Thailand’s newly-appointed national police chief has already announced the country’s new top policing priority: defending the monarchy. Indeed, just a few days into the job and Pol Gen Wichean Potephosree had already made it clear that the police will now adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward those trying to challenge or abuse the monarchy.
But while it’s undeniable that most Thais, including those in the police department, maintain a love and respect for the royal family, Pol Gen Wichean’s well-intended policy toward those who don’t seems a little misdirected. After all, does the perhaps one percent of the population that resents standing for the royal anthem in cinemas really form a credible threat to such a revered institution?
The problem is that this new policing priority could also further complicate the country’s political stalemate. If Pol Gen Wichean is planning on hunting down citizens with republican leanings, then it’s surely going to be necessary to clearly define what an ‘anti-monarchist’ is. But doing so is fraught with difficulties—where will the line be drawn between critical debate and insult? Could a non-conformist be considered a criminal? And will the difficulties in defining who’s an anti-monarchist mean that the police themselves could end up being accused of abusing the monarchy?Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Since the outset of the ongoing crisis, various political groups have arbitrarily exploited images and symbols of the monarchy for political gain. In doing so, they openly politicised the royal institution, potentially diminishing its reverence among Thais.
In 2006, The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) launched a months-long campaign to unseat former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, labelling him the enemy of the monarchy. PAD leaders sported yellow T-shirts—the colour associated with Monday, the day of the King’s birth—emblazoned with the slogan, ‘We fight for the King.’ This move kicked off the colour-coded political war between two groups—the battle between the Yellow Shirts and the Red Shirts that has divided the country.
But the PAD failed to overthrow Thaksin. Instead, the military staged a coup in 2006 purportedly to end the protracted Thai crisis. The military justified its political intervention by yoking together two themes: protecting national security and ensuring the dignity of the royal institution. Now, Pol Gen Wichean is in danger of allowing the old pattern of shaping Thai politics based on binary opposition—between ‘ethical’ forces and an ‘evil’ enemy—to take root.
In the 1990s, a political line was drawn to distinguish between two political camps: one was the thep or angel, and the other the mann, or evil. Some state agencies now seem to be exploiting the monarchy to create a great divide within Thai society, much as the country has experienced in the past. Government and opposition politicians alike are willing to go to any lengths to accuse each other of disloyalty to the royal family simply to strengthen their own positions. This could explain why attempts at reconciliation haven’t been successful so far, and why national unity has been so difficult to attain.