Friday, December 5, 2008

King's illness sparks anxiety

Dec 5, 2008

Failure to deliver annual speech likely to deepen political paralysis

BANGKOK - IN SIX decades on the throne, Thailand's king has stepped in to defuse political crises and halt bloodshed.

But not now: The revered 81-year-old monarch was too ill to deliver his annual birthday speech this year.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej's failure to show up for the anxiously awaited address on Thurdsay shocked a country reeling from three years of political turmoil and uncertain about its future.

In the past two weeks, the country saw the seven-day seizure of Bangkok's two airports by protesters and the ouster of its government.

'I am worried. I think all Thais are worried. Thailand needs him. He is the only one who can make people on both sides realise they are ruining the country. He is the only one who can unify Thailand,' said Mr Rojana Duangkaew, a 28-year-old pharmacist, shortly after the king sent his son and daughter to represent him at the birthday event.

Princess Sirindhorn said the king was weak and suffering from bronchitis and inflammation of the esophagus but that his 'condition is not serious.'

The king's last public appearance was Wednesday when he looked haggard while inspecting royal troops. He spoke briefly, reading hoarsely from a text, and seemed barely able to keep his head up.

Last year, the king was hospitalised for more than three weeks for symptoms of a stroke and a colon infection. He also has a history of heart trouble and was operated on in 2006 for a spinal problem.

The question of royal succession has long weighed heavily on Thai politics, and ordinary Thais but probably never more than now.

Although a constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol built up his great power through decades of work on behalf of the poor, charisma and political astuteness.

His 56-year-old son, Prince Vajiralongkorn, has nowhere near the king's talents, stature or moral authority.

There is concern that Prince Vajiralongkorn, who has married three times and fathered seven children, will have difficulty living up to King Bhumibol's record of diligence.

Princess Sirindhorn, 53, who could technically also succeed her father, is talented and highly popular but said to lack political savvy. There is also almost no historical precedent for a woman becoming the country's ruler.

The royal crisis could not have come at worse time for Thailand, as it struggles to recover from an anti-government campaign by the People's Alliance for Democracy.

It started with mass protests in late 2005 to oust then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was removed in a 2006 military coup amid accusations of gross corruption and attempting to undermine the monarchy. The coup is widely believed to have been backed by the palace.

Mr Thaksin's supporters won elections held in December 2007. But the protest alliance rejected the outcome, saying the new government was a proxy for Mr Thaksin, and began another round of agitation which culminated with the seizure of Bangkok's two airports.

The alliance ended its airport siege after a court Tuesday ousted the government for voter fraud in the last elections.

But deep, potentially explosive, divisions in Thai society remain. A new government is likely to still include Mr Thaksin allies and the pro-monarchy alliance has vowed to return to the streets if it does.

Although international flights have been partially restored, the crisis has knocked out the lucrative tourist industry and will also hit hard at other economic sectors.

'There were great expectations that awaited this speech and it had been a collective hope that he would be the savior of the day,' said Professor Thitinan Pongsidhirak, a political lecturer at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

The king and monarchy as an institution have been key elements in the political upheaval of recent years although much has been carried out in the shadows, given the secrecy and reverence surrounding King Bhumibol as well as strict laws punishing those who move against royal family members.

Insulting the monarchy, known as the crime of 'lese majeste,' carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.

On Thursday, Reporters Without Borders called for the release of Australian author Harry Nicolaides, who faces a 'lese majeste' charge, and was refused bail for the fourth time earlier this week.

The advocacy group said Mr Nicolaides has been held in prison since August on a charge related to a book published three years ago in which he referred to the way a unnamed crown prince treated one of his mistresses.

Both the Thaksin camp and the alliance pledged their loyalty to Bhumibol - it would have been political suicide not to do so.

But Mr Thaksin's pledges were viewed as highly suspect, although he gained, and maintains, immense popularity among the rural poor, who are generally genuine supporters of the king.

'Thaksin was seen as a competitor to the throne. His popular regime was seen as dangerous to the monarchical institution in a longer term.'

'Monarchists worried that with the king's passing and uncertainty of succession, the Thaksin camp would gain so they were anxious to suppress him,' said Professor Thongchai Winichakul, a political lecturer at the University of Wisconsin.

Thus the king's mortality and the succession issue contributed to the sharpening of the political conflict and will probably continue to do so.

'The main powers in the palace and military believe that they would be able to keep things on even keel through the succession if there is no one like Thaksin to challenge for power,' said Mr Paul Handley, author of a critical book on the monarchy, The King Never Smiles.

During the recent protests, at least some people in the palace appeared to signal their support for the alliance, with Queen Sirikit attending the funeral of a protester killed in one demonstration.

Professor Michael J. Montesano, an expert on Southeast Asia at the National University of Singapore, said that in the short term the king's illness and fading from the scene may 'get people to moderate their partisanship but at the same time it could deepen the underlying reasons for that partisanship.'

'It's going to contribute to feelings of great dread ... and concern about the fact that an era about which they felt really secure is approaching its end,' he said. -- AP

[An astute but ageing king. An heir with less authority. A country in political turmoil. Rival factions fighting to decide the future of the country. A populist leader sidelined by political rivals. They should make a soap opera of this.]

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