Written by Sujit Wongthes
Translated by Nalin Sindhuprama
[คลิกที่นี่เพื่ออ่านต้นฉบับ “มหาอาเศียรวาทราชสดุดี เนื่องในวันเฉลิมพระชนมพรรษาพระบาทสมเด็จพระเจ้าอยู่หัว 5 ธันวาคม 2516”]
In 2012, controversy erupted in Thailand over a few lines of verse in praise of King Bhumibol on the occasion of his 85th birthday. The praise poem (asirawat or asiarawat) graced the front page of a newspaper, as is custom on birthdays of royal family members. Two things stood out in that poem. First, its plain language, devoid of the usual trappings of asirawat: elevated diction, ceremonial poetic form, and appeal to sacred things. Second, its contrast in images, between the first verse depicting a bright sky above hopeful rice saplings and the second depicting an overcast sky above sorrowful plants. Some readers construed the second half’s unconventional symbolism to be a veiled criticism of the monarchy and took offense, accusing the newspaper of deliberately sending mixed signals for an anti-royalist agenda.
Addressing this controversy, Sujit Wongthes gave a historical precedent. From 1967 to 1973, “guardians” of old asirawat conventions also condemned “reformers” who used ordinary language and related the praise of the king to what was going on in the country. As Sujit elaborated:
Reforming (pattana) old conventions meant following the form of klon suphap in the manner of Sunthorn Phu. The content, however, would emphasize reality as experienced in the Thai society of that era, which suffered under military dictatorship but found refuge in royal charisma (pra barami). Thus the appeal to royal charisma as a recourse for democratization.
Such an asirawat avoided words from Pali, Sanskrit, and Khmer. Deliberately using ordinary speech from the everyday life of commoners made it comprehensible to a general public who also got the same message: resist the military dictatorship which had destroyed democracy.
The result was that the guardians (pitak) accused the reformers of violating the noble tradition of Thainess, and hurled the classic epithet “disloyal” at them.
But the readers in that era were pleased with the reformed kind of asirawat, because it was readable and easy to understand. It was not considered inadequate in any way; on the contrary, the conventions [regarding praise for royalty] could advance in step with the times because of it.
Below, we present an asirawat by Sujit Wongthes himself, translated to English by Nalin Sindhuprama. “Maha Asiarawat Raja Stuti on the Occasion of His Majesty the King’s Birthday, 5 December 1973” appeared soon after the victory of the “14 October” popular uprising against the military regime of Sarit, Thanom, and Praphas that had ruled the country for sixteen years. It was published in the weekly news magazine Prachachat Rai Sapda, itself launched that November.
The asirawat spun an old Siamese lullaby about Chao Khun Thong, a villager who valiantly looted a Burmese camp that was laying siege on Siam, into an account of the people’s fight for the constitution in 1973. That year, the apotheosis of King Bhumibol as a guardian angel watching over Thai democracy had only begun to take hold. Nearly fifty years later, its legacy continues in our era of non-stop democratic backsliding. Under the reign of Bhumibol’s son and the regime of General Prayut, his birthday remains Father’s Day and National Day. Our hindsight knowledge jars with the poem—threatening to break it open to deeply ambivalent interpretations. It is now haunted by the question: whose victory?
Maha Asiarawat Raja Stuti
On the Occasion of His Majesty the King’s Birthday
5 December 1973
O, the Chapel Temple,
Seven Tal palms.
Chao Khun Thong went and looted
He repulsed and repelled
The enemies inside,
Till their troops were quelled
And scattered far and wide.
Chao Khun Thong was shot
As he stood under a tree,
Palms united: he’d dropped
The rod for a melody.
He was singing the hymn
To His Majesty merrily.
Then he died by himself—
Palms still united in prayer.
O, Sanoh blooms in the morning,
Wind caresses fragrant Randia.
The nation eulogized,
The people in euphoria.
May Your Majesty
Be blessed with glory and praise,
In the celebration of today’s
Victory and your birthday.