The performances of the legendary Thai boxer Sombat 'Buakaw' Banchamek may still be as formidable as ever at the age of 40. But his practice of holding up a portrait of the Thai King after victory persists, three decades after its apparent invention, as Thais increasingly question the legitimacy of the current authoritarian regime and the draconian lèse majesté law.
It was not unexpected that Buakaw would defeat Kota Miura in a fight on Friday 19 August 2022 at Ratchadamnoen Stadium, Bangkok. Buakaw began on the offensive but neither could land a proper blow on the other in the first round. In the second half of the second round Buakaw began to gain the advantage. By round 3, the referee had to end the match after Kota Miura was no longer able to stand. It was Buakaw's first victory after not fighting at the Ratchadamnoen Stadium for 18 years.
As a part of the Ratchadamnoen World Series, the exhibition match was fought within the rules of kickboxing which allow a wider range of techniques than international-style boxing but where more lethal practices (such as using the elbow or knee as in Muay Thai) are excluded. As of the time of writing, the legendary Thai boxer is still kicking with a record of 295 victories, 72 of them knock-outs. In 330 bouts, he has suffered only 23 losses and 12 draws. On 3 September, he will fight a bare-knuckle match with Erkan Varol from Turkey.
Kota Miura, a rising Mixed Martial Arts star from Japan who is 20 years younger than Buakaw, said on Facebook that he regretted not being a worthy opponent and will continue to work hard to fight better. Miura has earned the sympathies of many Thai women, who asked Buakaw not to punch too hard, not least because of Miura’s handsome appearance. However, he also earned support from an unusual quarter: Tiwagorn Withiton, a pro-democracy activist favoured Miura despite knowing that he would lose, not because of his pretty face or performance but rather for his politics.
As the hype increased before the match, Tiwagorn began an online activism campaign by calling for Buakaw, who holds up a portrait of the Thai King every time he wins a fight, to do what he is unlikely to do: address the problems of Section 112, the lèse majesté law, which led to the longest sentence of 87 years in jail in one case in 2021 and which continues to be used against Thai activists who have been calling for political reform. From 2020, when the mass protests erupted, to 2022, Thai Lawyers for Human Rights said that Section 112 charges have been filed in 228 cases against 210 individuals.
Tiwagorn is a prominent political activist who has himself been charged under 112 and was even once taken to a psychiatric hospital by the Internal Security Operation Command for wearing a T-shirt reading "I lost faith in monarchy." His defence: it is a mere sentiment, not an act of royal defamation. To this day, the picture of him in his T-shirt is still pinned on his page so that visitors see it first before scrolling down to read his other posts. He said that he would not regret having worn the T-shirt even if it leads to his death.
Even if Buakaw was "a hundred times better" and "continued to win fights against his opponents forever," Tiwagorn said he would still never show support for Buakaw unless he started showing sympathy for the victims of human rights violations under Section 112. He was okay if people still love Buakaw and he did not ask Buakaw to stop holding up the King’s portrait. Rather, he just asked him to also talk about the problem of the lèse majesté law which in his belief is more detrimental to the monarchy than otherwise.
However, he also questioned whether any Japanese boxers or athletes have ever been seen displaying a portrait of the Emperor. A Facebook user with a Japanese background replied: Japanese boxers are more likely to show a belt or trophy, or bring their baby into the ring to thank their family for their support. His online activism has drawn the attention of many. In his own words, "I swear that I do not intend and do not have the aim to spin comments on Buakaw's page to call for likes and comments, most of which were comments which come to criticize me, and I have no problem with that."
Regardless of the truthfulness of the claim about the behaviour of Japanese boxers, it is undeniable that the Japanese monarchy is far more democratic. Its lèse majesté law has been abolished since World War II. Just as the Thai establishment tries to claim for its monarchy (while some argue the opposite), the Japanese Emperor does not have any political function and only performs ceremonial duties as the symbolic head of state. Rather than a constitutional monarchy, Thailand is called "a democracy with a monarch as the head of state." Thai scholars have been debating to this day over the technicality of who is the ultimate holder of state sovereignty - the monarchy or the citizens.
