THE PLANK FEBRUARY 16, 2007
Ian Buruma has a typically excellent essay on Thailand in the most recent New York Review of Books. Reviewing Paul Handley's new book about Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Buruma manages to explain both the country's successes under a monarchy and the fundamental problem with a lack of democratic governance. He also gets in a good shot against those who applauded or igrnored the country's recent coup that overthrew the prime minister:
To describe royal charity as a form of populism would seem to be a paradox, for what could be more elitist than a monarchy? But it is not unusual for aristocrats and kings to claim to be on the side of the common man against the greedy rich. What we see in Thailand, then, is two competing forms of charismatic autocracy: a traditional type, seeking its legitimacy in religion, culture, history, bloodlines, and superior virtue, and a new kind, based on money, celebrity, and media savvy. This is not unique to Thailand ... But the drama in Thailand is especially acute, because unlike Britain, Thailand is still struggling with democratic institutions. Those who applaud too loudly, for understandable reasons, the victory of the old guard over the new should think of the damage done whenever people look to kings and generals to solve problems they should really take care of themselves.