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Where Is the King?
Thailand Inches Toward Disaster

The government of Thailand imposed a state of emergency in the capital as demonstrators and chaos on the streets continue to push Yingluck Shinawatra’s administration toward the brink of disaster. Only 11 days remain before snap elections on February 2. The question on everyone’s mind is: Can the country make it?

The turmoil on the streets of Bangkok has ebbed and flowed for many weeks now, but as elections loom the opposition protesters have become more aggressive and violent. The state of emergency has done nothing to quell street demonstrations. Ms. Yingluck was forced to flee a meeting at the Defense Ministry after protesters swarmed the building. In the government heartland in Thailand’s northeast, gunmen unleashed a hail of gunfire at Kwanchai Praipana, a leader of the government-supporting Red Shirts, wounding him in the shoulder and thigh.

Against this backdrop of mounting chaos, the Thai King, universally revered as a godlike figure, is slowly dying. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is 86 years old now and rarely appears in public. His name means “strength of the land, incomparable power,” as Jonathan Head writes for the BBC: “In the minds of millions of Thais [he is] a repository of virtue and calm when all around they see greed and chaos.” When he last spoke to his people in December, he implored them to settle their differences for the sake of the country, for everyone: “All Thais should realize this point a lot and behave and perform our duties accordingly, our duty for the sake of the public, for stability, security for our nation of Thailand.”

But the “Lord Above Our Heads” can no longer perform the duties of his office. He is weak and tired and has no answers to the questions his people are asking. To make matters worse, no institution or individual is poised to take his place. His son and heir apparent is not nearly as popular. At the moment, Thailand is consumed by irreconcilable differences, geographically, economically, socially. And there is no one who looks able to unite it: not in the government, not in the opposition, not in the monarchy. Maybe in the military.

Thailand’s military has historically enjoyed a warm relationship with the monarchy, and the current commander is no different. He makes frequent displays of loyalty to the King. The violence is ramping up pressure on the military to take over the government, as it has done or tried to do 18 times in Thailand’s history. In a speech earlier today he told reporters, “If the situation escalates to a level where it cannot be resolved, the military will have no choice but to solve it.”

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  • Anthony

    Truly unfortunate – and definitely in need of virtue and calm; alas, Thais are not alone in that regard globally…

  • Andrew Allison

    TAI has, in the past, elucidated very clearly what’s going on in Thailand, namely a power struggle between the largely rural majority, and an almost exclusively urban minority attempting to seize power. The increasing turmoil in Bangkok simply reflects the minority’s recognition that they will lose the election.

  • Kazinski

    I just got back from Thailand on Monday. From what I could see the strategy of the opposition is to provoke the military into a coup because they don’t have any hope of winning the election. My sympathies have been more toward the opposition because I think they are the more free market small government party, but I really can’t stomach their strategy of giving up democracy at least for a while until they can stack the deck and put in a better apparatus for controlling the results of the election.

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