Published online by Cambridge University Press: 21 October 2015
In the northern Thai village where I have been doing fieldwork for several years, there is a carpenter, Uncle Phaibun, who became a fan of the September 2006 military coup. In the wake of the coup, as part of the military government's propaganda offensive, numerous photos of King Bhumibol Adulyadej were distributed in the village. Uncle Phaibun's positive feelings about the coup did not result from royalist sentiment, but from the windfall income he earned from making wooden frames for the royal portraits. Given the sacred power of the king's image, it was only natural that the villagers would treat it with respect and reverence. Duly framed, the pictures were hung in village living rooms along with other images of the king and his family, fading photos of long-deceased grandparents, posters of famous monks, outof- date calendars featuring Thaksin and local politicians, images of the Buddha and other deities, university degrees, business advertisements, and elaborate clocks mounted on posters of artificially natural scenes featuring waterfalls and flower gardens.
These mini-galleries of power and auspiciousness are very revealing of a political world-view that motivates many of the grass-roots actors in Thailand's ongoing political crisis. This is a world-view in which power comes in many forms, and in which modern commercialization and administrative expansion have resulted in a proliferation of pathways to power. In this world-view, the king is one source of power, but the popular Thai cosmos is full of all sorts of power and influence, and Thais are adept at hedging their bets in maintaining a diverse network of relationships with potential sources of prosperity and protection. This is not a zero-sum game. Despite much speculation to the contrary, for most Thais there was no inconsistency in supporting both Thaksin Shinawatra and the king. Thailand's masses readily accept that two, or more, styles of leadership and benevolence can exist side by side. The contemporary challenge for rural politics is to draw these various types of power into local networks than can support safe and prosperous livelihoods.
Some members of Thailand's elite have much more rigid views about power, and they are not particularly adept at grasping the nuances of Thai popular culture. Whereas the villagers in northern Thailand pursue human security through cultivating connections with power in many different forms, the official Thai position is that the king's symbolic potency lies at the centre of national security.