will be in its intended role as a moral masque for the Thai people in general. Much depends on the true feelings of the Thai people for their monarchy and its elite supporters in business, politics, and the military. Do the people really love the king? I don’t know. Do they pretend to love him to his face, keep his photo in their house or car superstitiously to avoid being seen as offending lese majeste? Maybe. The current government is seeking to “reconcile” with the electorally defeated elite circles in the military, to show that they are not a threat to Thai’s royal family and elite establishment. To the extent that the support of the ruling party depends on the legitimate grievances of the common people in marginalized and neglected areas against that corrupt elite, their support will be lost by attempting to curry favor with it. And if that is the case, no amount of fancy ceremonies is going to save Thailand from the horror of civil warfare. I cannot say if that is the case; I certainly do not know enough Thai, nor are the Thai people willing to talk about such matters openly (given the massive jail sentences that result from Thai citizens speaking anything that can remotely be construed as being against the monarchy). In such an environment, I imagine most people lay low, try to put on a good show of loyalty, and keep whatever is in their heart deeply hidden from outside view. Coerced love is not love, though, nor do all the monuments and statues and historic places mean that one’s regime is truly beloved by one’s people, upon whom all regimes depend for their endurance and legitimacy. Given what I have seen tonight as night fell on Ayutthaya, uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, and with good reason.