BANGKOK – The King of Thailand, constitutionally, is head of state and above politics. But this past Sunday, on the eve of his 78th birthday, revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej – with incomparable grace, subtlety and sense of humor – de facto intervened to potentially defuse what Thais consider the gravest threat to their society at the moment.
This is the bitter row between Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his most vocal critic, media entrepreneur Sondhi Limthongkul, founder of the Manager Media Group, who’s been relentlessly accusing the government of corruption and arrogance of power.
Every year King Bhumibol – whose 60th anniversary of accession to the throne is celebrated next year – delivers what amounts to a state of the nation address enveloped in a deceptively simple tone, almost as if he is narrating a parable.
In Sunday’s speech, closely monitored by all Thais, the King essentially advised the nation – and especially the prime minister – that constructive criticism is to be encouraged, and lawsuits should not be deployed to silence critics. The immediate consequence was that two days later Thaksin’s legal team dropped a slew of six criminal and civil suits against Sondhi, totaling more than 2 billion baht (US$50 million).
King Bhumibol developed his argument around the theme of lese-majeste in such a way that Thaksin could not but be forced to adopt a more conciliatory note. “I would like [to see] some criticism of the king because if the public cannot make any criticisms, then it is like the king is not a human being.” He admitted that nobody, not even the king, can do no wrong – so downright punishment to every criticism of the monarchy, without taking it into context, can also be detrimental to the perception of Thailand abroad.
King Bhumibol drove the message home even further by teasing Thaksin – mentioning how the prime minister loved to be praised and got very angry whenever criticized. “Lawyers teach the PM, telling him to sue, to punish. This is how they teach the PM … Punishment is not good. In the end, the PM is not troubled, the king is in trouble … Do you want the king to be troubled? … Lawyers should know what is right or wrong.” The king also added, in a direct message to Thaksin, that he didn’t need to go on TV “to defend yourself every day because people are tired of it.” Thais, he said, prefer to watch soap operas. And on top of it, this was a waste of … electricity.
Since his talk show Thailand This Week – the only political talk show in the country – was axed by state-run Channel 9 in mid-September, Sondhi had gone mobile, first broadcasting from Thammasat University in Bangkok and then from Lumpini park in downtown Bangkok, always presenting hard evidence that pointed to Thaksin and his government abusing power. The crowds got bigger and bigger – numbering tens of thousands, most of them sporting the yellow T-shirt with the inscription “We Shall Fight for the King,” which is a sort of banner for the incipient movement.
Before Thaksin’s lawsuits were dropped, Sondhi was saying he wanted no less than 500,000 people in Lumpini park this coming Friday shouting “We want Thaksin out.” The corruption allegations in the mobile talk show may not have translated into a mass political movement – yet, but Sondhi’s goals remain extremely clear. “First of all, I want transparency in government. I want them to correct what they have done wrong. Second, I’m fighting for press freedom. The government, among other things, is still blocking the satellite signal [from ASTV, which broadcasts the talk show] from local cable stations.”
And Sondhi still plans to go ahead with his proposal of constitutional experts drafting and delivering a petition calling for the king to intervene in modifying the Thai constitution, whose current loopholes allow collusion between business and politics.
This essentially means that the mobile Thailand This Week talk show – which has evolved into a political rally – will go ahead Friday as planned; and there won’t be a change of tone, said Sondhi, even though rumors were circulating in Bangkok that the show might be canceled due to political pressure.
People such as political scientist Prayad Hongthongkham, quoted by the English-language daily The Nation, have argued that Sondhi’s show “should be more constructive and include issues that help solve problems that the country faces.” That’s the way Sondhi himself sees it. “The lawsuits were brought by the government because they thought that would silence me. Now that they are withdrawn, that won’t stop me from talking. The king in his speech has indirectly supported my criticism.”
All eyes will remain fixed on Lumpini park on Friday. How will the growing crowds attracted by what the Thai media has dubbed “the Sondhi phenomenon” react to what amounts to the king’s endorsement of constructive criticism? According to government spokesman Surapong Suebwonglee, Thaksin’s cabinet now seems to have understood that as public figures they are supposed to accept criticism and respond to it in a constructive way.
Would this be the case of the king’s timely intervention leading to an unheard of face-to-face between Thaksin and Sondhi to the benefit of the Thai nation?