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9/25/2006

Coup leaders reaffirm loyalty to Thai King

Filed under: global islands,thailand — admin @ 7:12 am

BANGKOK — As soon as they had consolidated their power, Thailand’s military coup leaders made a symbolic kowtow to the man who had made it all possible: the country’s 78-year-old monarch.

More than anything else, it was the tacit alliance between the army generals and the long-ruling monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, that allowed the coup plotters to secure their victory last week.

Three days after the tanks rolled into Bangkok, the generals paid homage to the King. In a nationally televised ceremony, the top coup leader, General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, stood before a shrine to the monarch. A royal decree was recited, confirming their alliance, and then the general kneeled and bowed before a portrait of the King.

In exchange for his support, the military has repeatedly signalled its loyalty to the King. Soldiers have tied yellow ribbons — the royal colour — onto their rifles and tanks. The official name of the military junta — the Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy — is a further bow to the dominance of the world’s longest-reigning monarch.

In Bangkok yesterday, the military felt confident enough to withdraw 10 tanks from the Royal Plaza in the city centre, where they had been stationed since the coup. This week, the military will appoint an interim prime minister and finalize a new constitution.

In another gesture of allegiance to the King, the coup leaders threatened Saturday to take “immediate action” against any foreign journalist who writes anything that “may infringe” on the monarchy. The warning was apparently provoked by the military’s displeasure that some foreign reporters have mentioned the King’s role in political matters — a taboo subject.

King Bhumibol, who celebrated an extraordinary 60 years on the throne this spring, has often sided with coups and military regimes in the past. But he is so powerful and so revered that it is illegal and almost unthinkable to criticize him.

Publicity about him is unrelentingly positive. Laudatory reports about his activities are broadcast on every television channel at 8 p.m. every night, often showing Thais prostrating themselves before him. Cinema audiences are required to rise for the royal anthem before every movie, with his image on the screen.

Thailand banned a recent biography of the King by a U.S. journalist because the book was insufficiently respectful. Even the Amazon website’s page about the book is blocked by police censors, with a warning that reads: “Sorry, the website you are accessing has been closed by Royal Thai Police due to inappropriateness such as pornography, gambling or contain any information which is deemed to violate national security.”

The crime of lèse-majesté — insulting the dignity of the monarch — is taken extremely seriously, with violations punishable by up to 15 years in prison. A number of journalists, intellectuals and politicians have been charged with the offence, despite protests from international human-rights groups.

“Many people think the King is a god,” said Thanapol Eawsakul, publisher of a political magazine that saw one of its issues banned because it printed skeptical articles about the monarchy. “It’s not surprising, with the media making so much propaganda for him. Nobody criticizes him.”

Despite the ban, and despite a police attempt to prosecute Mr. Thanapol for “upsetting public order,” the issue about the monarchy sold out and was eventually reprinted with another 6,000 copies, although it was difficult for the publisher to find a printer.

“Many people want to know about the King,” Mr. Thanapol said. “There’s so much gossip, but no real information.”

In a typical village in northern Thailand, a street vendor says she sells about 10 framed portraits of the monarch on market day every week. Hundreds of villagers wear yellow shirts as a symbol of their love for him. “He is like a Buddha — the being that we respect the most,” said Amornrat Chantawit, a 35-year-old egg vendor. “It’s as if we are his children. He is like a father. We have to do what he says.”

A military officer agrees. “We would give our lives to protect the King,” he says. “The King is above everything else.” Even the supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra — the prime minister who was deposed by the coup — are quick to express obedience to the throne.

“Every time Thailand has a crisis, it is the King who will solve the problem,” said Surapong Tovijakchaikoon, a member of Mr. Thaksin’s political party. “Everyone respects the King’s decisions. All Thai people love the King.”

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