Tribute to King Bhumibol Adulyadej
Updated: Jun 7, 2019
By Joel Selway
I grew up as a half Thai in Britain. The daughter of a career diplomat, my mother had grown up in the control center of Thai nationalism--the bureaucracy, which ruled the country for decades in partnership with the military. But while I was aware of the King growing up, our house was not adorned with his picture or any kind of home-made shrine, unlike that of my extended family's homes in Thailand, whom I would get to know as an adult. The thousands of miles distance from Thailand and my mother's conversion to Christianity made the King a figure I was aware of, but for which I had no particular feelings. We did not speak Thai in the house, a practice common in mixed-heritage families during the seventies and eighties; only English. I went through the British school system, and my identity was fully British for all intents and purposes. I went to the William Harvey Grammar School in Folkestone and then later the Holy Trinity School, a Church of England school, in Crawley.
As a kid I have vivid memories of watching Charles and Diana's wedding, not so fond memories of being forced to watch the Queen's speech every Christmas, and joined in various VE celebrations where the Union Jack seemed to be the sole piece of decoration. As an adult I witnessed the meteoric displays of British affection for the monarchy at Princess Diana's funeral, the Queen's coronation anniversary, the wedding of William and Kate, and the 2012 Olympics. I had no such connections to the Thai monarchy growing up. .
Indeed, my only connection to the King had been prematurely severed by the passing of my mother in the spring of 1989 when I was just twelve. I wouldn't see a member of my Thai family for another nine years. In 1998, wanting to learn Thai, I ventured up to my aunt and uncle's house in Kingston Upon Thames. My uncle was on assignment in the Thai embassy in London, and his wife, who shared the same nickname as my mum (all Thais have a nickname), Tuk, began teaching me Thai. I stayed the night and my makeshift bed was in the front room. As I was settling in to go to sleep, my Aunt popped into the front room and stood before a portrait of the king, her hands clasped in a traditional Thai wai; what was she doing? It seemed like she was . . . it couldn't be, but, yes, she was praying to the King. To a throughly English man, the whole no-more-than-thirty-second ritual was utterly mysterious and fascinating. It peaked every last fiber of my curiosity. Was this King a man or a god?
I would spend a good portion of the next decade or so of my life learning the language, history, and culture of my mother's homeland, in part to answer this question. I learned Thai at university, minored in Asian studies where I wrote every term paper on Thailand, and then went on to do a PhD at the University of Michigan. I studied political science and continued to take Thai language and Southeast Asian courses. For my dissertation, I spent a year in Thailand on a Fulbright-Hays scholarship. I had gone there to study the politics of universal healthcare in a developing democracy, but the King could not be pried from politics in Thailand. No matter how much I wanted to believe that Thailand was a modern democracy on the verge of first-world status, the coup in September 2006 and the events over the past decade seared into my mind the role of this traditional political institution of the monarchy.
I had arrived for my dissertation field research in the midst of the Yellow Shirt protests in 2006--yellow being the color of the King's birthday--against the government of Thaksin Shinawatra. One claim made by the Yellow Shirts was that they were protecting the King from the alleged usurper, Thaksin. In between the topic of my dissertation, I devoured books on Thai nationalism and the history of the King. I meant to write on that topic next. A decade later and I am in the midst of penning a book manuscript on Thai nationalism. I have conducted three surveys in Thailand over the past five years all with the goal of understanding the King's influence on Thai politics. Such questions cannot, of course, be openly discussed. Even if they could, truthful answers could never be guaranteed on such a sensitive topic. As such, I turned to survey experiments to learn as much as I could about the King.
Let me share with you the findings from one of the studies. In this study, with Allen Hicken of the University of Michigan and Noppadon Kannika, formerly of Assumption University, we presented Thai respondents with a hypothetical candidate for political office. After describing various basic features of this candidate, we then varied whether the candidate made the following statement or not: I will do everything in my power to protect the institution of the monarchy. What difference did this make on Thais favorability of the candidate? The answer is complex, so I will just answer this for one subsection of the Thai populace. For Thais that supported the party of Thaksin Shinawatra, then known as Pheu Thai, when the candidate was Pheu Thai and declared support for the monarchy, support for that candidate increased significantly.
Why is this important? As the King has now passed, we get to see played out in Thai politics the predictions of numerous observers. Perhaps the most extreme prediction is that of a civil war along ethno-cultural lines (link). Indeed, the supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra and his successor parties are concentrated in the North and Northeast of Thailand, areas that speak different languages and have histories of separate polities from modern-day Thailand. These are the red-shirt supporters of Thaksin. Some Bangkok Thais might have images of them as traitors to the Nation, conjuring up memories of the Red Shirt protests in 2010 that turned the financial district into a near-on war zone; remembering calls for separatism right before the most recent coup in 2014. But these same Thais respond positively to candidates that declare support for the King. Indeed, the numerous questions I designed to get at the King's influence across these three surveys all point to a similar positive influence.
How do these results tie in with my own mixed-heritage upbringing? As a half Thai who grew up on the other side of the world without any particularly strong affection for the King of Thailand, I still get chills when I stand up at the cinema in Thailand and hear the King's anthem played to a beautifully choreographed video on His life. These feelings are only magnified for Thais who grew up in Thailand; not just Bangkok Thais who chose to don Yellow Shirts in past political movements, but Northern and Northeastern Thais who chose to wear red shirts instead, Khmer-speaking Thais living near the Cambodian border, ethnic minority Thais in the hills of Chiangmai. The vast majority of them will all be deeply pained at the King's passing. Now is the time to unite, not divide. Accept that political differences exist, discuss them, resolve them. Don't use the King's name as ammunition in a political struggle. Then the King's positive influence I was able to detect in academic research will actually mean something. If in His passing his memory is used for division, that betrays any type of legacy he would have wanted for the nation he helped consolidate.
Dr. Joel Sawat Selway, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Political Science
Director Political Economy and Development Labs (PEDL)
Faculty Associate, Asian Studies Program
Brigham Young University