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A monarch seeks to abdicate: The state of the state

The recent August 8 statement by Emperor Akihito of Japan stating the desire for an alternative to a decline in both duties and the wish for the activities of the Japanese monarchy to be sustained have been seen as indicating a wish to abdicate. As an expression of the human condition, the statement has parallels with the resignation of Pope Benedict XI in 2013 and with the birthday speech of his Majesty the King of December 4, 2005.

The statement by Emperor Akihito has not been discussed widely in Thailand, with the Bangkok Post and The Nation only publishing wire stories, such as this column and this column. In contrast to the situation regarding the reformed Japanese monarchy, in Thailand, any discussion of the human fallibility of the monarch would be lese majesté. The link between the health of the monarch and that of the nation exists within the Shinto tradition, as it does within the Buddhist Theravadan tradition, and explains official statements which deny there are any signs of disharmony in Thailand.

This fact is sometimes overlooked, or ignored, by foreign journalists, as in International Crisis Group analyst Matt Wheeler’s otherwise accurate column on the Thai government apparently trying to ‘hide’ the southern insurgency, upgraded in the New York Times headline to a ‘rebellion’. Officials have even denied it was terrorism, using the ‘logic’ that the terrorists would have claimed responsibility by officially notifying the relevant police intelligence unit. Officials have also alluded to it being the work of ‘bad people’ led by one person upset about the referendum. In addition, Wheeler notes that a police spokesman stated, “Thailand doesn’t have conflicts regarding religion, ethnicity, territory or minority groups.”

Thus, this apparently delusional official stance is actually a logical one and makes sense to many Thais. The stance is not just to protect tourism, as Wheeler notes, but to preserve the image of Thailand enjoying the enlightened rule of a universal ideal Buddhist monarch, a version of the Indian chakravartin, a position His Majesty the King enjoys. His Majesty is widely revered as a dhammaraja, or Buddhist dhamma-practicing monarch who embodies the 10 kingly Buddhist virtues. Though the dhammaraja concept was apparently blended with a style of paternal rule under King Ram Khamhaeng according to the Ram Khamhaeng stele inscription, the result for the harmony of the country was essentially the same as that under a dhammaraja:

In the time of King Ram Khamhang this land of Sukhothai is thriving. There is fish in the water and rice in the fields…He has hung a bell in the opening of the gate over there: if any commoner in the land has a grievance which sickens his belly and gripes his heart, and which he wants to make known to his ruler and lord, it is easy: he goes and strikes the bell which the King has hung there; King Ram Khamhang, the ruler of the kingdom, hears the call; he goes and questions the man, examines the case, and decides it justly for him. So the people of this muang of Sukhothai praise him…

The more Hindu version of the Chakravartin, the devaraja concept, as preserved in the revived Thai royal ploughing ceremony, links the health of the monarch through ritual ceremonies to the health of the land.

Thus, in Thailand there can be no divisions along ethnic, territorial, religious, or minority lines, for this would imply His Majesty the King is not a dhammaraja or has run out of the main attribute of a dhammaraja (barami, or Buddhist charisma), or, possibly, that he is frail, sick, or otherwise incapacitated. The former options are, for many Thais, inconceivable, while the latter options are unsayable except through official channels.

While His Majesty the King being a dhammaraja is indisputable, partly because it is by popular acclaim, to a certain extent, this attitude even explains the Royal Thai Government’s regular denials to the international community that anything is seriously wrong in Thailand regarding cultural rights, even in the Deep South. These denials border on outright falsehoods. Thus, in the RTG’s interactions with the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights in June 2015, expert questions about indigenous rights, cultural rights, and the disproportionate poverty of ethnic communities in the North and Northeast were largely evaded. The Thai Country delegation also ignored the fact that, in shadow reports by NGOs, the plight of torture victims as well as of the families of Thai Malay detainees in the Deep South was raised.

The Thai Country Delegation Report to the UN Committee itself combines the deeds of His Majesty the King with a message of ethnic harmony which is removed from reality:

“With regard to Malayu-descended Thai Muslims in the southernmost border provinces of Thailand, the government has adopted the concept of “Understand, Access, Develop” according to HM the King’s initiated development concept to implement development in the target area in accordance with its specific characters, way of life, culture and beliefs of the people there. The local people fully enjoy their rights and liberties to hold Islamic religious activities. The government has also declared Malayu Pattani language as another official language in the southern border provinces.”

What is not disputed here is that HM the King’s development initiative, appropriated from use with the mountain peoples, is useful in the Deep South. What is disputed is that the Malayu Pattani language has become an official language in the southern border provinces – it simply is not, as it is not even officially taught there in schools, or displayed routinely on signs, or regularly used in any official capacity. Thus, the noble intentions of HM the King become intertwined with the message of an idealised kingdom which is far from reality, including in official messages to the international community.

