“When you talk about our king, he is not only a great king but he is a good king, and I make a distinction. You can be a great man with so many shortcomings and so many faults. But when you say he is a good man, to me it means more. The fact that he is a good king personally means much more than he is a great king. To be a good king, to be a good man, it is something you have to earn – you do not inherit it.”
Elder statesman Anand Panyarachun was twice appointed prime minister at a time of national crisis, first after the coup of February 1991 and again in the aftermath of the bloodshed of May 1992. Over the years, Anand has made numerous visits to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT), including four keynote addresses.
The most recent was in late August when he spoke at the launch of The King of Thailand in World Focus, an FCCT compilation of articles from the foreign media on the life of HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX. After his speech, Anand took questions from the audience, and fully lived up to his reputation for insightfulness, candour, humour – and readiness to roast the occasional foreign journalist.
Marwaan Macan-Marker, InterPress Service (IPS) Asia-Pacific:
Khun Anand, one of the restraints that foreign correspondents have covering the institution is the law of lèse majesté. You mentioned that the king in his birthday speech in 2005 said he was [not] infallible. However, the Thai media did not pick up on that. They still practise journalism in the [same] way [as] before 2005. Do you think there will come a time when the Thai political elite will lead the way and say we will respect the monarch, in the way you have quite articulately explained, but there is no need for a law which restrains us from reporting about the institution as it exists and … about what happens in the future.
Well, this is a very difficult question. It is very like: you cannot have the cake and eat it too. On the one hand, you have to go by the will of the people. What I was trying to say is that I do not know how this law originated, but in my two times as prime minister, when I had frequent audiences with the king, he never once mentioned about the criticism – many unfair things — targeted at him. He never bothered about these small things. He never thought that it was an important matter that he should discuss with his prime minister.
On the other hand, you have to understand that in a certain context, particularly a Western context — where the monarchies have begun to lose what we might call their mystique, and where they are all rushing into the mainstream of thinking they need to be ordinary citizens. Well, that’s fine. We in Thailand have no objection to that sort of stampede.
But I think you have to respect the thinking and customs of the people in this country.
My view – the king never said that to me – my own personal view is that I do not like the law. I happen to have been educated abroad – I was living abroad.
And yet you have to understand that the king is held in a certain position which is inviolable by the will of his people. I am sure the king does not mind whether the law exists or not, but the Thai people would never, never tolerate it.
You may have to wait for twenty more years, fifty more years. I do not know, but the Thai people rightly or wrongly, will not tolerate any “criticism” against our king. That’s their feeling. If you take a referendum tomorrow, you will find that [it] will get more votes than the last referendum. [Laughter]
I think you have to understand the feeling of the Thai people. It has been imbued in them for the past 800 years, and it is not something you can abolish or abandon overnight. …
I always wonder about the Thai people. They are “more Catholic than the pope.” I always believe that the Thais are more royalist than the king. [Applause]
Incidentally, it is not only the Thai people, but even the Thai government. Every time there is a book published which was critical of the king, the people who are very nervous about this thing would be the government. They would ban the book, they would ban the film, they would ban this, they would ban that; they would block this, they would block that. Do you know why? There is a reason for that. They were fearful that if they did not do anything, they would be castigated by the people. So, in fact, you can not blame the government. They merely responded to the perceived feelings of the people.
Jonathan Head, BBC:
Khun Anand, I noticed when you were talking about the king’s achievements, one of them was that his intervention had been vital to maintain social harmony and tranquillity. In an aside, you mentioned that you weren’t so sure about social harmony any more. Now I know a lot of people tend to blame a certain gentleman who is now enjoying owning a club at the top of the British premier league for a lot of the social disharmony, but I wonder whether Thai society has now changed so much that it is now beyond the powers of royal intervention to maintain social harmony – that society has moved on so much and issues have become so complex that it is now perhaps beyond the monarchy’s intervention to maintain social harmony.
Jonathan, in spite of the fact that we went to the same school in England, I beg to differ. [Laughter] I never used the term royal intervention.
To me, he adheres strictly to the letter and spirit of the constitution. What was regarded by foreigners as intervention, I classify into two categories.
One is an intervention initiated by a person, but in the case of our king it was an intervention requested by the people. So there is a little nuance there, first thing. Secondly, in all the audiences I had with the king in my first premiership and second premiership, he never once interfered with the politics of the country. Never in [all] our conversations when I had an audience. If he did occasionally feel that he might have ventured beyond the boundaries, he himself had such self discipline the he would say to me that this was something “you had asked my opinion about.”
