Thai king unites nation amid uncertainty

Celebrations of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s birthday unite a nation, as parties jostle over constitutional changes.

In Thailand, December 5 is for one thing only: celebrating the birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Having been king for 66 years, he’s the only monarch most Thais have known, and many can’t imagine life without him.

As each year passes, however, concern about his health grows. He was taken to hospital three years ago, suffering from a fever and breathing difficulties, and has been there ever since.

On the occasion of his 85th birthday, he made a rare appearance at the Royal Plaza in Bangkok, the venue for many palace and state occasions, as well as political rallies.

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy and the king is regarded as being above politics, but his speeches are always listened to closely for any “hidden” messages to a population often divided along political and social lines. This speech was similar to others in recent years, using words like “goodwill”, “harmony” and “compassion” and saying that if Thai people cherish those values the country will remain stable.

Relative stability is exactly what the country has enjoyed for the past 17 months since the election in 2011, in which the Pheu Thai party won comfortably and was able to form a coalition government with Yingluck Shinawatra as prime minister.

Regardless of the outcome, the election had the potential to lead to more political turbulence. Yet here we are, almost a year and a half later, and Yingluck is still in charge, despite the fact that she is the sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup in 2006 and still lives in exile after being found guilty of abusing his power.

Sure, there have been some minor protests held with the aim of unseating the government, but they have failed through a combination of not having a strong, current cause to rally against and simply not having enough public support. But it’s perhaps the support behind the scenes, among Thailand’s elite, that has been missing from those previously powerful groups.

It is widely believed that to enable the current administration to stay in power, deals were struck between the Pheu Thai party and the traditionally cosy combination of the elite and the army, including some of the same people who were believed to be behind the coup six years ago.

How long will the goodwill last, though? The government wants to bring Thaksin back to Thailand and a state panel has recommended that parliament should push on with an attempt to pass a bill to rewrite the constitution, which was drawn up after the coup. If parliament accepts the recommendation, we’ll know soon enough whether the rewrite has the support of those who backed the current post-coup charter. If it doesn’t, the government may have to back off if it is to avoid further political upheaval.

Which brings me back to the wonderful occasion at the Royal Plaza, where Thais were seemingly united in their joy at seeing and hearing the nation’s father on his birthday. If that unity can be carried over into the political arena, not to stop legitimate democratic debate, but the vindictive, self-serving politics that has divided the nation in the past, then Thailand’s future may be bright and peaceful.

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