Monarchy and money in Thailand

WorkingIn a new review available at JCA’s website (DOI: 10.1080/00472336.2017.1317073), editor Kevin Hewison reviews Working Towards the Monarchy: The Politics of Space in Downtown Bangkok by Serhat Ünaldi, published by the University of Hawaii Press in 2016.

Hewison observes that even if Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej died not long after this book was published, this is an important study because the the monarchy “remains politically and economically significant…”. He says:

Ünaldi’s account of the monarchy, its allies, investments and politics is an important intervention. Those who are uncritical supporters of the monarchy are likely to find this revealing book troubling and even threatening of reverence for the royal family. Scholars of Thailand will welcome the book as an important contribution to the critical literature on the monarchy.

Parts of the book will feel familiar for JCA readers who remember his article for the Journal in 2014.

In the book, Ünaldi offers:

a theoretically informed account of Bhumibol’s monarchy and the challenges to it from capitalist development and the rise of electoral politics, personified for the royalist elite, in Thaksin Shinawatra. The author’s theory is Weberian with an emphasis on charismatic authority, filled out with several post-modern approaches to space, habits and charisma. The author’s theoretical innovation is to agree that charisma adheres to an individual and a position but adding that it may be used by others. This association with the king’s charisma can protect and benefit many, from Sino-Thai capitalists to slum dwellers, and is referred to as “working towards the monarchy” (11).

While Hewison considers the use of charisma in multiple versions to problematic and the neglect of class analysis surprising, he writes that Part II of the book is fascinating for its focus royal properties in the downtown Siam-Ratchaprasong area. He says that “Ünaldi expertly reveals the history, ownership and use of this most valuable land and its evolution from bucolic palaces to a thriving commercial centre.” In particular, Chapters 4 and 5 presents information that “both reveals and fills out details of the development of the royal family’s wealth that is anchored in extensive land ownership.”

Hewison concludes:

Working Towards the Monarchy is a welcome addition to the still limited critical literature on Thailand’s monarchy. Because the monarchy is at the centre of Thailand’s authoritarian politics, this book will be widely read, even if its distribution is restricted in Thailand.

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