What Is the Place for Royalty in the 21st Century?
This past week witnessed the funeral celebration of Princess Bejaratana Rajasuda Sirisobhabannavadi of Thailand, 85, who died in July of last year. As I read the account of the elaborate events surrounding the funeral (8 months in the making), I remarked to a Thai friend that Thais seem to still hold great deference for their royal family. I told her I thought hierarchy played such a strong role in Thai culture that it’s hard for Americans to understand. The following (edited) text is her thoughtful reply.
Your short question and comment are not easy to answer since there are many aspects that play into this Royal ceremony. I will try my best to describe how and what Thais feel and why we act like we do.
1. “The Royal family.” Around 1200 AC, we were united for the first time and felt as one Nation in this region by the first King. From then until 1932 (when the country went from absolute monarchy to democracy), Thai Kings had preserved our Nation as one union, and this is still felt today. In the past, when we were attacked or invaded by neighboring nations (Burma, Cambodia, or various tribes), Royal family members were the warriors who gave their lives to protect the Nation. (Of course, they were also protecting their own sovereignty.) Kings led the Thai people to fight the invaders, and we have the land, culture, and religion as you see today because of this Royal leadership. Approximately 800 years of protecting and fighting for the land, Nation, and culture with flesh, life, and dedication is something we do not take lightly.
This Thai princess is a daughter of King Rama VI (our current King is Rama IX). She was the only child of Rama VI. And our Rama VI had done a great deal for the Thais and the Nation. Most Thais feel this is the only chance to pay respect to Rama VI through the ceremony for His daughter. I think it might make sense for American people who attend the funeral of the daughter of a deceased leader who did a great deal for them.
Thai royal flag (source: iStock photo)
2. “Holding great deference.” As I described above, Thais are grateful to the Royal family to have a Nation as we have today. Over the centuries, our Royal family has also cultivated Thai culture, of which we are very proud. Almost all Thai culture, arts, and food were originated, preserved, and supported by the Royal family. Some aspects of our beautiful culture were lost over time but then revived by the Royal family. Without their support and their existence, much Thai culture would have disappeared altogether. Look at the neighboring nation of Cambodia, where only artifacts and architectural structures have been left behind, but any culture that goes along with them is gone. I am not sure if you saw the ceremony here yesterday and today over the news, but if you saw it, you would have seen many cultural artifacts and rites that are so beautiful. The handicraft on these artifacts cannot be made by money, but only by love and heart.
Buddhism is another important aspect of this culture. All Kings have held and supported the Buddhist religion. And much of this religion is nourished today by the Royal family.
There are more facets that go along with and are subsumed under the name of Royalty than a merely a human being who is born into a Royal family. I believe we hold great deference for the Royal family, not only as individuals but for the symbols and the many great things they represent.
2009 Funeral of Royal Highness Galyani Vadhana (source: Fotolia)
3. “Hierarchy.” Any human being loves privilege. Privilege renders importance, respect, special care, ego, and finally a feeling of “special self.” I believe that hierarchy can prosper in all societies if majorities allow it to happen. It can be a simple one (like in a company) or a highly complex one (like Thailand or Japan). We are a highly complex society; so is the hierarchy. Hierarchy also means order. In a complex society, the hierarchy is also complex and thus difficult to destroy. It stays present and strong as long as it needs.
I believe eventually, it will also slowly disintegrate like all other earthly institutions. It may not be in my lifetime, and I hope not. We don’t yet have a central faith to hold us together. Unlike America, Thailand is a place to amass wealth for anyone who has long arms, which is why we have so much corruption. Although America has people who struggle to become wealthy, there is also a sense of patriotism which binds people together. Capitalism, selfishness, and corruption cannot unite a people. And Buddhism only works for an individual’s belief and peace of mind, but it never plays a role as the center of the national soul. I see the institution of the Royal family as the supportive, nurturing cultural force which seals Thailand as a Nation.
Thai cremation flowers (source: iStock Photo)
4. “Hard for Americans to understand.” Not only for you, it is also difficult for Thai youngsters who do not know their cultural roots very well. I hope that their percentage is still small in our society and that they learn where they come from before they start to change our Nation. If they want to make changes, I really hope that they will find a replacement for the center of their soul before getting rid of the existing one. I doubt if the new replacement will be better than the Royal family, as it has proved itself for over 800 years.
I am sorry I have to answer your short questions with a long story. There is no short answer to this.