No Royal Road: Urban Transportation, Capitalist Development, and Monarchy in Thailand

No Royal Road: Urban Transportation, Capitalist Development, and Monarchy in Thailand

This post is based on a recent article published in the Asian Studies Review. The article can be read here and is currently available open access to all readers.

In the age of global capitalism, instead of kings and queens, the most important actors in urban planning are supposed to be the national government, municipal leaders, bureaucrats, politicians, the private sector, and foreign consultants. In Thailand, however, the monarchy still plays a crucial role in shaping urban development. Especially under the longest reign in Thai history, that of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, or Rama IX (r. 1946–2016), the monarch left his footprint on the urban development of Bangkok, the kingdom’s capital city. During his seven-decade reign, Rama IX involved himself deeply in the planning intended to solve critical challenges emerging from Bangkok’s rapid industrialisation and urbanisation. One of the most praised legacies of the late monarch, nonetheless, has been his initiatives on transportation planning in Bangkok, one of the world’s most congested cities.

Thanks to his directives to build more ring-roads, expand existing road surfaces, and create systematic road networks, Rama IX was widely saluted by city planners, the mass media, the government, and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) as ‘The Great Engineer’, the visionary genius who successfully improved traffic systems in the city. Rama IX’s efforts to solve congestion were evident across the city, but can be categorised into four types, all of which are based on the same rationale: to promote the automobile as the dominant mode of transport.

First, the king endorsed the building of ring roads to connect major motorways around Bangkok. From his perspective, ring roads not only reduced traffic in the city centre by providing alternate routes around the city for motorists who did not want to travel into the city, but also served to connect suburban areas with one another and made travel between them more efficient. The Ratchadaphisek, Kanchanaphisek, and Industrial Ring Road were built under his guidance.

Second, Rama IX consistently encouraged the construction of new bridges and road networks. In addition to the Rama VIII Bridge, major bridges that were built under royal leadership include the Bhumibol Bridge 1 and Bhumibol Bridge 2. Named after Rama IX himself, those two spans were part of the Industrial Ring Road that connects Bangkok with industrial estates in its suburbs. Rama IX also suggested the building of the East–West Chaturathit Network – roads, bridges, and connectors that link Bangkok’s eastern and western suburbs.

Third, many projects that the king set in motion were aimed at expanding the number and width of traffic lanes to maximise traffic flow. In addition to the traffic expansion around the Democracy Monument, Rama IX recommended construction projects designed to expand a number of roads and bridges. For example, the king initiated the renovation of parts of Ratchadamnoen Avenue, a historic road in central Bangkok that was built in the absolutist era. That renovation included the expansion of the Phan Fa Lilat and Makkhawan Rangsan Parallel Bridges, the improvement of traffic lanes at the foot of the Pinklao Bridge, and the management of a bottleneck in front of the old Public Relations Department Building.

Finally, as the number of roads rapidly increased under his reign, the king was concerned about road safety. Seeing the high volume of daily traffic on Ratchadaphisek Road and the frequent accidents that happened there, Rama IX had a pedestrian bridge built in front of the Criminal Court, a crowded residential area. The monarch hoped that this bridge would be a model for the BMA to follow in order to create safe and convenient road crossings. He also understood that improving adherence to traffic regulations by drivers was crucial to reducing traffic problems. Therefore, the king introduced the so-called Rapid Mobile Unit, a motorcycle patrol that monitors traffic and provides a rapid response to traffic problems.

Despite the end of Rama IX’s historic reign, his efforts on behalf of urban transport remain influential, as the BMA promises that his ideas will guide Bangkok’s transport under the current reign of King Vajiralongkorn, Rama X (r. 2016–present). In this regard, the monarchy is a vital agency that has paved the way for urban transport in the Thai kingdom, figuratively and literally.

The royal approach of ‘building roads where there have been no roads’ not only provided a template for city administrators to follow, but also promoted, empowered, and legitimised auto-centric city planning, which has been applied in many major cities in the age of global capitalism. While the royal initiatives have been praised in the mainstream publications propagandised by the palace, the government, and the city administration, the current study, published in full in Asian Studies Review, contends that Rama IX’s model of building more roads, expanding existing roads, and creating systematic road networks ignored several problems that come with auto-dominant transportation.

These include the deterioration of public transport, disregard for the mobility needs of the underprivileged classes, road accidents and casualties that disproportionately affect those who do not drive, air and noise pollution, environmental degradation, and health problems. The royal scheme of roadbuilding is also class-driven. While benefitting bourgeois motorists, it hinders the urban mobility of the less privileged. Also problematic is the fact that the royal meddling in city planning is unconstitutional, undemocratic, unaccountable, and prone to the whims of the royal elites. Moreover, it is appropriate to call into question the close association between the crown and car companies and the appropriateness of letting luxury-car-driving royalty have a role in shaping the mobility of the masses. All such critical problems have been neglected by the city planners and governors of Bangkok.

Ignored during the historic reign of Rama IX, these problems have recently been brought to public attention by the protest movement that has demanded reform of the monarchy. Among many criticisms of the crown that the protesters have made, disapproval of royal motorcades is noteworthy. Activists who dared to protest the monarchy, however, have been charged, arrested, and detained by the state even before facing trial for participating in these protests. Evidently, the palace and the ruling class took offence as those young dissidents dared to question the authority of the monarch and members of the royal family, especially their power to clear the streets, command traffic, and move around the city as they please.

It is uncertain whether the protesters and their movement can achieve their goal of reforming the monarchy, as the palace relies heavily on police, military, and juridical forces to silence demonstrators. What is certain, however, is that the actions of these dissidents have exposed cracks in the royal hegemony over urban transport. Their position also turns the royalist narrative on its head: instead of a solution, the crown is the embodiment of fundamental problems that reduce the options available to and impede the speed of commoners who commute and move in and around the city.

Most importantly, the protests provide a glimmer of hope. Down the road, it is possible that the royally initiated, auto-dominant, and capitalist-serving transport in the kingdom can be challenged and replaced by a new system – one that is based on public control, mobility justice, collective participation, and common ownership.

Feature image: Photo by Florian Wehde on Unsplash

Puangchon Unchanam is an Associate Professor in Political Science at Naresuan University, Thailand, and the author of Royal Capitalism: Wealth, Class, and Monarchy in Thailand (University of Wisconsin Press, 2020).

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