Thai army creates pantheon of kings

Thai army creates pantheon of kings
The move to display a collection of giant statues of past kings, such as Ramkhamhaeng (right) and Naresuan (left) at one spot is seen by some as an attempt to consolidate royalist ideology.
PHOTO: Reuters

Giant bronze statues of seven of the country's past kings have in recent days held up traffic on the southbound highway to Hua Hin, as they have been trundled slowly on big trucks to a park in the city on the Gulf of Thailand.

The site of the pantheon of kings is built by the army on land allocated by King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

"It is an army initiative," Major- General Weerachon Sukonthapaitipak, deputy government spokesman, told The Straits Times.

General Udomdej Sitabutr, army commander-in-chief, visited the site yesterday morning to ensure the statues will be raised as planned by Aug 8. One statue was slightly damaged while being transported from Lopburi province.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha will open the display on Aug 19, and next month, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn will preside at an elaborate inaugural ceremony.

Analysts see the park as a strong symbol of resurgent royalism under the current military regime which seized power in May last year and has since been vigorously pursuing people it deems critical of the monarchy.

"In the past, there have always been activities to honour the monarchy, but this is a very particular, a very special gesture," Chulalongkorn University political science professor Panitan Wattanayagorn told The Straits Times. The professor is also an adviser to Deputy Prime Minister, General Prawit Wongsuwan.

Statues of various kings of Thailand can be found throughout the country, but none is as big and located together in one place. The Hua Hin display will change that.

"It is an attempt to consolidate royalist ideology," said Mr David Streckfuss, a Thailand-based academic and author of a book on the country's lese majeste law. "We've seen a re-entrenchment of royalist ideology" under the current regime, he noted.

The kings depicted are from different periods, in effect linking them to suggest a continuous, ancient history of Thai kings. The first statue to reach the site last week was of the 13th-century king Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai.

The statues are 13m to 14m tall and will be mounted on consecutive days. The 700 million baht (S$27.3 million) park will also include a museum and is expected to be a major tourist attraction.

The resort town of Hua Hin is the favourite abode of King Bhumibol, the ninth king of the Chakri dynasty, widely revered across Thailand as a father figure. But at 87, he is in the twilight of his reign and in hospital in Bangkok. The opening of the park comes at a time when Thailand is approaching the inevitable transition in the monarchy.

Although the country is a constitutional monarchy, King Bhumibol, who has reigned for 68 years, is seen as the country's highest moral authority. In private, Thais express anxiety over a future without that moral authority.

Setting up the seven giant statues "can be seen as an attempt to be more systematic in uniting people at a critical time", said Prof Panitan.

The military regime is led by the Burapha Phayak or "Eastern Tigers" army faction which traces its roots to the 21st Infantry Regiment or Queen's Guard, and is characterised by unswerving loyalty to the King and Queen. The military sees itself as the guarantor of the foundation of the "three pillars" of the Thai state - nation, religion and monarchy.

In an interview in June, General Prayut told The Straits Times: "The monarch is very important for this country, and I uphold the… monarch. I am protecting my country."

The mounting of the seven statues at Hua Hin has inevitably been compared to the big statues of three past kings of Myanmar that tower over a military parade ground near the capital Naypyitaw - erected under the rule of the enigmatic former dictator, Senior General Than Shwe.

But in Myanmar's case, the monarchy was destroyed in 1885 by British colonial forces.

In Thailand, said Professor Pitch Pongsawat from the political science faculty at Chulalongkorn University, "the King is still the living soul of the army. Protecting the King is protecting the nation".

Another significant event for the royal family this month is mass bicycle rallies across Thailand on Aug 16 in honour of the Queen, who turns 83 on Aug 12.

The Bangkok rally will be led, in a rare common touch, by the designated successor to the throne, 63-year-old Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. Billboards have sprouted across the country promoting "Bike for Mom 2015" with pictures of him and his mother Queen Sirikit, who has not been seen in public since May.

It is the first time the Crown Prince - who was in the news late last year for the purging of his then wife Srirasmi and her family - will be involved in such a mass public event that appears to be his personal project.

Thousands queued last Saturday at the Royal Army Club in Bangkok to register for the rally and collect T-shirts and badges.

Some 270,000 people nationwide signed up. Forty thousand of those will cycle a 43km route in Bangkok, led by the Crown Prince himself. Tomorrow will see a rehearsal in which the route will be closed to traffic and several thousand security personnel deployed.

Monarchs of yore

King Ramkhamhaeng (Born circa 1237/1247 - Died 1298)

• Inherited a small kingdom based in Sukhothai in Thailand's lower north

• Credited with inventing basics of Thai script and established Theravada Buddhism as state religion

• As a warrior king, he is credited with having significantly expanded the kingdom

King Naresuan (1555 - 1605)

• Famed for freeing Siam from Burmese rule

• In legend, he killed the Burmese crown prince in hand-to-hand combat from the back of an elephant

King Narai (1633 - 1688)

• Successfully held back the traditional enemy - the Burmese - and credited with forging closer relations with foreigners, especially Europeans

• A poet who revived Thai literature

King Taksin (1734 - 1782)

• Warrior and conqueror who reunited Siam after its defeat at the hands of the Burmese in 1767

• Reign was marked by frequent wars with Burmese as well as northern Thai kingdom of Lanna

King Buddha Yodfa Chulalok (1737 - 1809)

• Known as Rama I, first king of the Chakri dynasty

• Credited with founding the new capital at Rattanakosin - now Bangkok

• During his reign, Bangkok's Grand Palace was constructed; he also had the Emerald Buddha installed

King Mongkut (1804 - 1868)

• Also known as Rama IV of the Chakri dynasty, he spent 24 years as an abott before becoming king

• Having modernised Thailand, he earned a Thai nickname meaning "Father of science and technology"

King Chulalongkorn (1853 - 1910)

• Also known as Rama V, a son of King Mongkut

• Through skilful diplomacy and land concessions, he prevented Siam from being colonised by the West

• Visited Singapore, Java and British India to learn about the colonial administration and applied the lessons learnt to the modernisation of Siam


This article was first published on Aug 01, 2015.
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