|COMMENTARY: The King’s constitutional powers and beyond ...
Published on September 06, 2005 - Continuity and change is now an almost cliched theme of historical study. Yet the story of the Thai monarchy demonstrates very clearly the continued general validity of such an approach.
Thailand is now a constitutional monarchy and a country aspiring to become a newly developed society, but the traditional principles of righteous Buddhist kingship and kingly virtues remain of paramount importance to the present monarchy. His Majesty has displayed, and continues to display a profound understanding of constitutional kingship as well as the traditional sources and symbols of Thai monarchical tradition.
In his Oath of Accession to the Throne, as his ancestors had done, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej pledged to “reign with righteousness for the benefit and happiness of the Siamese people” In his long reign, he has not deviated from that pledge. Indeed, he has earned the love, admiration, and trust of his people in a manner that cannot be fully comprehended by foreigners.
The significance of his reign relates to three main themes the well-being of his subjects, the security and stability of his nation, and national unity.
In the fifties and sixties, he travelled to every and corner of the country, meeting with the people, especially farmers and the poor in rural and remote areas as well as the hilltribes, gathering information, personally assessing the farming and agricultural areas, experimenting his new concepts and applying appropriate technology at his palace ground in Bangkok, he began a series of royally initiated projects.
His work in all those development areas stems from his conviction that the well-being of the people is tantamount to the well-being of their sovereign. The two are inseparable and inter-related.
His concern for the security and stability of the Thai nation is reflected in the innumerable trips and lengthy visits he, the Queen and other members of the Royal Family, have made to the sensitive areas of the country which were, at one time, confronted with communist insurgency movements or separatist, ethnic and religious-inspired bands of rebels and bandits, His frequent visits were a morale booster to the populace.
I have so far dwelled on the varied activities that His Majesty initiated, developed and implemented. These activities do not normally fall within the domain of a constitutional monarch, But the fact that he has persevered in these activities for the long-lasting benefit of the Thai people has very much endeared him to his subjects – so much so that the Thais, in general, willingly and unreservedly accord him the confidence and trust that no other monarch in our history, or for that matter any other monarch in the world, has ever enjoyed. The King has, in the process, gained the “reserve powers” which he has put to good use, whenever circumstances require.
Now I shall deal with the King’s constitutional role and how he has discreetly and deftly influenced the course of our political history. We must bear in mind that the young King, after his accession to the throne in 1946, had to tread cautiously through the shoals of political and military bedrocks. Political intrigues and military machinations were the order of the day and His Majesty, while widely loved and respected, was still relatively a figurehead of a people who had yet to know their own sovereign.
As I stated previously, the King embarked early in his reign on a journey (to know his subjects and, in the process, allowed his subjects to get close to and know him. At the same time, he used his time wisely to accumulate “constitutional” experience. He has been through 15 constitutions, 17 coups d’etat, and over 20 prime ministers. He has an acute grasp of constitutional rule. He remains detached from politics, playing a non-partisan role in the country’s political process and development.
As a constitutional monarch, however, he possesses “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn.” Under normal circumstances, he exercises these rights through private audiences he grants to the prime minister of the day. What, transpires during these meetings remain private and confidential, and even after statutory silent period, parts of the consultations may not be made known.
In a constitutional monarchy, the King does have certain powers and responsibilities under constitutional provisions. In exercising this power, he must be ever conscious of his responsibility and objectivity. All bills approved by the National Assembly are to be presented to the King for signature. This is not just a formality, as the King retains discretionary power to withhold his assent temporarily. In private consultations with the prime minister, the King’s comments, be they “encouraging” or “warning”, provide an important input for the head of government, if he wishes, to re-evaluate the government’s position and direction. His Majesty alone possesses continuous political experience and has always kept to constitutional proprieties. His remarks, whether made privately or publicly, have always been listened to with great attention and circumspection. His indirect influence on government’s policies and, measures cannot, therefore, be underestimated.
A constitutional monarch may dissolve Parliament, appoint a prime minister, high-ranking officers and civil servants. There have, however, been a number of “extraordinary political situations” where, he King has had to draw on his “reserve power” to defuse national crises.
To what extent our arrival at this juncture has been due to His Majesty’s non-partisan guidance during his long reign needs to be fully assessed and analysed by historians. As a layman, I have no doubt that his sense of justice, his overriding concern for the well-being and security of his people, his sense of history as well as his pragmatic and gradualist approach, have made a highly significant impact on the politics, economic and social development of Thailand. He has the skill and integrity to influence politics without being political.
Without His Majesty’s guiding hand, we would not be where we arc today – a nation which has consistently demonstrated its inner strength, political resilience, social harmony and economic dynamism – a trait which has enabled the Thais to survive many a threat and misfortune in their long history.
The course of modem Thai political history will run smoothly and peacefully if and when the Thai political system pursues the middle path and a balance is achieved between freedom and stability. His Majesty’s adoption of the balanced approach during his reign serves as an inspiration for the governance of Thailand. To the Thai people, the monarchy is not an abstract concept, but a real tangible, human and caring institution.
His Majesty the King personifies positive elements of our national characteristics and he is the very embodiment of the common character of the Thai people of all ethnic groups, religion and culture. He is our inspiration toward a stronger, more secure and prosperous destiny. He has deservedly earned the respect and trust of his people to the point that his Baramee would overcome all adversities.
Excerpts from Anand Panyarachun’s speech “His Majesty’s Role in the Making of Thai History” delivered at the 14th Conference of the International Association of Historians of Asia, Chulalongkorn University May 20, 1996.