Thailand and Cambodia are among the oldest kingdoms in Southeast Asia. The two countries share the same historical roots dating back to the old Khmer civilization, which manifest in their similar languages, cultures, and socio-ethnic features. In fact, the Thai royal language is derived from Khmer words and the two languages still retain the same Pali-Sanskrit roots. The two kingdoms even share the same national mantra of “nation-religion-king.” However, they have followed starkly different paths when it comes to how their monarchies engage with politics.
Born in 1922, Norodom Sihanouk was King of Cambodia from 1941 to 1955, then again from 1993 until 2004. He abdicated twice, first to his father, Norodom Suramarit, in 1955, and then again in 2004, when he wanted to step down, partly due to poor health. His first abdication was so that he could enter politics, and he served as prime minister from 1955 to 1970. When Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge, he was forced into house arrest. In his lifetime, he wed six wives and had a few more unwedded ones, and sired at least 14 children. As head of state, he often publicly reproached political leaders, including his own children, and made no pretense in the way he lived his worldly, human life. Chosen by the French, who thought they would be able to puppeteer him, he turned out to be a rebel, and a master of politics and diplomacy in his own right.
Although King Sihanouk did not favor communism and preferred to be a popularly elected politician and head of government, he had to befriend communist regimes as the West and Cambodia’s larger neighbors, like Thailand, cold-shouldered and looked down on his tiny kingdom, which had neither power nor wealth. As a result, Cambodia grew closer to authoritarian states like China and North Korea, and King Sihanouk became one of the founders and staunchest supporters of the Non-Aligned Movement. Forced to be a survivor due to its small size and poverty, Cambodia remains plagued by massive corruption and patronage in part because its weak palace is unable to counter a strongman like Hun Sen.
In sharp contrast to King Sihanouk, King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand allowed himself to be mystified as a living god. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1927, a few years after Sihanouk, he was married to Queen Sirikit and had four children — only one of whom was a boy, now Thailand’s new King Vajiralongkorn. But unlike his contemporary Sihanouk, Bhumibol never tried to come down from his godly throne. Instead, he allowed the palace machinery and the mandarins in the vast bureaucratic apparatus to perpetuate the ancient customs of pomp, ceremony, and prostration by laymen in his audience, and in process became literally untouchable. This was very different from Sihanouk, who was often pulled, grabbed, and hugged by cheering crowd of greeters.
After his accession to the throne, King Bhumibol was turned into a national symbol — a unifying figure, a god-father of the nation — by the military, the bureaucracy, and the palace aristocrats, who used a sophisticated public relations machine to strengthen and deify the Thai royal institution. At first, this was allegedly to counter the communist threat. When the dangers of communism had passed, Thailand dabbled in parliamentary democracy. But as history would later show, King Bhumibol was equivocal and doubtful. His support for Thailand’s democratic institutions, as it eventually turned out, would soon wane. He seemed to side with the students during their first major uprising against the military dictator, Field Marshall Thanom Kittikachorn, then the royally-appointed prime minister, in what would be remembered in Thai history by its date: October 14, 1973. However, sensing that republican sentiments might spread as the flowers of democracy bloomed, Bhumibol acquiesced to the right-wing paramilitary forces that killed the students protesting the return of strongman Thamon during the Thammasat University massacre three years later on October 6, 1976 — an event that left a permanent scar in the Thai body politic.
Perhaps in an effort at redemption, he would later project himself as a “development king,” coming up with his own cottage-industry “sufficiency economy philosophy” projects that ranged from making artificial rain and devising flood control techniques to integrated farming. This so-called philosophy has been promoted ad nauseam by the Thai bureaucracy, and has pervaded the entire national discourse and policy space in Thailand through massive yet subtle propaganda and endless indoctrination by the state machinery. The psychological manipulation proved effective. King Bhumibol entered the Thai psyche and occupied a permanent place as a god-father who could do no wrong and was impeccable in every deed. (He once said that even he himself might make mistakes, but he did little when his subjects were criminalized for criticizing the monarchy.) He was portrayed by every single media source (except those who self-censored, of course) as perfect father, perfect son, perfect engineer, perfect musician, perfect philosopher, perfect Buddhist, so on and so forth. Nobody seemed to mention that challenging those notions would lead to punishment by lese-majeste criminal laws.
Today, few people in Thailand realize that their Kingdom is the world’s richest, in monetary terms. The world’s largest polished diamond, the Golden Jubilee, is in the possession of the Thai royal family. The elusive and shadowy Thai Crown Property, which due to its quasi-governmental status has managed to evade any forms of scrutiny or disclosure, is widely regarded to be even wealthier than its British or Brunei counterpart. The Khmer palace, on the other hand, has neither crown property nor power to dictate its own succession laws. Cambodia’s kings are selected by a governmental committee. The reason for this discrepancy in influence is because the Thai royal institution has expertly managed its wealth. Its right hand draws in donations and financial support from countless sources, rich and poor, in exchange for its royal patronage, which spells prestige in status-obsessed Thailand. Its left hand in turn gives out patronizing monies to further increase the palace’s status. This right hand-left hand machine, with royals at the top of the pyramid, is what has sustained the Thai economy, and also its feudalistic patronage systems that resist political and governance reforms.
