Prudhisan Jumbala

M.R.Prudhisan Jumbala is an associate professor in Politics, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, and is on the committees of the two foundations and the King Prajadhipok Museum. 

His Majesty and the Country's Governance

Seventy four years ago on June 24, 1932, the so-called Absolute Monarchy in Siam was ended by a coup, even though the then reigning and ruling King Prajadhipok was undertaking steps to bring about a Constitutional Monarchy. On March 2, 1935, the King abdicated, saying:

"Now that I am of the opinion that my desire for the people to have a real voice in the policies of the country has not been fulfilled and as I feel that now there is no longer any way for me to assist and protect the people, I therefore desire to abdicate…”

It was known among those close to him that H.M. King Prajadhipok was well aware that incessant conflict between the Monarch and the government would be detrimental to the country's progress. Thus, by removing himself from the throne, he not only underscored the importance of individual freedom and the rule of law but also helped to ensure the survival of the Monarchy.

While he declined to exercise his right to name a successor, it was also known that he mused that it would be good for the country should Parliament choose to elevate an offspring of his beloved half-brother, H.R.H. Prince Mahidol, as King, for the then deceased Prince "was a real democrat who was close to the people and who had sacrificed much for the people’s well being. He was therefore loved by them. Such love and respect they had for him might motivate them to also love his offspring, and thus be good for the country.”

This year, also in the month of June, the country is joyously and thankfully celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the Accession to the Throne of the second son of H.R.H. Prince Mahidol. H.M. King Prajadhipok's “prediction” had really come true.

However, as we celebrate, let us recall and appreciate well that it was no mean feat for His Majesty the King to have accomplished.

H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej became a constitutional king after his as yet uncrowned 20 year-old brother, H.M. King Ananda Mahidol, met a sudden death on June 9, 1946. He himself was 18 years old at the time. Until his coronation in 1950, Thailand had been without a crowned resident Monarch for some 15 years since H.M. King Prajadhipok’s abdication. The onus was thus on His present Majesty to revitalise the status of the Monarchy and to fashion for it anew a role appropriate to the constitutional order.

Virtuous and Constitutional King

Though bound by constitutional constraints, His Majesty none the less pronounced the Oath of Accession to “reign with righteousness for the benefit and happiness of all the people of Siam”, thus stating his royal intention to be a “Dharma Raja” or “Virtuous King” who would not act arbitrarily but within moral bounds, nor to seek personal benefits but to do all for the benefit of his people. The traditional idea actually dovetails nicely with that of the rule of law in a modern constitutional order. On this, His Majesty was to expound in 1978 and 1979 to the effect that though laws applied to all equally, they were mere instruments of justice rather than justice itself. Delivering justice required more than laws; a sense of morality and ethics and the recognition of the realities of the situation were also imperative.

Faced with a feeble constitutional order in the reign’s early years and with a government largely unappreciative of a Constitutional Monarch’s right to be consulted, to encourage and to warn, His Majesty none the less persevered in the performance of his duty for the people’s benefit. He personally initiated many healthcare, educational and disaster relief programmes and also began pilot studies on rural development. When the opportunity arose, he made arduous trips to the outlying regions to visit his people and to find ways of alleviating their hardships. Thus endearing himself to his people, the Monarchy became a reality in the hearts and minds of the Thai.

Developing influence

In 1957, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat seized power and consolidated his ‘revolutionary’ regime. In reality a dictatorship devoid of any claim to legitimacy except for the reference to the paternalism of past kings and a commitment to national development, the regime had to rely on the Monarch as the fountain of legitimacy domestically and as the representative of a modern nation internationally, qualities which the regime itself lacked.

In such circumstances, His Majesty was able to demonstrate in his own unique way the contributions a constitutional monarch could make to national development. He personally pioneered and paid for many development projects that reached out to the people in ways that the government bureaucracy failed to do, handing them over to the government to carry on in due course. These thus supplemented, and carved the way for, government programmes rather than conflicted with them. Neither were they beyond criticism. His Majesty is known to have said that, if they were, progress would not come about. In fact, the objective was to help the people to help themselves and become self-sufficient, and as a consequence better able to govern themselves.

His Majesty’s patient and persevering pursuit of a step-by-step and evolutionary approach to the acting out of his role without incurring conflicts with the government in power eventuated in his having boundless royal influence in place of the powers Absolute Monarchs of times past had at their disposal.

Influence at times of crisis

His Majesty has sparingly, carefully and suitably used the influence so built up to bring about resolutions to national political crises in the last 30 years of greater political consciousness about the meanings of constitutionalism and democracy among the general public.

