King's Cancellation Puts Thailand Back on Edge

Posted by: Frederik Balfour on December 5, 2008

It has been a remarkable week for Thailand. A potentially bloody confrontation between protestors and police at Bangkok’s two airports was averted after the Supreme Court ruled that Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat must resign because of electoral fraud committed during. It’s widely believed that the anti-Somchai protestors had the blessing of Thailand’s revered King Bhumipol Adulyadej.

But even as the nation breathed a huge sigh of relief that the 8-day airport standoff ended peacefully this week, a new source of anxiety has developed over the health of the monarch. On Dec 4, the eve of his 81st birthday, the King was forced to cancel his annual National Day speech because he “was a little unwell,” from a throat infection. His yearly addresses have always been carefully parsed by analysts, and there was much anticipation of how he would address the nation just days after Thailand’s worse political crisis since the riots of 1992.

Though the King rarely intervenes in politics except in times of extreme crisis, past prime ministers have nearly always deferred to his judgment, and in the past he has used his speeches as a way to obliquely state his disapproval of current leaders, most notably former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who in 2001 was rebuked by the King for getting above himself. Some commentators, such as Philip Bowring, have pointed out that the King perceives Thaksin as the biggest threat the monarchy faces. That is no doubt why Bhumipol watched with satisfaction as protesters helped engineer the ousting of Somchai, who is Thaksin’s brother-in-law.

It’s a pity that the King was stricken with an illness at a time when his country sorely needs reassurance of a stable future. The economy was already faltering before the airports were closed, and the economy will suffer a double blow from the loss of exports and tourism. Foreign investors, meanwhile, can’t help but have the impression that Thailand is becoming the new banana republic (or should I see rice republic) of Asia that alternates between corrupt leaders and military coups.

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