In contrasting the two kingdoms and their poles-apart levels of clout, one cannot help but wonder why the Thais have been hypnotized for so long. Bhumibol deserves some credit for having led an almost ascetic life, as we have been allowed to know. He was never seen anywhere except with his family, at royal functions, or en route the muddy treks to his projects to better the living of his subjects, as these were the only photos and videos released to the public eyes. Indeed, all Thais were only fed with images of him sweating and toiling tirelessly to improve their lots. After one whole generation of this systematic propagation and cultivation of father-god personality cult, there is therefore no living Thai who has ever seen their king under any different light.
The second reason why Thais have remained in this “deep” trance is because the “lucky country” has never been through a real war. It is naturally abundant and never short of food. Even during severe flooding, lucky Thais always managed to put food on the table and keep smiling. Cambodia’s wide-eyed survivor instinct, on the contrary, was wrought from decades of war ravages and poverty. In the face of life and death, Cambodians could not afford to care who was royal and who was not. The fact that Cambodia’s royal family members have proliferated through polygamy and cross-marriages with commoners did not help heighten its status, either. It diluted the Cambodian palace’s wealth, prestige, and the godly status needed to command reverence. The Mahidol family of Thailand’s Rama VIII, IX, and X, on the contrary, is much more close-knit and private. And due to the sustained psychological conditioning by the Thai state, any negative rumors about the royal family were quickly and sternly denied and supplanted with positive ones. Indeed, it can be said that the reserved and penny-wise image of King Bhumibol and his second daughter, Princess Sirindhorn, has lent powerful validation to the throne’s respectability and effectively offset the extravagant and prodigal lifestyles of his other family members.
Despite their shared historical roots, the royal families of Thailand and Cambodia have not been particularly close. One reason may be that the large chunks of land once claimed by Siam had been returned to Cambodia with the help of the French colonial power and therefore caused bitterness and hurt pride among Thai rulers, who did not seek to strengthen ties with Cambodia again. Another reason was the tragic hiatus during the Khmer Rouge rule, which suspended Cambodia’s foreign policy relations. Another reason was the dispute over the lands around Phra Vihear Temple, and the related international court case, which was politicized by those who stoked nationalistic sentiments. Low-standard education in both countries in general, and that of history education in particular, had meant that this essentially historical and legal case may continue to be exploited for political gains on both sides.
Coincidentally, both King Sihanouk and King Bhumibol departed the world only a few years apart in the same month, which before the death of King Bhumibol generally used to commemorate the 1970s democratic movements in Thailand. King Sihanouk passed away on October 15, 2012, and King Bhumibol on October 13, 2016. The two were never close despite the fact that both of them, ironically, were francophone. Sihanouk received his education mostly from French schools in Cambodia and Vietnam, while Bhumibol was a pupil in Switzerland for around 12 years from the age of six. Partly due to the turbulent times facing Cambodia, King Sihanouk visited Thailand several times to lobby for political support. Bhumibol, on the other hand, never visited Cambodia. His last trip traversing the Thai border was to preside over the opening of a Thai-Lao friendship bridge in 1994 when he was about 67 years old, after which he never went overseas again. None of his children, except the popular Princess Sirindhorn, has shown interest in maintaining ties with Cambodia. At the cremation of King Sihanouk in early 2013, after the official mourning period of seven days and around three months of lying in state, Thailand was represented by former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, a commoner politician now in exile. None of the Thai royal family members showed up. In turn, King Bhumibol’s cremation on October 26 was attended by various royals from around the world, but not Cambodia. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen attended the cremation which took place after an entire year of official mourning.
Interestingly enough, although the two kingdoms have pursued vastly different paths when it comes to the role and influence of their monarchies in politics and government, neither country has seen democracy taking healthy root. In the case of Thailand, the monarchy is so powerful and dominant that democratic blossoms are smothered, especially when democratic development leads to competitive or alternative power centers that rival those connected to the old palace guardians. In Cambodia, authoritarian-style vestiges of communism and patronage-linked corruption typical of Southeast Asian socio-political culture have weakened both its monarchy and democratic political development. However, in the long run, Cambodia’s wide-eyed survivalist psyche may prove more conducive to progressive changes. The Thais may continue to sleepwalk in their mythical, state-constructed fairytale. Although the new reign has brought home dread and partial awakening — and hence the junta’s current iron grip — the ruling cliques in Thailand are already adapting and pledging their new allegiance to the system that perpetuates Thailand’s hierarchical oppression. Many will continue to devote themselves as “specks of dust under the feet of the crown of immeasurable benevolence.” The outside world, meanwhile, may not be able to do much except look on.
Samuel Macrae is an independent writer.