October 1973

When in 1973, as students rallied to demand constitutional rule from the then military regime, His Majesty advised the government to avoid violence and the students to use their heads instead of their feet. Violence none the less broke out as soldiers fired on the demonstrators. Bloodshed ensued and the Prime Minister resigned. His Majesty timelily went on television to announce the royal appointment of a civilian Prime Minister, duly countersigned, thereby bringing instant peace. Later, his influence was crucial in the appointment of a new Legislative Assembly from a broad section of the public to scrutinize a newly drafted constitution along democratic lines. Yet when that document gave him the right to appoint senators nominated by the Privy Council, his advisors, His Majesty expressed his unease and the constitution was amended accordingly. In sum, having used his influence to resolve a national crisis, he sought to remain above politics as befitting a Constitutional Monarch.

May 1992

In 1991, there was a coup against an elected government. Later a new constitution was drafted which allowed the appointment of a non-elected Prime Minister. This made it possible for the newly elected House of Representatives to install General Suchinda Kraprayoon, a coup leader, as Prime Minister. Public dissatisfaction ensued. Many felt that it signaled a return to military dominance. Some petitioned the King to dissolve Parliament. On this, His Majesty has recounted, demonstrating well how careful he was to act within constitutional constraints:

“I consulted all the 11 political parties in Parliament. Of these, 10 said that Parliament should not be dissolved. Only one said it should be. So… the course of action was not taken.”

Later, a massive rally was held to demand Suchinda’s resignation and when General Chamlong Srimuang, a prominent leader of the rally, and others were arrested and soldiers moved in to quell the demonstrators, bloodshed ensued without signs of ending. In the near civil war situation, the people looked again to the Monarch, even though they considered themselves part of civil society for democracy.

On the fourth day, the 20th of May 1992, His Majesty again timelily exerted his influence to resolve the national crisis. He gave Suchinda and Chamlong an audience and brought them to their senses by saying that the crisis had developed from a political one into a national one, affecting the people’s security and morale and the survival of the nation. Therefore he beseeched the two to put their heads together, rather than confront each other, for the country’s sake.

Subsequently, Suchinda resigned and peace and normalcy returned. The Speaker of the House of Representatives had the sense to nominate a non-politician, Anand Panyarachun, as Prime Minister. When the constitution had been amended to ensure that only a MP could become Prime Minister, Parliament was dissolved and new general elections were held. A process of redemocratisation was thus begun.

The current crisis in 2006

Alas, even if the May 1992 events had mobilized many sections of the general public to push for democratic reforms and the drafting anew of a constitution with public opinions widely sought in the process such that it was promulgated in 1997, the Thai constitutional order has not escaped the lack of confidence in corrupt politicians who use both state power and the power of money for their own benefits.

In 2006, the Thai constitutional order is facing yet another crisis. Arising out of dissatisfaction in some sections of the public with Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, of the party with a massive majority in the House, for his lack of ethics in having conflicts of interest and in using state power for personal benefits, a series of large peaceful rallies and marches were held to demand his resignation. Again, petitions were made to His Majesty beseeching him to deliver a ‘royally-appointed’ Prime Minister.

Thaksin decided not to resign but instead dissolved the House and called for new elections on only 37 days of dissolution. The former opposition parties boycotted them in protest, making it virtually impossible for there to be a full House arising from them. There was also a lack of confidence as to whether the Election Commission would conduct free and fair elections. All this compounded into a crisis of immobilism of the constitutional process.

Once again, His Majesty the King has had to use his inordinate wisdom in finding and showing the way to resolve the crisis within constitutional bounds. In the end, he timelily seized the occasion on April 25, 2006, when the Presidents of the Administrative Court and of the Supreme Court were routinely in audience to express his distress that people had been petitioning him for a “royally-appointed Prime Minister, something which is not democratic.” If he were to appoint one, he would be acting beyond his constitutional duty. He thus offered his opinion that “if there were not enough people elected, the democratic system would stall” and that “one party, one candidate (running in some constituencies) is not possible in a democracy.” He then beseeched the two Court Presidents to consult with the President of the Constitutional Court, as together they were the Judiciary, to find ways of resolving the immobility, “without contravening the provisions of the constitution, such that the country could overcome the obstacles and make progress.”

His Majesty thus exercised his right to remind the Judiciary that as the third branch of government, it had governmental duties to perform, actually “with broad jurisdictions”, to advise it in the performance of them and also to encourage it to “fight for goodness, fight for justice in the land.”

With such ideas as guiding lights, the three Courts diligently and assuredly began their quest for non-conflicting measures to deal with the immobilism.

In sum, H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej has throughout the 60 years of his reign dedicated himself to the performance of his duties as a Constitutional Monarch in such a way as to have made the Monarchy into “the invariable constant above the inconstancies of politics” so as to sustain the democratization process. We Thais should trouble His benevolent Majesty less by learning how to really govern ourselves.

An excerpt from the Exhibition ‘Two Virtuous Kings’ to be shown at the King Prajadhipok Museum at Panfa Bridge July 2 to September 30. Tel (02) 2803413-4

Keywords : King Prajadhipok, King Phumibol, Constitutional Monarchy, Prudhisan Jumbala
Jul 19, 06   

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