Thu, Nov 07, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Thailand’s new king creates boot camp-style ‘unity’ courses

The program was designed to train bureaucrats in loyalty and reverence to the monarchy, and while some graduates are spreading the message, others find it too manipulative

By Panu Wongcha-um  /  Reuters, BANGKOK

Illustration: Mountain People

Thousands of civil servants, police and teachers in Thailand are being sent to a military camp for intensive training in community service and loyalty to the monarchy, according to the royal palace and interviews with trainees and organizers.

The program, established last year, highlights the way in which Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn, 67, is asserting his will on the government and society to a greater extent than any sovereign since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, some experts have said.

Seven program graduates who participated in the “Volunteer Spirit 904” training told reporters that they woke at 5am for light group exercise, then lined up to practice military-style salutes before classes on the history of Thai kings and training for community service.

At the end of the training program, which lasts from 15 days to six weeks, they are declared “Karatchakan Suan Pra-ong” (officials in his majesty’s service) and tasked with promoting the monarchy, with their efforts tracked through messaging apps, the graduates said.

The 904 courses are coordinated by Permanent Secretary of the Office of the Prime Minister Theerapat Prayurasiddhi. The palace directed all questions to his office.

“The king has the royal policy to create unity among the people,” Theerapat said. “Then everything will lead to the people’s happiness and a secure nation.”

About 3,000 people have completed the courses in groups of 500 since March last year, he said, adding that the program is “strictly voluntary.”

The goal of the 904 program — named after the king’s security call sign — is to create a corps of influential people to “develop and defend the country, and create people who are loyal to the monarchy,” the palace Web site said.

Reverence for the monarchy has long been part of traditional Thai culture, but the king, a career military officer, is formalizing and organizing public devotion in a way that has not been seen since the end of absolute monarchy, Joshua Kurlantzick of US-based Council on Foreign Relations said.

“It builds on the past, but it’s much, much clearer with this king and much more assertive,” Kurlantzick said.

Few details have been made public about the program, which is linked to the palace-sponsored “Volunteer Spirit” community service corps of nearly 6 million volunteers.

The training is run by officials linked to the palace and military officers, according to the seven graduates, a lecturer and an organizer who spoke to reporters.

Live-in courses are held at the Bangkok headquarters of the First Infantry Regiment, which has been transferred to the king’s personal command.

“There must be discipline and there must be rules,” said Sumet Tantivejkul, 80, who teaches the courses about Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the king’s widely revered father.

“Participants live together, eat together, sleep together... Old people stay with young people, so the young learn from the experience of the old and the old can also learn about the young,” Sumet said.

Program graduates said that along with training for community service, a main focus of the lessons is that the monarchy is an ultimate solution to Thailand’s problems at a time of political division, which broadly pits military-royalist conservatives against supporters of populist parties.

Over the past 15 years, street protests led by conservatives have led to the eventual removal of four populist prime ministers by court rulings or military action.

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