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Southeast Asian Affairs 2003, pp. 291-309 SOME REFLECTIONS ON THE THAI MONARCHY M.R. Sukhumbhand Paribatra Soul of the Nation The tension, as the cliché goes, was so thick one could almost cut it with a knife. It was the night of Wednesday, 20 May 1992. After three days of street violence, Bangkok was bracing itself for a bloody showdown between troops and demonstrators. Rumours of conflicts within the military abounded. The situation seemed hopeless. More and more people began to pray for the kind of political miracle that had taken place nearly two decades before, during the 1973 student uprising against military rule. At that time, just as the situation threatened to escalate with considerably more violence and bloodshed, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the ninth monarch of the ruling Chakri Dynasty, made a dramatic television appearance, which restored public order and resolved the crisis. Eventually, their prayers were answered. The main protagonists, Prime Minister General Suchinda Kraprayoon and Major Chamlong Srimuang, the defacto leader of the anti-government protest movement, were summoned to the palace. The royal audience was broadcast worldwide. With the two prostrate on the floor before him, King Bhumibol quietly gave a lecture on the public interest and the need to avoid an impending "catastrophe" and made a "request" that they "sit down and face the facts together in a conciliatory manner, and not in a confrontational manner, to find a way to solve the problem, because our country does not belong to any one or two persons, but belongs to everyone".1 Once more there was a miracle. The crisis was instantly diffused. The two powerful protagonists backed down. Battle-ready military units returned to the barracks. Demonstrators dispersed. A few days later, Suchinda resigned, and power was peacefully transferred to an interim government under the respected Anand Panyarachun, who later transferred key military leaders and called a general election. It was extraordinary. In June 1932 royal absolutism was overthrown and replaced by a constitutional monarchy. Since then, the Thai king's royal powers and prerogatives have been clearly defined and limited in a manner M.R. Sukhumbhand Paribatra is a Democrat Party Member of Parliament, and former Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, Thailand. 292M.R. Sukhumbhand Paribatra similar to those of constitutional monarchs in Europe. In May 1992, however, with only a few words of royal advice, considerable bloodshed, perhaps even a civil war, was avoided; normalcy returned; a breathing space to restore rationality was brought about; and, soon afterwards, Thai democracy was back on track. The "Black May" crisis of 1992 demonstrated the unique position of both the monarchy and the present monarch as the "Soul of the Nation", a term once used by the late statesman-scholar-writer, M.R. Kukrit Pramoj.2 It reaffirmed the roles of both the institution and the living embodiment of that institution, not only as the most revered symbol of national unity, but also as the nation's conscience, the most effective last-resort conflict manager, and the most powerful force of national reconciliation. At the dawn of the new millennium, King Bhumibol's popularity seems to be higher than ever. He guided a nation, shell-shocked by the sudden onslaught of an economic crisis, through troubled times with words of wisdom and comfort, and his subjects responded with unprecedented demonstrations of love and respect. On the evening of 5 December 1999, on the occasion of his sixth cycle or seventy-second birthday, the whole nation paid homage by lighting candles and singing his praise. There is no easy explanation for all this. Perhaps one part of the answer lies in history; another in the concept of kingship as developed during the two hundred odd years of the Chakri Dynasty; and the third in the achievements of the present Royal Family. The Past King Bhumibol's special position in the hearts and minds of the Thai people did not grow in a void. According to Thai tradition, one key attribute of leadership is barami, or charisma or grace accumulated through meritorious deeds accomplished by one's ancestors and oneself in one's past and present life. The present Thai monarch's barami is partly based on...