As anti-government protesters said they would lift their siege of Bangkok’s airports, frustrated tourists boarded charter flights back to their home countries on Wednesday. The acting prime minister said he would appoint a new prime minister soon and the political limbo continued. But what role is the Thai king playing in all this political turmoil? Both the pro and anti-government protesters hope that he will make a statement but so far he has kept mum.
Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej
King Bhumibol Adulyadej is the highest authority in Thailand. He is above government, above the constitutional organs. He has the last word in everything. Although the constitution stipulates that his function is purely representative, for most Thais he is much more.
“Throughout his reign, he has proved that he devotes all his efforts to the Thai people. That’s why we love him -- because he loves us,” explains Thongthong Chandransu, an expert on the Thai monarchy.
Bhumibol Adulyadej is everywhere to be seen. Life-size posters of him adorn buildings in every city, across the country. The law forbids any criticism of him. Nobody would dare question his role in public.
Two years ago, a Swiss citizen of Thailand was sentenced to 10 years in jail for drunkenly ripping down posters of the king. He was pardoned by the king himself after a few months.
Moral authority propping up the state
During his 60 years of reign, the monarchy’s moral authority has grown. The king has always known when to get involved in a situation -- or not. 21 governments have come and gone, there have been 20 coups. But Bhumibol remains as the symbol which props up the state.
Two years ago, the generals who had staged the coup against former Prime Minister Thaksin paid their respects to the King. They would never have succeeded without his consent.
All the pro and anti-government supporters on the streets today insist they are fighting for democracy and their king. They, too, seem to love the monarch who turns 81 on Friday.
“He has an extraordinary meaning for my life, for my whole family and I think this goes for all Thais,” says one man.
Another woman agrees: “He has done so much for the people in Thailand, he does everything for the good of the people and for the country’s development.”
Setting the stage for the post-king era
So far, the king has stayed out of the current political conflict. Not least because he is part of the cause. There is a power game going on -- politicians are setting the stage for the post-Bhumibol era.
The king is old and ill and many royalists are worried they will lose their influence when he dies. While the supporters of Thaksin and his allies want to abolish the monarchy, claim the People’s Alliance for Democracy.
The PAD also has a weighty supporter within the royal family. Queen Sirikit attended the funeral of a PAD supporter who died in violent clashes in October. This could be one reason why neither the police nor the army stepped in to end the siege at Bangkok’s airports.
Although the airports are now being cleared, the political crisis looks set to continue.
Meanwhile, however, King Bhumibol is keeping silent.