When I wrote my speech, I made it quite clear that it is not to consult with the prime minister, but to be consulted. Unless the issues are raised by the prime minister, the king would never venture to advise you. If he were to advise you, he would always keep strictly to the issues that you had raised with him.
For those who did not come from a country where they have a king – and nowadays monarchies, of course, are diluting themselves because of the current thinking of the people in that part of the world –
but in this country I think the Thai model of kingship is the middle ground. They [the Thais] still retain pomp and circumstance, they still retain rituals and rites, they still retain traditions and so forth, but they retain mystique too. And yet, they are closer to their people than monarchs in any other country. You will never see a monarch like this in any other country – even though they may bicycle in the streets, they may go to the supermarket and shop there [for] groceries or whatever.
Our king knows the pulse of the people. He knows the thinking of the ordinary people to such an extent that he has even been criticized by [some] Thai people for spending so much time in the provinces talking to people, to farmers, to the poor, to hill tribes, and spending so little talking to people in Bangkok. That was a criticism at the time, but so what?
He happens to believe that Thailand is not Bangkok people. Thailand is a rural area.
If you look at his life story, if you look at his activities — the way he did things in the past sixty years — his focus is on rural areas. His focus is on rural people, on the poor, on the needy, on the impoverished, on the disadvantaged. He is one king who may retain the trappings of his office and yet he is closer to his people than any other monarch in the world. Not closest in a physical sense, but closest in his thinking and his focus. [Applause]
I have been an FCCT member for decades. Khun Anand has spoken very well of correspondents here, of the FCCT and so on. I wonder if you have an opinion of the coverage of the coup last September by foreign correspondents here.
Well, I never thought I would live to see the day when Western observers began to think of democracy the same way Thaksin did. [Laughter and applause]
I was a student in England for seven years. I lived in North America for twelve years. I travelled all over the world for four or five years. I was occasionally accused of being a Western-orientated Thai.
I never thought Westerners could be that simplistic — that they could impose democracy on Iraq, that they want to change the world into democratic states by [an] implanting process. [Applause]
I never thought that some Westerners would equate elections to democracy. Some of you may have read an interview I gave a few days ago which was published in the Bangkok Post last Saturday [18 August].
Are we only interested in form about constitutions, about elections, about the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary? Don’t we know, or have we forgotten, that democracy is all about an open society?
It is about the rule of law, it is about transparency, it is about freedom of the media, it is about accountability, it is about participation, it is about an independent judiciary, it is about civil society’s participation, it is about checks and balances, etcetera, etcetera.
To me, I am really flabbergasted by what has been happening in our world in the past few years. Could we have gone astray to such an extent that we even did not know where we came from and who we are and where we are going? Have we forgotten the values system? Have we forgotten so many things that we were brought up to believe and cherish? Are we that simplistic? Are we such morons?
I am not concerned about what is going to happen to Thailand in the future. I am more concerned with what is happening to the world. It is a serious question that you have to ask yourselves: where are we moving to? Have we forgotten the basic principles? Have we forgotten the basics. I don’t know whether I answered your question. [Laughter and applause] My emotion went astray.
Dominic Faulder, Editor, KOTIWF:
In Denis’s introduction to the book, there is a comment that the king has had publicity that many people would only ever dream of, and if you look at the sixty years there is much that is extremely creditable by any standards. Khun Anand, would you say the institution of the monarchy in Thailand is in such good shape as the king himself, who will leave it one day?
I have often said that the status our king has risen to after a sixty-year reign is something that he has earned. It is not a hereditary thing. When he was made a king at the young age of 17 or 18, or whatever, nobody knew what kind of a king he was going to make. But I think that by his diligence, and by his determination and dedication, he has developed into a very good king.
When you talk about our king, he is not only a great king but he is a good king, and I make a distinction. You can be a great man with so many shortcomings and so many faults. But when you say he is a good man, to me it means more. The fact that he is a good king personally means much more than he is a great king. To be a good king, to be a good man, it is something you have to earn – you do not inherit it.
So if you try to separate the person from the institution, yes there is a big gap. Be that as it may, the institution of monarchy is very much ingrained into Thailand and the Thai character. I have no doubt that the institution will remain intact and go on. As to who is going to fill in the role after that – whether he is going to be able to emulate our present king, I think it would be unfair to expect a successor to follow in the footsteps of a great man.
