Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Oxymoron of Modern-Day Constitutional Monarchy

On the hotel TV's broadcast of Chinese stations, there was a program on the follies of Chinese emperors of the past.  One particular episode discussed how absolute adoration of the emperor (at least in superficial terms) made the personality of the emperor so lofty and self-righteous to the point that his altered  decision-making patterns turned a peaceful and prosperous nation into one ravaged by war in matter of years.  The professor repeatedly warned the audience of detrimental effects that creating a cult of personality can have on the direction of a polity.

And if anything, the maintenance of cult of personality in monarchic nations have persisted, despite the fact that most have lost any sort of relevance in their respective countries' day-to-day political decision-making.  Much of this has to do with the general populace's continued fascination with lives of royals, propagated with constant treatment of royal family members as de facto celebrities, and movies/cartoons/books that try their best to generate fancifully rosy portrayal of royal lifestyles.  This is especially the case with the British monarchy, even today.

Amid the ongoing debates on whether the modern monarchy, devoid of its political purposes, are actually necessary for a country, what is clear is that, across many of these constitutional monarchies, popular support for royal families remain strong, and not just as a result of superficially packaging royals as personalities possessing fashionable qualities that "normal" people would like to emulate, but in a much more entrenched way.  In Thailand, this is almost taken to an extreme, with large photos of the king everywhere, and laws banning defaming the royal family widely followed.

That voluntary and unquestioned adulation for the royal family is what strikes as odd.  In a Thailand so taken up by foreign influences, stemming from almost endless influx of foreigners who loom large in the psyche of the local populace, it is extremely surprising that the monarchy, itself a bastion of conservative tradition that often  contradicts the country's consumerist, pleasure-focused on-the-ground reality, will have any sort of real respect from the populace.  Short-term observers should be excused if they see the king's photogenic presence as mere political propaganda.

Perhaps the reason for the respect is the monarchy's off-handed attitude toward the direction of Thai society.  It has not tried to impose its own view of how society ought to be on a populace enriched by tourist trade that promote exactly the opposite ideals.  Or perhaps, it is the only institution that remained stable and respectable through Thailand's endless political intrigues involving street protests and military coups.  The fact that the monarchy stayed largely true to its own principles, even if being a passive bystander to flow of history, deserves its credit.

Indeed, the presence of the monarchy probably discredit the assumption that democratization and internationalization of the country inevitably lead to loss of traditional national identities.  Or better yet, the continued reverence for the monarchy is the symbol of local populace's quiet defiance against the encroaching consumerist influence.  It is a visible way for individual Thais to let foreigners (and other Thais) know that while they are willing to do much to earn tourist dollars, what they do to cater to tourists do not reflect their true selves.

But the moral of the story from the Chinese emperors is clear: it is that simply adulation for royal families should not translate automatically into real and decisive political power for kings and queens who are simply born into their positions.  And it is  on this point there should still be doubts on the modern monarchy.  Given the informal influence the monarchy continue to hold, it is largely possible that they bypass formal political institutions to sway the beliefs and behaviors of the common people.  Changing the minds of the masses in such way have only become faster with advent of social media.  
Ultimately, constitutional monarchies, even with their political teeth removed, are anything but benign in their existences.  With their roles as the bearers of their respective national identities, they can easily and massively sway public opinions and indirectly interfere in the outcomes of political events.  Whether the persistence of the monarchy's strength is good largely depends on how the informal power of influence is taken advantage of by the major actors.  This is not just an issue for politically unstable Thailand but for all constitutional monarchies around the world.

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