How Thailand’s Generals Rule by Numbers and the Stars

How Thailand’s Generals Rule by Numbers and the Stars

On the first day of this year — also the first day of the year 2562 in the Thai Buddhist calendar, a time for prayers and divinations — King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun announced that his coronation would take place in early May. The coronation of a Thai Buddhist king is traditionally the last stage of making him into a thewaracha, a divine monarch. In this case, it will also be something like the last stage of an exorcism.

When King Vajiralongkorn, the 10th monarch in the Chakri dynasty, ascended to the throne in late 2016 following the death of his father, he inherited a nation in chaos. A political crisis and deepening social rifts had polarized the country, and in 2014 the democratically elected government had been deposed in a military coup.

The junta has claimed that it intends to stay in power only as long as is necessary to oversee an orderly transition back to democracy. But the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has repeatedly postponed holding an election and has tightened its control, while trying to earn some measure of legitimacy by basking in the popularity, mystique and beliefs that surround the monarchy.

The reign of King Vajiralongkorn’s father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, lasted seven decades and was generally perceived as a time of progress and prosperity for Thailand. King Bhumibol came to personify the nation. Many Thais saw him as a demigod; some as a Buddha-to-be. King Bhumibol was also known as Rama IX: Nine is an auspicious number in Thailand, and the word for it in Thai is a homophone of “moving forward.”

In 2014–16, I conducted research among and trained with Thai astrologers, including some who were consulted by politicians. Several of them explained that the crisis engulfing the end of Rama IX’s reign simply forecast his imminent demise. According to popular prophecies, the body politic descends into chaos with the progressive weakening of a divine monarch’s mortal body.

The death of Rama IX, a king that so many Thais considered enlightened, on Oct. 13, 2016, plunged the country into darkness, of a kind. The junta asked the population to wear only black for a month and announced a year of mourning — more justification for extending its tenure while it oversaw the royal succession.

Earlier this month, invoking the need to prepare for the coronation, the generals postponed the next election yet again. Protests broke out in downtown Bangkok even as the deputy prime minister said that voting would take place in March. Proponents of democracy are wary, in part because the 2017 Constitution — which was drafted under the junta — guarantees that the military will retain significant power over any civilian government that is elected in the future, including in the Senate and over the selection of the next prime minister.

Still, some measure of change may be in the offing. The army has a new chief, and the Royal Command Guard, which answers directly to the king, is expected to gain in authority. Since acceding to the throne in December 2016, King Rama X has also asserted his own authority, claiming more prerogatives for himself.

He has taken personal control of the wealth of the Thai royal family — one of the richest monarchies in the world today — whose assets had long been managed (in opaque ways, some say) by a special agency known as the Crown Property Bureau. He has appointed some of the top men serving on the Privy Council, a powerful advisory body, replacing his father’s network of loyalists with his own. And — in a move that seemed to pit him against the junta — he requested amendments to the military-drafted Constitution, which he needed to sign before it could go into effect.

All of these events may indicate that the junta’s power is on the wane, but for now it is busy positioning itself so it can claim credit for helping usher in the 10th reign.

A prime example is the narrative that the authorities built around the operation last summer to rescue 13 young men from a soccer club who had disappeared in a cave in northern Thailand. Playing on a set of numerical coincidences, they cast the team members’ ordeal and salvation as a parable about the country’s political transition.

For nine days, the 12 teenagers and their coach couldn’t be located and remained trapped in the cave’s darkness — much as Thai society has been in darkness, some would argue, since Rama IX’s death. They were found on Day 10 and their extraction from the cave was completed on July 10 — two omens suggesting that the Thai people might be saved at the dawn of the 10th reign.

However fortuitous the timing, the authorities harnessed and subtly deployed those dates to serve their political ends. As with all good propaganda, there was no need to mention the numbers and their significance; it was enough to gesture at them and let culture and embedded beliefs do the rest.

When the young men were then ordained as novice monks, that process also took nine days — and they re-entered society on the 10th day. During their first interview in the hospital, they sat before a background that read “Thailand moves forward.”

The daring military-led rescue was a rare moment of national unity, of general catharsis. And it became an allegory for the junta’s rescue of Thai society from the difficult twilight of King Bhumibol’s, the ninth, reign.

Deftly, the military authorities have not portrayed themselves as the end point of their redemption narrative. Rather, they have cast themselves as a vehicle for the advent of the 10th reign, and another auspicious era. While the rescue operation was underway, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the prime minister, enjoined the entire population to have “faith” — including in the country’s leaders. “Everything will go back to normal,” he reportedly said.

Rama X is said to have picked the dates for his coronation. The ceremony will take place at the same time, in early May, as his father’s coronation in 1950, but will last only three days, not five, as back then. A sign of modesty, perhaps, but above all a statement that the late king’s legacy will be carried on. By the time King Rama X is coronated, Thailand will have exited the dark dusk of the ninth reign. Or so the astrologers say.

Edoardo Siani is a cultural anthropologist of Thailand at Kyoto University.

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