“In life, men are either kings or pawns.” -Napoleon Bonaparte
Not to underestimate the cult of personality which Cambodia’s late King Father Norodom Sihanouk engendered, approximately one million people reminded us of his revered presence in the country by lining the streets from Pochentong International Airport all the way to the Royal Palace on Wednesday as his body was flown in from China. People, young and old alike, openly wept at his memorial while others speculated on message boards if the country would now spin out of country without any checks on Prime Minister Hun Sen.
And all of this due to the death of an absentee, aged figurehead who held virtually no political clout for years and whose overthrow in 1970 was met with jubilation amongst the educated segment of the country.
The pomp and circumstance may very well be an elaborate show conducted by Mr. Hun Sen in an effort to sure up his nationalistic credentials for next year’s election. The Prime Minister, whose clashes with the royal family over the years are well-documented, accompanied Sihanouk’s son — the inconsequential King Norodom Sihamoni — to Beijing to retrieve the body and declared a week of mourning.
Hun Sen’s ability to silence dissent, outmaneuver his opponents, and maintain and ironclad grip on power for more than two decades has shown to be a masterclass in political duplicity. He has diligently erased the royal family from any type of serious relevance beyond the traditional role the monarchy plays in Cambodia’s affairs.
But if you would like to see a scene of true political chaos, you will be in for a scene infinitely more grandeur in terms of style and free of any affectation when King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand passes on. It might not be too long from now either as His Majesty, who will turn 85-years old this December, is reportedly in poor health with Parkinson’s disease.
According to a Wikileaks document from the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, the political fallout from the King’s inevitable death will be immense:
“It is hard to underestimate the political impact of the uncertainty surrounding the inevitable succession crisis which will be touched off once King Bhumibol passes. Over the past year, nearly every politician and analyst, when speaking privately and candidly, regardless of political affiliation or colored perspective, has identified succession as the principal political challenge facing Thailand today, much more important than normal political issues of coalition management or competition for power, which clearly do factor into the mix of political dynamics.”
In a country where saying anything remotely negative about the monarchy can result in a multiple year prison sentence, and where many Thais not only see the King as a revered figure but as a semi-deity, the death of the longest serving head of state in the world could plunge the country into the abyss.
Over the past few years, Thailand has become one of the least politically stable country’s in the region. Instead of living up to its “Land of Smiles” moniker where backpackers revel in cheap martinis on white sandy beaches, the country has been defined more for its coups and public demonstrations where the only cocktails to be found were the Molotov kinds being hurled through the windows of government buildings.
Thailand’s current Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, knows plenty about the potential pitfalls; her brother, and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was ousted in a coup in 2006 which led to a series of events in which successive governments toppled and people on both sides took the streets to voice their discontent.
Both factions in Thailand — Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party, and the opposition Democrat Party — have politicized the issue of lèse majesté. Which side, if any, will come out on top in the postmortem of Thailand’s monarch is anyone’s guess.