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Monday, March 10, 2008

Redundant royal honors provoke wonder

HONOLULU — Not every monarch is alike. It's true that many are mean and greedy and full of themselves — selfish squirrels who sock their ill-gotten gains beneath everyone's eyes overseas while they stick their political opponents into dark dank prisons — or graves. But some are comparatively mild, even perhaps honestly patriotic.

Britain's Elizabeth, the old girl, strikes one as a rather civilized queen if you have to live with a monarch, and Thailand's Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX of the Chakri Dynasty tends to get pro-king media reviews as a nice-guy sort of King George III.

But the Thai royal image suffered a bit of a setback about a year and a half ago when seasoned Siamese observers detected the subtle claw of the otherwise Humble King Bhumibol behind the shocking removal in September 2006 of a sitting prime minister. The Thai military fronted for the king and did the dirty work of course, removing the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra while Thaksin was traveling abroad.

While Thaksin no doubt was — and still is — a rogue and a demagogue, he had, in fact, gotten into office by honest election — not by brutal force of tanks. And the military government that was put in place while he cooled his heels abroad until his return to Thailand last month was of Burmese junta quality (that is, incredibly incompetent).

And perhaps so the royal image burnishers of Siam felt the need to go into action to regain the PR momentum, and looked to be in fine form Friday night (Feb. 29) in a Honolulu hotel ballroom. The place was decked out almost like a set for "The King and I," with dancers and musicians galore.

The only flavor missing was the dear king himself — the actual honoree for whom a fancy award was ordered up. But being 80, not even a magic carpet was going to be able to whisk him to the scene of the Asia Pacific Community Building Award proffered by the East West Center of Honolulu. So, standing in His Majesty's place, was his daughter, Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand.

Her flowery speech, read to a bored audience word for word, praising her father's many countless deeds, was preceded by an amazingly boring video on the good king's many good deeds. It was a weird scene. When the princess entered the ballroom, the guests (many paying a pretty price for the honor of attending the gala dinner) had to rise, after having been admonished by the authorities of the East West Center as to what would be viewed was acceptable behavior in the presence of the princess.

Let me be clear. The East West Center, which organized the evening and gave the award to His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej in recognition of his "dedicated work toward the welfare of the people of Thailand," is no bad joint. It's certainly no front for the Pentagon or the CIA or anyone else. It does good and important work. The people who work there are dedicated and honest. As nonprofit organizations tend to go, it's one of the kinder, gentler ones, sitting sunnily on the campus of the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

What's more, the East West Center has a solid history, going back almost half a century, with the good king and his kingdom. And of course Thailand is no black sheep internationally, as far as U.S. foreign policy is concerned: It was a staunch ally during the bitter days of the threatening Soviet Union, and it remains a good friend of the West today.

And, like all nonprofits, the name of the game in survival is fundraising. The significant and deep-pocked Thai Diaspora undoubtedly appreciated the kingly toast and funneled its spare change accordingly. As the evening was aboveboard and totally public, there is nothing wrong with that.

But even so, somehow the whole event left a taste in the mouth that one doesn't ordinarily associate with things Thai. Democracy is not the one-size fits all formula for all and, as mentioned, the elected Thaksin was no second coming of Thomas Jefferson. But removed as the prime minister had been by the force of arms, the East West Center's bow to the king seemed odd.

One rests happily when American nonprofits honor geniuses or freedom fighters or even the otherwise disenfranchised. But kings — or queens for that matter — would seem to need no honorific welfare from American nonprofits. Generally, they can get along just fine on their own, especially those with the power to eject elected governments.

The East West Center is, one supposes, entitled to honor almost anyone it wants. But as one left the hall, one had to wonder why his handlers felt compelled to organize such an unnecessary and questionable event as this. Why go out of your way to honor a king who allegedly is so wonderful he doesn't need any more honors? One had to wonder.

UCLA professor Tom Plate is a veteran journalist and author. Copyright 2008 Tom Plate

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