the king cult

We happened to be in Chiang Mai for the King of Thailand’s birthday. If you haven’t been to Thailand, you can have no idea how big a deal this is. The Thai’s really love their king!

The evidence is everywhere you look. There were posters on every available wall, in every taxi and tuk-tuk. There was yellow bunting on every light pole. The papers and magazines all run articles praising the king. At least half the population seemed to be wearing a yellow ‘king’ shirt. His birthday is celebrated with a public holiday that was described to us by one Thai as like father’s day, “because he is father to all of us”. This was said in all honesty and without a hint of the irony we Australians would attach to such a statement. It all gets a bit unsettling.

So, who is this king? From his Wikipedia entry:

Bhumibol was born in the United States and educated primarily in Switzerland. Bhumibol is also an accomplished musician, artist, and sailor. He is one of the wealthiest people in the world and has received many honours.

OK, he seems pretty benign.

Much is made of the projects he sponsors, though I have to say they have that sniff of ‘publicity stunt’ about them. Don’t get me wrong, they are worthy projects, targetted at needy areas of Thai life – it’s probably my cynical side, but they always seem to be well photographed… excellent publicity material.

Then there are the awards, and again, I’m copying from Wikipedia:

Bhumibol set a world record for receiving the greatest number of honorary university degrees (136) in 1997. Most of his degrees came from Thai universities: for instance, Kasetsart University awarded him ten honorary doctoral degrees at once.

you gotta wonder, don’t you? Isn’t that just a little bit like fawning?

He seems to be a modestly talented musician, playing jazz clarinet sweetly and composing some pretty catchy tunes. He also has inherited his father’s skills in boat design and sailing. All very nice, but you’d have to agree that things like learning music and sailing boats are made just that little bit easier by application of vast sums of money. Something he seems to have in ready supply.

He is, sadly, not photogenic. You can’t have everything. I won’t stoop to personal criticism, but he is not your classic good looker. On the other hand, and I applaud him for it, he doesn’t hide behind a facade of stylists and image makers – the photos you’ll see around Thailand are very simple, real snapshots… including one cracker of him playing the saxophone. I wish I’d got a copy of that one!

So, why is it all so unsettling? I can’t believe that everyone is happy with the king, but you won’t hear or read a single word against him anywhere. He is completely untouchable. That’s not natural.

There is a law against criticism of the king, with quite severe penalties, but I don’t know how vigorously it is applied. This last quote from Wikipedia gives one pause to reflect, though:

Frenchman Lech Tomacz Kisielwicz committed lèse majesté while on a Thai Airways flight in international airspace, and was jailed for two weeks after his flight landed in Bangkok. He was acquitted after apologizing to the King.

I would have thought that was pretty vigorous application of the law! Long live the king!!