Prospect‘s James Crabtree was full of praise for The Economist‘s unprecedented, biting articles on the Thai monarchy, “A Right Royal Mess.” It’s a piece that certainly suggests the Economist does not fear moving its South East Asia desk out of Bangkok. Yet the article ultimately misses the central point about the Thai monarchy—that it is a moral compass and a comfort for many Thais, a function never matched even by Queen Victoria in her imperial pomp.
Still, there’s no doubt that it it was brave. And the response of the Thai authorities will be keenly watched. Some 30-odd people have been charged under Thailand’s severe lèse majesté laws (which make insulting the monarchy a criminal offence) over the last couple of years, some for saying far less than the Economist just has. A new government might try to burnish its patriotic credentials with some Brit bashing. Those Thai intellectuals, foreign observers, journalists and academics who find the monarchy curious must be delighted.
Bravery aside, there is a strong whiff of condescension in the Economist‘s tone: “It cannot be good for a country to subscribe to a fairy-tale version of its own story” it says. Meanwhile King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 81 last Friday, “risks leaving behind a country unprepared for life without father.” The Economist gives the monarchy credit for nothing: apparently it is an irrational institution, out of time and of scant utility. Yet Thailand’s monarchy coexisted quite comfortably with civilian prime ministers for most of the period between 1980 until a couple of years after Thaksin came to power in 2001. The Economist seems not to have understood that many Thais hate Thaksin for his strange megalomania; an election victory does not licence despotism.
Also, the Economist takes it for granted that King Bhumibol, who inherited the throne in 1946 as an 18-year-old, has developed formidable manipulative skills that have shaped and slowed Thailand’s development. Yet there is really little hard evidence that the King has—at the mundane political level—been a proactive leader. It can often be equally argued that the King “goes with the flow.” No doubt anyone who would prefer a managerial head of state will be disappointed by this. But to ignore the monarch’s role as the moral centre of Thai nation, the guarantor of its…