Fight for the King
The practice of Thai athletes displaying portraits of the monarch has not yet been traced definitively to a single origin. But according to the Bangkok Post, it was Somluck Kamsing who popularized the tradition when he won the first gold medal for Thailand at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. He said he saw the late King Rama IX as a god and paid respect to the King's portrait before the fight.
When Somluck was granted an audience with the King after his victory, he recalled the King telling him that the King saw him holding up the portrait on TV. The King thought "he was in the ring and jumped for joy. When he saw his servants laugh, he felt embarrassed and sat down." Other boxers did the same when they won, such as Wijarn Ponlid (2000), Manus Boonjumnong (2004) and Somjit Jongjohor (2008).
Coaches and athletes in other sports also said that they paid respect to the King's portrait before a match to boost morale or to celebrate after a victory, such as Pimsiri Sirikaew (two-time Olympic silver medallist in weightlifting), Chanathip Sornkam (2012 Olympic bronze medallist in taekwondo), Kiatisuk Senamuang (former football player and coach of the Thai national team), and Nualphan Lamsam (manager of the Thai national football team).
Even Vitidnan Rojanapanich held up a portrait of the King when he became the first Thai to reach the top of Everest in 2008, followed by the first Thai woman, Napassaporn Chumnarnsit, in 2016. The practice also extends to non-athletes. For example, in 2020, a pro-monarchy protester Thitiwat Tanagaroon raised a portrait of King Rama IX and Queen Suthida at a royal event prompting the King to say to him "Very brave. Very good. Thank you."
The Thai monarchy is said to have been linked to sports for a long time. While attempting to avoid colonization, football was introduced into Siam during the reign of King Rama V along with other aspects of modernization. During the cold war, King Rama IX was presented as "a sportsman king" as he was said to be Thailand's top sailor in the 1960s, winning a medal at the Southeast Asian Peninsular (SEAP) Games in 1967. He was a patron of many sport associations in Thailand including badminton, golf, football and sailing.
He and members of royal family have presided over and participated in the opening ceremonies of national, regional, and international competitions. It was also often reported that King Rama IX asked royal servants to make phone calls to encourage athletes before or during important competitions. While the connection between the monarchy and sport may help explain the practice of Thai athletes holding up the King’s portrait, the narrative of continuity has been increasingly questioned due to recent political trends.
While the practice seems widespread, it remains an open question how common or recent the practice has been. Paradorn Srichaphan, a tennis player once ranked among world’s top ten, is undoubtedly a royalist. He met the late King Rama IX on at least two occasions and ordained twice for the King. He also received encouraging phone calls from the palace when competing in an important match. But one struggles to find any photo of him holding up the King's portrait after victory or paying respect to it before a match.
This is also the case for James Wattana, a Thai snooker player and former world number three. In 2021, he made merit on his 51th birthday by donating money and items to orphans while gatherings were suspended due to the spread of Covid-19. He said his actions were inspired by figures such as Bin Bunluerit and Ekkapan Bunluerit, twin brother actors who became rescue volunteers and ultraroyalists. He also said that he would continue to do good for society by following in the footsteps of the late King Rama IX and King Rama X. Like Paradorn, attempts to find any photo of him holding up the King’s portrait have proved futile.
In recent years, academic circles have increasingly questioned the mainstream narrative of the Thai monarchy. Kasian Tejapira introduced the concept of "royal hegemony" to explain the political crisis after the 2006 coup. Thongchai Winichakul argued that "royal nationalism", a particular version of Thai history, contributed to political violence in Thailand and called for diversification of historical narratives. Duncan McCargo used the idea of "the network monarchy" to analyze the linkages between the monarchy and political and business elites.
It was Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a Thai historian in exile, who coined the term "mass monarchy," a concept which suggests that the practice of athletes displaying the King’s portrait reflects a change in monarchical power rather than continuity. In an interview in 2013, he said that the particular version of the monarchy that we now know emerged only in the 1990s, just when Somluck Kamsing popularized the practice of displaying the King’s portrait. A complex process of political, economic, and social transformation was at play.
Industrialization in the 1980s based on Japanese investment after the Plaza Accord led to the emergence of a bourgeoisie as well as the Thai-Chinese middle class. After the Communist Party of Thailand was defeated, this new social class needed an ideology to hold on to and was thus very susceptible to a royalist ideology. Thailand's political crisis in 1992 and the economic crisis in 1997 led to interventions by the late King Rama IX, who was thus portrayed as a national saviour. Thai citizens also felt closer to the King than in previous times.