When this message is pushed to its logical conclusion, those who know that the message is not the truth, including more senior officials, begin to suffer from a collective societal cognitive dissonance – a form of schizophrenia – which can be detected in their public statements. Eventually, the message breaks down, as when the National Police Chief Pol. Gen Chakthip on Monday admitted that 20 Muslim militants were responsible for the recent bombings in the South while also perversely stating they “might have been hired” by someone to carry out the attacks – presumably a reference to former PM Thaksin shinawatra, who is in fact despised by southern militants for the Tak Bai Incident and related deaths. This, on the same day the Bangkok Post covers the story that the Prayut administration is suddenly concerned by the plight of the (traditionally Democrat voting) ethnic minority Hmong community at the 111 Phu Thap Boek resorts.

This picture of wheels within wheels in Thailand regarding the state of the State contrasts strongly with the rationality self-evident in Emperor Akihito’s speech, reproduced in full below (and please note his closing comment). Indeed, Emeror Akihito’s statement is much closer in outlook to His Majesty’s own defining statement on the position of a monarch and the human condition, still available from The Nation website, available here, where His Majesty states, “If the King can do no wrong, it is akin to looking down upon him because the King is not being treated as a human being.”

Emperor Akihito's Speech in Full

A major milestone year marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two has passed, and in two years we will be welcoming the 30th year of Heisei (the era beginning when the previous emperor died).

As I am now more than 80 years old and there are times when I feel various constraints such as in my physical fitness, in the last few years I have started to reflect on my years as the Emperor, and contemplate on my role and my duties as the Emperor in the days to come.

As we are in the midst of a rapidly aging society, I would like to talk to you today about what would be a desirable role of the Emperor in a time when the Emperor, too, becomes advanced in age. While, being in the position of the Emperor, I must refrain from making any specific comments on the existing Imperial system, I would like to tell you what I, as an individual, have been thinking about.

Ever since my accession to the throne, I have carried out the acts of the Emperor in matters of state, and at the same time I have spent my days searching for and contemplating on what is the desirable role of the Emperor, who is designated to be the symbol of the State by the Constitution of Japan. As one who has inherited a long tradition, I have always felt a deep sense of responsibility to protect this tradition.

At the same time, in a nation and in a world which are constantly changing, I have continued to think to this day about how the Japanese Imperial Family can put its traditions to good use in the present age and be an active and inherent part of society, responding to the expectations of the people.

It was some years ago, after my two surgeries that I began to feel a decline in my fitness level because of my advancing age, and I started to think about the pending future, how I should conduct myself should it become difficult for me to carry out my heavy duties in the way I have been doing, and what would be best for the country, for the people, and also for the Imperial Family members who will follow after me. I am already 80 years old, and fortunately I am now in good health. However, when I consider that my fitness level is gradually declining, I am worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the State with my whole being as I have done until now.

I ascended to the throne approximately 28 years ago, and during these years, I have spent my days together with the people of Japan, sharing much of the joys as well as the sorrows that have happened in our country. I have considered that the first and foremost duty of the Emperor is to pray for peace and happiness of all the people. At the same time, I also believe that in some cases it is essential to stand by the people, listen to their voices, and be close to them in their thoughts.

In order to carry out the duties of the Emperor as the symbol of the State and as a symbol of the unity of the people, the Emperor needs to seek from the people their understanding on the role of the symbol of the State. I think that likewise, there is need for the Emperor to have a deep awareness of his own role as the Emperor, deep understanding of the people, and willingness to nurture within himself the awareness of being with the people. In this regard, I have felt that my travels to various places throughout Japan, in particular, to remote places and islands, are important acts of the Emperor as the symbol of the State and I have carried them out in that spirit.

In my travels throughout the country, which I have made together with the Empress, including the time when I was Crown Prince, I was made aware that wherever I went there were thousands of citizens who love their local community and with quiet dedication continue to support their community. With this awareness I was able to carry out the most important duties of the Emperor, to always think of the people and pray for the people, with deep respect and love for the people. That, I feel, has been a great blessing.

In coping with the aging of the Emperor, I think it is not possible to continue reducing perpetually the Emperor's acts in matters of state and his duties as the symbol of the State. A Regency may be established to act in the place of the Emperor when the Emperor cannot fulfil his duties for reasons such as he is not yet of age or he is seriously ill. Even in such cases, however, it does not change the fact that the Emperor continues to be the Emperor till the end of his life, even though he is unable to fully carry out his duties as the Emperor.

When the Emperor has ill health and his condition becomes serious, I am concerned that, as we have seen in the past, society comes to a standstill and people's lives are impacted in various ways. The practice in the Imperial Family has been that the death of the Emperor called for events of heavy mourning, continuing every day for two months, followed by funeral events which continue for one year. These various events occur simultaneously with events related to the new era, placing a very heavy strain on those involved in the events, in particular, the family left behind. It occurs to me from time to time to wonder whether it is possible to prevent such a situation.

As I said in the beginning, under the Constitution, the Emperor does not have powers related to government. Even under such circumstances, it is my hope that by thoroughly reflecting on our country's long history of emperors, the Imperial Family can continue to be with the people at all times and can work together with the people to build the future of our country, and that the duties of the Emperor as the symbol of the State can continue steadily without a break. With this earnest wish, I have decided to make my thoughts known.

I sincerely hope for your understanding.


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