If we managed to tear our eyes away from the circus act that is the U.S. Election 2016, this week in other headlines, we learnt of the death of the Thai king.
I read this news item with interest, as I cast my mind back to January 2015, when we had journeyed to Chiang Mai in Thailand. On a day trip up into the hills, we had shared a car with a Thai man (extreme right in the picture below) from Bangkok, a middle-aged professional who aspired to be a monk some day. He was both well-informed and communicative, and so we had our first lesson in Thai history and current affairs.
Until the 1800s, Chiang Mai was the capital of a separate kingdom in northern Thailand. Thereafter, the two kingdoms were unified into present-day Thailand. Even today, there are major political and cultural differences between the two regions: the “Yellow Shirts” based in Bangkok support the king, and the “Red Shirts” based in Chiang Mai and the rual north do not. The Yellow and Red shirts have been engaged in de facto warfare in Thailand for some time. The last ruling party were the Red Shirts, and apparently corruption was a huge problem, until they were removed from power in a military coup during the summer of 2014. Thailand, in 2015, was more or less at peace under military rule, and was scheduled to have elections in 2017. Further complicating affairs, at the time, the 87-year-old Thai king was not in the best of health. He was a popular monarch, known to have done much good for his kingdom, including for the up-country people. But his son and presumptive heir was a deeply unpopular playboy, and the people had no wish to see the kingdom pass into his hands.
This much we learnt from our new friend. I hadn’t given this much thought in the last couple of years — after all, Thailand does not feature in my day-to-day life. This week, the newspaper told me that he had been right on the money.
We got a synopsis of the political realities of Thailand:
Thailand has been divided for years between poor farmers mainly in the rural north and more prosperous urban residents centered in Bangkok. At the same time, Muslims have been fighting a low-level insurgency in the far south for more than a decade, seeking independence from the central government. The military has staged two coups over the past 10 years to oust populist governments that favored the rural poor…
The popularity of the old king was highlighted:
Tens of thousands of grieving Thais lined the streets of the capital on Friday to view the coffin of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a day after the beloved monarch’s 70-year reign ended with his death.
And finally, we pondered the apprehension of the Thai people about the royal succession:
The lavish European lifestyle of the son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, and his tastes for airplanes, fast cars, women and the high life have caused great anxiety in the kingdom for decades. To his critics, his romantic liaisons have been more than just a royal soap opera… [A video clip] showed the princess [his third wife] topless with a string bikini bottom being attended to by submissive palace staff, scandalized a public accustomed to perceiving the monarchy as a paragon of virtue.
Under normal circumstances, I would have glanced at the headlines, and perhaps not even skimmed over the articles. But because of that one conversation, all at once, this news was real and alive to me. It brings up, once again, the importance of travel. It is through conversations between travelers that the concerns of other countries become something more than words on a piece of paper, or a disembodied voice on the radio, to us. I, like John Lennon, dream of a border-free world, where we can all live in harmony. Every conversation on our travels brings us a tiny bit closer to that dream.