Technological development resulting from industrialization led to mass production and growth of the mass media. Mass production led to a proliferation of royalist products such as calendars, yellow wrist bands, and portraits. Mass media growth led similarly to a proliferation of documentaries about the royal family and their development projects, as well as royalist songs such as Portrait in Every House by Thongchai 'Bird' McIntyre. The practice of displaying the king’s portrait emerged in this context, along with the practice of successful athletes telling the media that they received a royal call before or during important competitions.
No longer unquestionable
Three decades on, Somluck Kamsing announced in April 2022 that he would run as an MP candidate in the next election for the pro-establishment Phalang Pracharat Party in Khon Kaen's Constituency 11, the province which remained a Pheu Thai stronghold in the last election. The practice of displaying the King’s portrait that he helped popularize has passed on to other boxers including Buakaw Banchamek. Before the fight against Miura, the portrait he displayed showed the late King Rama IX together with King Rama X.
Buakaw also has no problem working for the Thai authorities. On 6 October 2014, the year that Thailand had a military coup and the anniversary of the political massacre in 1976, he applied to join the military at Fort Thanarat, Prachuap Khiri Khan, and was appointed an Assistant Squad Leader of the Reserve Academy. By 2022, he had been promoted to lieutenant and has been helping the military with public relations. In June, he also helped train soldiers in boxing during Hanuman Guardian 2022, an annual bilateral exercise co-hosted by the Royal Thai Army and US Army.
In 2020, when Buakaw posted a photo of himself displaying the King’s portraits over the years to observe the 2nd anniversary of the death of King Rama IX, he asked "what is there to fear" when a Facebook user raised a concern that he might be criticized by the public. With the 2020 mass protests in Thailand which for the first time openly called for monarchy reform, the practice of displaying portraits had come into question. Some went as far as burning the King’s portrait and faced criminal charges when crowd control police took violent action against protesters.
Two years on, the protests which focus on monarchy reform may have lost their power. After the match with Miura, Good Students, a pro-monarchy group shadowing Bad Student, the youth group calling for education and political reform, posted a short video of Buakaw encouraging them by saying "keep fighting" despite the call from Tiwagorn to address the problematic lèse majesté law. Buakaw has not said anything about the lèse majesté law, but conservative figures have reacted against Tiwagorn's activism.
These include Air Marshal Vachara Riddhagni, a former leader of the People's Democratic Reform Committee which paved way for the military coup in 2014 and Chulcherm Yugala, a member of the outer circle of the royal family. Both posted similar messages on Facebook calling Buakaw "a Thai royalist" and saying that he “of course has the right to esteem the King, and has the legitimate right to hold high the King’s portrait in the boxing ring, because of his strong conviction, and because the King's charisma gives Buakaw miraculous power".
So, what is there to fear? The protests calling for monarchy reform may well be in decline, but two years on, civil society is also aiming for a more ambitious goal by pressuring politicians to address the problem in a more formal, prudent, and appropriate manner. The future of the government led by Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, which continued the rule of the military junta and claimed as their mandate the defence of the monarchy during the period of the royal succession, has now been plunged into uncertainty as its term will expire next year. The Constitutional Court has also accepted a complaint that alleges that Gen Prayut has already reached the 8-year term limit as prime minister.
Somsak Jeamteerasakul said that mass monarchy is not the only outcome of the 1990s. Born out of this period is also mass democratic politics in which citizens can see more clearly the tangible benefits of their votes and the leaders they choose. This kind of democratic power, which is based on the principle of freedom and equality, has become an increasing threat to royal power which relies on tradition and hierarchy. This has led to the political crisis of recent decades and this will only deepen as the political elites - civilian, military, or royal - can no longer easily negotiate behind the scenes as in the past because the rallying masses are watching them ever more closely.
The controversy over the practice of raising the King’s portrait is merely the tip of the iceberg. Behind it is a dynamic and unstable political process which has driven Thailand into uncharted territory. To cite the political theorist Antonio Gramsci, “the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Buakaw may remain physically strong at the age of 40, but the ideology he represents is no longer absolute.