You look at world leaders. Whose sons, whose daughters can follow in the footsteps of people like Winston Churchill or whoever? I think it would be unfair to expect the offspring to succeed to that title. And yet whoever succeeds [to the throne] will hopefully try to the best of his ability to emulate our present king. Whether he succeeds or not, that is another thing. The question is, does he try? And if he tries, can he be successful? That’s another matter. It is something that you cannot speculate [about].
Secondly, even if he tried and did not succeed, he would remain a king, he would remain the head of an institution which is permanent in Thailand, and the reaction of the people would be: “Well, here we have a king with certain limitations. We respect him as our king. There is no problem.”
This is what I find paradoxical about the Western reporters and the Western commentators. On the one hand, they may be critical of the king for his “interventions,” but on the other hand they, like the Thais, go along and, perhaps unconsciously, want to rely on our present king’s reserve powers. You can not have the cake and eat it. If do not want the king to – which I disagree — “intervene” what is wrong with his successor for not “intervening.”
I am not sure whether I expressed myself well. What I am trying to say is that the indirect reserve powers of a king are earned by that particular person. They can not be inherited. Somebody who succeeds [to the throne], he can earn it. He can succeed or not succeed. If he does not succeed, there is no reason for complaint.
He will remain a king, a symbolic king. But you can not say that we have been relying on this king for so much, my god we are going to have a vacuum when he goes away.
You make up your mind. Do you want an activist king or do you want a passive king? You also fall into this trap, like many Thai people, that you start to pick and choose. I respect the present king. I respect the institution of the monarchy. But what is my basic respect? My basic respect is for the institution. If we have such a wonderful king, that is a bonus. [Applause]
Denis Gray, Editor-in-Chief, KOTIWF:
If you don’t mind, I’ll ask a little follow-up question to that. Almost every Thai, and many farangs who live here, express this almost fear that after this current monarch passes away there could be potential or actual chaos in this country. Some express it differently …
But it is the very same farangs who have been complaining all along that our king intervenes, that our king did this, our king did that …
Denis Gray: Okay, forget the farangs …
Anand Panyarachun: My god …
Denis Gray: Forget the farangs, let’s just focus on the Thais …
… and then you begin to miss him. Come on, make up your mind. What do you want? My theory is that what you have been saying about our king is not true. He has not been intervening. He does not have a hidden agenda.
Not a day goes by when I or my colleagues, or perhaps you, hear some Thai – forget farangs – say, “Oh it will be terrible in Thailand when his majesty passes away because there will be serious trouble in Thailand.” Not a day goes by. Is that true and do you think that is a legitimate fear?
Well, I don’t know. I know that but you have to understand me. I am in a minority. I am fed up with foreign correspondents [Laughter and applause]. But I am fed up more with the Thai people [Laughter]. I was saying at the table, there was a time when the king said, “I will reign [over] the country with righteousness for the benefit and happiness of the Siamese people.” All along for the past fifteen years, I have been trying to point out the difference between benefit, which is material benefit, and happiness which is whether you have enough.
If you measure the GDP, that will not be a correct reflection of the development of the people. You have to resort to what we call the gross national happiness index, like they do in Bhutan.
I believe all along up until the last few years that if you measure Thailand in accordance with the gross national happiness index – whatever its abbreviation is – instead of being [at] number 65 under GDP, we might come up to about number 25 or even 20. But I must admit that I have given up that idea because I can not understand the Thai people. Not only are they pessimistic, but I think they love this self-flagellation exercise. [Laughter]
They have this referendum on the constitution and immediately after the results came out they were concerned that it was not a good result because the majority vote was only about 57 per cent and the no vote was about 41 per cent. That is a margin of 15 per cent. If you look at the total vote, it is a difference between nearly 15 million votes and 11 million votes. That is a margin of 15 per cent of the people who went out to vote – four million votes.
If you read Thai newspapers, they say that is a very thin majority. You look at the results of any election in any country, if a major party gets 57 per cent and a minority party gets 41 per cent, that is a landslide. [Laughter] But if you read the Thai newspapers, Thai columnists, Thai talk shows, they says this is [like] a razor – what do you call a very small spread? I cannot understand it.
