Every year, December 5th is the most celebrated holiday in Thailand because it is the King’s birthday. The streets are decorated with yellow – the color of the King – and people line up in the streets to pay respect to the King and pay heed to his wise words.
The world’s longest reigning monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej, is not only revered by its people, but also a critical force of stability and the moral authority in Thailand’s highly volatile politics. However, on the eve of turning 86, the King’s kingdom is once again engulfed in political battles. And the annual, rare appearance of the frail King, who has been living in the hospital over the past few years, is a constant reminder to the world that the country desperately needs to unify before he goes, or it might descend into chaos.
This year’s birthday is going to be even more challenging for the King.
The political division between the red and yellow shirts – pro-and anti-government supporters – has caused years of instability and political crisis in Thailand when the military coup ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. In recent weeks, an ill-conceived amnesty bill backed by the current Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, a sister of Thaksin’s, is viewed as a way to clear the path for Thaksin’s return to the country. It has resulted in large-scale demonstrations and escalating violence in Bangkok. Both sides reached a temporary truce in honor of the King’s birthday but the anti-government forces vowed to resume the fight after the celebrations. During his highly anticipated speech, the King will no doubt call for unity, as he has done in the past, but will it resolve the current crisis? So far, the King has not spoken on current events, and the entire country is watching and holding its breath.
If the King’s speech does not provide obvious guidance, the anti-government leader and former Democratic party deputy Prime Minister, Suthep Thaugsupan, will likely rally for more demonstrations. Yingluck has offered to negotiate but deemed Suthep’s proposal of a new form of government unconstitutional and impractical. So neither side has inched closer to a workable bargain.
To Yingluck, keeping the streets calm without military intervention would likely keep her in the government, and is her strategy to win.
To Suthep, losing the momentum due to the truce might not be to his advantage, whereas Yingluck’s refusal to accept his proposal could give him the excuse to fight on.
To the military generals, out of control violence would be their ultimate nightmare given Thailand’s history of military intervention and coups. So far, army leaders have resisted calls from the protesters to intervene.
It all comes down to the King’s speech. His words will be carefully listened to and interpreted by both sides for their own political purposes. But his speech cannot be the long-term solution. The decade-long battle is a symptom of the painful transitions Thailand is experiencing politically, economically, and socially. Years of sustained economic growth has brought new high rises, fancy cars, and shopping malls to meet the demand of the growing middle class in the capital city, but the country’s rural population remains largely poor and uneducated. These wounds will not heal until fundamental changes take place in the corrupt political system that benefits the rich and the elite and new systems are established to help ensure more inclusive and balanced growth.
The King’s speech might save his beloved kingdom again, albeit temporarily. But one cannot help but wonder if ending the vicious cycle could come sooner. Perhaps that would be the best birthday present for the King.
Wenchi Yu is an Asia Society Associate Fellow and a non-resident fellow at Project 2049. She is a former U.S. Department of State official and currently resides in Bangkok, Thailand.