- A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century by Andrew MacGregor Marshall
There is a long tradition in Western commentary on Asia pointing to the reprehensible behaviour of oriental despots. Advocates for colonial expansion often built their case around the need to liberate the Asian masses from their rapacious, and sometimes unhinged, rulers. Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis sits firmly within this orientalist tradition.
A Kingdom in Crisis provides a salacious chronicle of royal brutality and “murderous violence” in pre-modern Siam (p. 53). Princes who fell out of favour were put in velvet sacks and beaten to death with sandalwood clubs (p. 43); petty criminals were slow-roasted alive (p. 53); the owners of dogs whose barking disturbed the king were “killed in the cruellest fashion on earth” (p. 52); and unsuspecting maidens were arbitrarily sacrificed to meet the king’s superstitious whim (p. 122). There were also “blood-curdling punishments” for those bold enough to engage in “immoral intercourse with a lady of the Palace” (p. 51). Palace intercourse — MacGregor Marshall shows us that there was an awful lot of it — was the prerogative of extraordinarily randy monarchs. Prasart Thong, who seized the throne in 1629, was a pervert, selecting the “prettiest maidens and daughters of the greatest men” (p. 124) as his concubines! And even the scholarly Mongkut, released from his monastic sublimation at the ripe old age of 46, begat 82 children by 35 women in his “harem” (p. 129). Do not be misled by the imagery of the “land of smiles” MacGregor Marshall helpfully warns those who mistake tourism slogans for reality: Thais are very good at staging political theatre, but behind the scenes a violent and libidinous orient is lurking.
The core objective of A Kingdom in Crisis is to challenge Thailand’s royalist mythology. In simple terms, the core myth is that the king is a unifying, integrating and benevolent force in Thai society. Drawing extensively on Thailand’s long royal history, MacGregor Marshall shows that, in fact, the monarch in Siam/Thailand has been a powerhouse of intra-elite conflict, while at the same time providing an ideological figurehead to facilitate the oppression of the masses. The book’s far from flattering account of Thai history draws on the accounts of Westerners resident in pre-modern Siam (with surprisingly little critical reflection on [End Page 495] how their vested interests may have shaped the shocking tales they tell), modern (and not so modern) scholars, popular tales, and, most originally, the WikiLeaks cables. It certainly is a myth-busting tour-de-force showing how Thai kings, and the elites that surround them, have regularly generated political crises, which also reflect competition between narrow sectional interests. However, whether or not the book will achieve its myth-busting objective is hard to tell. Most readers, I suspect, will already be converts to MacGregor Marshall’s position. By contrast, those who subscribe to the royal mythology will probably be confirmed in their view that unsympathetic Westerners like MacGregor Marshall are determined to slander the royal institution.
The book’s central claim is that the current political crisis that has gripped Thailand since 2005 “is essentially a succession struggle over who will become monarch when King Bhumibol dies” (p. 3). The hitherto “unacknowledged war of succession” (p. 4) is the key to making “Thailand’s bewildering crisis … comprehensible” (p. 5). Given the centrality, and boldness, of this claim, MacGregor Marshall has surprisingly little to say about it. Part III of the book addresses “the secrets of the Thai succession” (p. 105). MacGregor Marshall starts this section by categorically rejecting the conventional wisdom that Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn will take the throne following the passing of his father. He confidently declares that predictions of an orderly succession “are completely untrue” (p. 109). So what are the secrets that are revealed in these central chapters? From my reading there are three. First, that going back centuries, royal succession in Southeast...