Secondly, as soon as the vote came in, and there was a majority vote for accepting the constitution, they begin to talk about the next coup d’etat and then a new constitution. [Laughter] Where have we gone wrong? [Laughter] It is something to me which is inexplicable, something that defies logic, defies reasoning, defies … [Pauses] My only answer is I blame it on Thaksin. [Laughter]
John Allan-Rae, Khon Kaen University:
Khun Anand, you have explained and talked about the institution of the monarchy and kingship, and I noticed that you continue to use the masculine pronoun of the English language: “he.” Do you foresee, or is it possible in the far foreseeable future, that we could refer to that person as “she.” [Laughter followed by long pause]
Anand Panyarachun: You prefer a she or a he? [Laughter and applause]
John Allan-Rae: Would you like an honest answer?[Laughter]
The law is still here, you know. [Laughter] No, I don’t see any impediment in having a she in the future. I don’t know what the present constitution is. I was alleged to have been the drafter of the former constitution, but I don’t think it is something the Thais would spend too much time pondering about, unlike the Japanese. It could be a civil war in Japan. Look at that Japanese prince who blamed his alcoholic habits [on] this issue — that there could be a succession to the throne by a female princess.
We are not that serious. Thank god for that. One thing about Thailand, don’t take them seriously. [Laughter] Anybody who comes to Thailand and takes the Thais seriously, well that would be at his – or her – own peril. [Applause]
You did not ask me, but now I have the floor and I don’t have to pay for it. [Laughter] One thing that I would not say surprised, but I think bothered, me a bit is that somehow our king is perceived to be a man who does not smile. I think, as I said before, that there are limitations arising out of traditions of respect and what not.
There have been no articles or interviews which could show the lighter side of our king. I would like to relate to you some anecdotes I have about the king. Normally, I do not reveal whatever transpired in conversation between my sovereign and myself as prime minister, but I think it is important that we get to know him better as a human being.
The first anecdote I would like to tell was when I was chairman of the drafting committee of the 1997 constitution. There were a few issues that I thought he might be interested in. After the completion of the draft, and after it was adopted, I had an audience with the king and I raised three or four issues that I thought the king might be interested in, but he sort of brushed them aside. Of course, he was interested in the issue of whether Buddhism was to be declared a state religion, but otherwise he did not pay much attention to what I was reporting to him.
And then, at the end of the conversation on that issue, he said to me: “Khun Anand, it is a little odd that in all of this constitution they lay down that the king has to be a Buddhist, he has to be a protector of religions, he has to be that, he has to be this; but nowhere in the constitution does it say that he has to be a Thai.” [Laughter and applause]
Now, I challenge you, with 62 million Thai people, who would have had the brilliance to think of that minute technical detail?[Laughter] I see there are quite a few young people here. They may not know what Shane was all about, but Shane was a movie that we all saw forty, fifty years ago. Shane was a man, a very righteous person, who was sheriff of a certain town which had some very, very serious problems, and he sort of pacified the town. He got rid of all the gangsters and whatever, and then he hung up his pistols and retired into the country. And then the violence erupted again in that particular town and he was called back to come and pacify the city. And so, he said: “Shane! Come back!” [Applause]
And then when I became prime minister the second time, also by accident [Laughter], at the very first audience I had with the prime minister, I went into the hall and bowed to him and proceeded to krab prabaht [prostrate], or whatever you say in English – I forget. And then I stood up, and he said to me: “Shane! Come back!”
Editor’s note: The 1953 classic Hollywood western Shane set in Wyoming starred Alan Ladd as Shane with Jack Palance as the sadistic gunslinger Jack Wilson. In the famous closing scene, a wounded but resolute Shane rides off into the darkness with young Joey Starrett, played by Brandon DeWilde, calling after his hero: “Shane! … Shane! Come back!” Film critic Elizabeth Abele writes: “His longing cry for Shane at the movie’s conclusion becomes the audience’s longing for a pure man, a once-and-future hero who may reappear when we need him most. “
The King of Thailand in World Focus (260 pp, hardback, 1,450 baht) is available to the general public from the FCCT’s office (www.fccthai.com) or from any branch of Asiabooks, Bookazine, B2S, Kinokuniya or Chulalongkorn Book Center.
Chronicling the works of ‘The People’s King’– The following comprises excerpts from an address delivered by Anand Panyarachun on the launch of the second edition of ‘The King of Thailand in Word Focus’, on August 23, at the Oriental Hotel.