Thailand’s Bike For Dad: More Complicated Than Meets the Eye

I saw advertisements for it everywhere on billboards on the streets of Bangkok. I was sitting at a hole in the wall restaurant in Pai watching a Korean soap opera dubbed in Thai. Did I understand? No. But I saw its commercials every time there was a break in the drama. I was walking along the streets in Chiang Mai and saw T-shirts for it in almost every vendor’s shops. 


What is Bike For Dad?
I wondered. Maybe you’ve recently been in Thailand and have asked yourself the same question. 

A quick google search can give you the facts. According to the Government Public Relations Department and the Bangkok Post:

  • Bike for Dad is a 29 kilometer cycling event 
  • His Royal Highness Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn will lead the race 
  • It is preceded by the very popular “Bike for Mum” which took place earlier this year
  • There will be mass participation in all provinces, and routes of the cycling events will be determined by local authorities 
  • It will take place on December 11, 2015
  • This day celebrates the 88th birthday of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 5 December 2015.
  • The idea is for Thai people to show their loyalty to the monarchy
  • The motto is “United Thailand, Bike for Dad.”

I asked one of the employees at Non La Mer hostel in Koh Lanta about the race. She cheerfully said, “Oh, of course! To celebrate the king’s birthday.” She told me that everyone will ride around on bikes, but many with no particular destination. Just a ride. 

 

Billboard in Pai
 
For tourists, that’s exactly what it would appear to be. Although it seems simple, like anything, it’s more than what meets the eye. The bike race has been in the news lately for other reasons. 

First, as it turns out, the prince doesn’t have the greatest public track record. Fears over the aging king’s succession have prompted publicity stunts to improve the prince’s image. The prince is set to take the throne after the king’s death, yet many doubt his competence. As such, he is leading the cycling on this day, as well as opening a royal park in Hua Hin. Succession has been such a point of contention control over it that it may even be linked to the May 2014 coup. Many believe that it was orchestrated to ensure the prince will become the new leader.


The Economist
reports:

All this turmoil comes amid growing dread about what will happen after the death of the ailing 87-year-old king. Prince Vajiralongkorn, widely regarded as a playboy with little interest in Bangkok’s Byzantine court culture, commands little of the popularity enjoyed by his father; elites worry that under his watch the Thai monarchy will lose its powerful position in society, disrupting lines of patronage which for generations have funnelled wealth and influence from the monarchy to the army and elsewhere. The two mass bike rides—for which the prince is the public face—have looked in part designed to help scrub up his public image in advance of his accession. So does the royal park, which the prince formally opened.”

Another point related to the bike races is the death of Suriyan Sujaritpalawong, also known as Mor Yong, who according the Economist was somewhat a celebrity. He was also close to military generals (the monarchy also has an interesting relationship with the armed forces. Read about it here.) Mr. Suriyan was arrested for pocketing sponsorship money for the Bike for Dad, for which he was raising money, but died in prison (cause cited as blood poisoning) after his arrest. His arrest comes as just one in a wave of detentions and disappearances the Economist refers to as “purging.” These arrests and disappearances are attributed to disrepute of the monarchy.

In Thailand, bringing the monarchy into disrepute is a crime. Embarrassingly, I didn’t know what that meant until recently. The definition is “the state of being held in low esteem by the public.” The charge is lese majeste under Section 112 of the Criminal Code. Respecting the monarchy is one of the most commonly cited pieces of travel advice. Tourists to Thailand are warned against making any inappropriate comments about the monarchy and are told to under no circumstances make fun of it. 

Therefore, by Mr. Suriyan committing the alleged crime, he was putting the monarchy into disrepute, and was reprimanded. Mr. Suriyan wasn’t alone in his crime. Another 40-50 army officials are said to have been involved. Thus, more purging of authorities is expected. This elicits several theories regarding internal political battles. 

But it’s not only ridicule or stealing  that can put someone in a bad position. Even discussion of the point of succession is illegal. The Guardian reports:

“Frank discussion of the royal succession and palace scandals is illegal in Thailand, where a draconian lèse majesté law punishes any perceived criticism of the monarchy with three to 15 years in jail. The law has been increasingly harshly enforced in recent years as the succession draws closer, and scores of people have been arrested since the military seized power in a coup last May.”

Like almost everything while traveling, there is much more than meets the eye. A lazy bike race is never just a bike race. This bike race exposes loyalties and accusations, not to mention the monarchy’s public relations.

I am no expert on this topic nor do I pretend to be the final say. This post is a simply researched alternative look at a country-wide event. Nevertheless, I hope that it helps some travelers see the deeper significance of what only looks like a “bike for dad.”

Top photo: shirts in Koh Lanta

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