Markets, media, and magic: Thailand’s monarch as a ‘virtual deity’
Peter A. JACKSON
ABSTRACT This study documents the growth of the discourse of ‘god-king’ (devaraja) around Thailand’s King Bhumibol and explores how Brahmanical symbolisms of royal absolutism have acquired renewed potency alongside Buddhism as a basis of political legitimation in 21st century Thailand. Previous studies have interpreted the growing trend for Thailand’s constitutional monarch to be represented as a ‘demi-divine’ ‘virtual god-king’ to reflect an ideological strategy set in train by mid-20th century authoritarian military rule. However, political processes alone do not account fully for the persistence and intensification of this phenomenon since the end of military dictatorship. The pre-modern discourse of ‘god-king’ has also been given new life by visual media and the spectralisation of life under neoliberalism, which together produce a regime of representation that auraticises King Bhumibol. These technologies of enchantment have permitted emerging prosperity religions to be harnessed to a conservative nationalist agenda and, together with Thailand’s strictly policed lese-majesty law, have institutionalised a commodified and mass-mediatised ideology of magicodivine royal power that works to legitimate King Bhumibol’s acquisition of political influence.
KEYWORDS: prosperity religions, occult economies, neoliberalism, technologies of enchantment, Thai politics, King Bhumibol
Peter A. Jackson is Senior Fellow in Thai History at the Australian National University in Canberra. He specialises in the histories of Buddhism, gender, and sexuality in Thailand. In 2001 Peter Jackson co-founded AsiaPacifiQueer (http://apq.anu.edu.au/), an Australia-based network of scholars researching homosexuality and transgenderism in Asia. AsiaPacifiQueer has organised several conferences in Australia and also convened the conference ‘Sexualities, Genders and Rights in Asia: 1st International Conference of Asian Queer Studies’ in Bangkok in July 2005. He is Editor-in-Chief of The Asian Studies Review. His books include Buddhism, Legitimation and Conflict: The Political Functions of Urban Thai Buddhism (Singapore, 1989); Dear Uncle Go: Male Homosexuality in Thailand (Bangkok, 1995); Lady Boys, Tom Boys, Rent Boys: Male and Female Homosexualities in Contemporary Thailand (New York, 1999); Gay and Lesbian Asia: Culture, Identity, Community (New York, 2001); Buddhadasa: Theravada Buddhism and Modernist Reform in Thailand (Chiang Mai, 2003).