Yesterday was a special day here in Thailand. It was the 60th anniversary of the king’s ascent to the throne. The nationalistic music I was hearing repeatedly in public places was not the national anthem, but was a sort of royal anthem played in honor of the king. In Thailand, the king is a revered figure. Most Thais seem to honestly love and respect him. He’s done a lot for this country, personally attending to the shutdown of the opium fields in the north, and converting them to fruit farms, championing the cause of the poor, and guiding the many passing governments. In fact, it’s actually illegal to say anything bad about him. I don’t get the feeling that many would, though. Even my progressive and American-educated Thai friend Jenny, whoÂ is cynical aboutÂ the state of democracy in Thailand,Â considers him “beloved.” The king’s status in ThailandÂ raises a number of interesting issues, especially given the current political situation here.
First of all, the king is not well. He’s quite old, and has recently been hospitalized. There’s some doubt as to how long he’s going to survive. Second, there’s this small matter of a military coup that happened here last year, overthrowing the democratically elected government. Military coups are nothing outrageous here in Thailand. In fact, in the 50 years since Thailand has been a “constitutional monarchy” type democracy, there have been 19 coups and 18 different constitutions. I’m not sure about the previous coups, but this one had the full support of the king, because it was ostensibly prompted by the corruption and immorality of the prime minister and his party. I say “ostensibly” because nothing’s been proven in court. The prime minister has been in self-imposed exile in England, I think, waiting this thing out. The military leaders have invited him to come back to Thailand forÂ a trial, but I’m pretty sure that’s the last thing he wants to do. In the meantime, the new government has confiscated the untold gazillions of dollars that he had accumulated running his media and telecommunications empire while in political office. Who knows what’s happening to that money now.
So, like I said, the king being on death’s doorstep puts Thailand in an interesting position thatÂ it’s never experienced before. Even though there have been a number of coups in the last 50 years, this is the first time that the ultimate leadership is in danger of disappearing. There’s no clear successor to the throne, because the king’s son has apparently acted inÂ ways not befitting the crown, and would not be happily accepted as the next king. The eldest grandson is only two, and if you know two year-olds, you’ll know he’s not likely to be an effective leader. If the king dies before new elections are held in December, what will the military government do? This is the question that’s on the minds of many Thais these days as they consider the state of their rather loosely defined democracy.
Is it any wonder that thousands are showing their support for the monarchy by wearing yellow shirts? I saw a booth selling them in the mall, and the place was swamped with business. Yellow is the king’s official color. Yesterday, on that 60th anniversary, yellow was everywhere. I took random snapshots to give you an idea about what it looked like.
I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next few months, but I’ll be watching carefully, because of the friends I’ve made here. I want the best for them.
Anyway, the thing I like about random snapshots is the little stories that sometimes get captured accidentally. Here’s an example.
Last night was a lot of fun, and one of my most memorable nights of the month. I took the Thai staff out to celebrate some of our recent successes. We went to a bowling/karaoke place, and had a blast. These guys know how to have fun. One thing I really appreciate about the people in this office in Thailand is that they enjoy each others’ company. It’s not a typical work environment. They’re always laughing, smiling, joking and teasing each other. At the bowling alley, we got a VIP room and some food and drinks. The VIP room meant we had two lanes to ourselves, a big plasma TV and a loud sound system for the karaoke. I don’t think I’ve laughed so much in a long time. There was no alcohol involved, but you’d never have guessed it by the way everyone was goofing around, finding new and exciting ways to throw a bowling ball, or two at a time down the aisle. I wish I’d brought a camera, because the funniest scene of the night was Miin screaming like a rock star into the microphone, while everyone else was rolling around on the ground and on the couches in agony, covering their ears and laughing. Chaew was smearing himself against the outside of the heavy glass door trying to slide it shut to protect himself from the noise. Miin was oblivious to it all. He is the worst karaoke singer I’ve ever heard, but he loves to sing anyway.
Tonight is my last night here. My flight leaves tomorrow morning, first to Hong Kong, and then to Toronto. I’m ready to go home now, but I’m going to miss stuff like this. Thailand is a great place to end a trip. The people are endlessly friendly, happy and polite, even in bad times. It’s built into the culture. For instance, I can tell when I’m asking Chaew to do some very difficult work, because his smile keeps growing bigger and bigger, and then he starts laughing. Then he nods and says, “Ok,” and does the work. Jenny told me that Thai people will always smile when things get tough, because what else can you do? At least you can be happy.