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The Personal is Political: Placing Thailand's Revival of Polygyny in Context

Thai King

by Tamara Loos, professor of history

“How can I be a spare man? How can I?” An exasperated and offended King Mongkut queried Anna Leonowens about a British newspaper’s reference to him as spare, a term he (mis)understood as meaning extra, rather than the intended meaning of thin.1

In the fictional film Anna and the King of Siam, and in real life, Siam’s King Mongkut did indeed scour the foreign press to learn about foreign views of his kingdom. I am less certain about how Thailand’s current monarch, King Vajiralongkorn, values foreign media reporting on his reign.

Within Thailand, authorities severely hamper reportage about the royal family. The police and some members of the civilian population troll social media, particularly posts produced by Thai citizens, for potentially offending content. Twitter, which cannot be easily controlled by Thai authorities, is one of the few remaining media spaces where one can read critical but typically anonymous views about Thai royal and military affairs. Facebook users, who have proved easier to identify, have been prosecuted and jailed for posts deemed defamatory to the royal family, the police, and an ever expanding list of groups and institutions considered representative of the royal-military government. For example, since the 2014 coup, the military regime has charged over ninety people with sedition, often for their pro-democracy posts on Facebook. Nearly thirty more have been arrested simply for sharing posts deemed critical of the military, the monarch, or the government.2

The criminalization of free speech within Thailand and pressure placed on Thais who live abroad (but who have loved ones in-country) to remain silent makes it a moral imperative for scholars and reporters outside Thailand to speak up, with humility and acknowledgment of their protected position. Few, if any, within Thailand can offer critical public commentary without being subject to censorship, “attitude adjustment” in military bases, police surveillance, and harassment, arrest, imprisonment, or ultimately death. Since 2014, more than one hundred people have been arrested on lèse majesté charges (insulting a monarch). Some will spend decades in prison if they serve their full sentences. One man, convicted for sending four text messages deemed offensive to the royal family, died in prison after serving less than one year  of an astounding twenty-year sentence.3 Worse, some critics of the monarchy and junta have disappeared.4 The latest among them is the fallen Royal Consort, Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi, also known by her nickname Koi.

Despite numerous requests to interview with reporters on this topic, I remained reluctant to weigh in on it. As a historian, I can speak endlessly about the nineteenth century, yet I feel distanced from the finger-on-the pulse present in Thailand and its constantly churning rumor mill. Rumors are the antithesis of the historian’s craft, which prefers the solidity of substantiation over slippery speculation.Nevertheless, King Vajiralongkorn’s revival of polygyny on his birthday in 2019 with the appointment of a noble consort, followed by the officious broadcasting of her demotion months later, proved catalytic in a couple of ways. For reporters, it was an irresistible story. A quasi-lurid, orientalist fascination lurked beneath the public’s brief obsession with the king’s placement of a consort alongside his newly married Queen Suthida. For me, a scholar who understands political power as also connected to sex and gender, the king’s move evidenced this interconnection in an exceptionally public way. The “hook” of a “harem” grabbed media attention, which sent reporters in search of someone who works on gender. In turn, this gave me an opportunity to place the king’s decision to appoint a consort within the frame of normative politics rather than interpret it as peripheral to it.

Taking a single event—the meteoric rise and equally spectacular denouement of his consort Sineenat—out of context made King Vajiralongkorn, and by extension Thailand, seem like a quaint Oriental despot and kingdom to many readers of the foreign press. But placing this event in the context of a series of moves taken by the king since his revered father died in late 2016 reveals the sinister move for what it is: another step toward despotism.First, King Vajiralongkorn took control over the Crown Property Bureau, worth an estimated US $30–43 billion, making him one of the richest royals in the world. Second, he quashed the political candidacy of his elder sister, Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Varnavadi, calling her attempt to run for prime minister for the opposition party as “highly inappropriate.” The king condemned the role of the royal family in politics as unconstitutional, even though he paradoxically has played a more active and direct part in politics than any king since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932. Third, he revived polygyny—a marital form long dead in Thailand—when he appointed Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi his Royal Noble Consort just a short while after he had married Suthida Tidjai and made her his queen.

Within months, his consort had been demoted and disgraced allegedly for her ambition to replace the queen, for issuing commands in his and the queen’s names, and for not conducting herself according to (recently revived) palace customs. No one has seen Sineenat since, and rumors are that she is imprisoned. Other rumors claim she died in prison.Fourth and perhaps most important, we are witnessing a fundamental change in the relationship between the military and the monarch that does not bode well for democracy and civil society in Thailand. The king is interfering in the military (as he has done with the Privy Council) to maneuver those loyal to him into positions of power. A streamlined army loyal to the monarch may end Thailand’s coup tradition in favor of a military that supports an absolutist king. No one will be able to counter his power.

All of these moves—economic, political, military, familial—reveal King Vajiralongkorn’s ability to exercise unfettered power. He is above the law. The laws that do exist protect him and criminalize freedom of expression. His appointment of a Royal Noble Consort shocked and titillated many foreign observers, but it also offered me and other concerned scholars and reporters the opportunity to highlight the meaning of this event in a larger narrative. As long as Thai scholars and reporters remain muzzled by laws that suppress critical commentary, it is important for scholars outside Thailand to keep the media’s attention focused on the military-monarchy coalition behind the otherwise seemingly innocuous “personal” scandals that have characterized the life of prince and now King Vajiralongkorn.


1 Anna and the King of Siam, directed by John Cromwell (20th Century Fox Film Corporation, 1946), www.scripts.com/script.php?id=anna_and_the_king_of_siam_2910&p=7 (accessed January 7, 2020).2 See Human Rights Watch, Thailand, www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/thailand#3ee2bd (accessed January 27, 2020).3 “Death of Imprisoned Man Highlights Thailand’s Unjust Lese Majeste Law,” Freedom House, freedomhouse.org/article/death-imprisoned-man-highlights-thailand-s-unjust-lese-majeste-law (accessed February 4, 2020).4 See, for example, Hannah Ellis-Peterson, “Thai Activists Accused of Insulting Monarchy ‘Disappear’ in Vietnam,” Guardian, May 10, 2019, www.theguardian.com/world/2019/may/10/thai-activists-accused-of-insultin....

 

king and koi