Royal birthday fireworks ‘ban’ sparks confusion in Thailand

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 5, 2012

Today is the 85th birthday of His Majesty the King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Tens of thousands are expected to convene at the Royal Plaza in Bangkok to attend a rare grand public audience by the King – only the sixth time such an event has reportedly taken place.

And like every year, there will be lights and candles and singing and of course fireworks – except this year apparently:

The Interior Minister has issued an order restricting pyrotechnic performances during this year’s state events marking the auspicious occasion, meaning that the customary vigils and singing of the royal anthem at city halls across the country will not include such activities.

Social media debates fireworks decision“, The Nation, December 4, 2012

This was a rather unexpected and confusing development, especially since nearly all provinces have probably already prepared fireworks to celebrate the occasion:

Most social media postings complained that the restriction would go against a custom they admired, while certain anti-government pages, without giving proof, accused PM’s Office Minister Nivatthamrong Boonsong-paisal, the head of the panel and a long-time close aide to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, of being behind the decision.

Social media debates fireworks decision“, The Nation, December 4, 2012

There have been far more outlandish claims and accusations from both sides of the political divide – one side sees a deliberate affront against the monarchy by the current government while the other side fears and the loud bangs and noises are a perfect cover to stage a military coup – but that is not the main point of this article. The question we are asking here is: how could that happen?

An article by the Thai daily Kom Chad Luek breaks down the confusing layers of different ministries, departments and competences that lead to the ‘order’. It starts with Distorn Vajarodaya, the Grand Chamberlain of the royal palace, who is denying that the palace had anything to do with the ban order on fireworks nationwide.

“We are not involved in granting or refusing approval [for fireworks]. We do not know who prohibited them,” he said, referring to a letter issued by the Interior Ministry which asked provincial governors not to arrange fireworks displays during the celebration.

Mr Distorn personally agrees with the use of pyrotechnics, saying: “If I was a celebration organiser, I would choose to use fireworks. It is part of the spectacle.”

Royal Bureau ‘did not order’ fireworks ban“, Bangkok Post, December 4, 2012

The focus then shifted to Wibun Sanguanphong, permanent secretary for the interior, who immediately pointed to the organizing committee of the King’s birthday celebrations (ส่วนสาเหตุคงต้องไปถามคณะกรรมการ ทั้งนี้ ในงานเฉลิมพระชนมพรรษาของส่วนภูมิภาค).

The Minister of the Office of the Prime Minister Nivatthamrong Boonsong-paisal says there’ll be no fireworks on display at Bangkok’s Sanam Luang Plaza, but instead decorative lights and singing (ปีนี้จะไม่มีการจุดพลุที่ท้องสนามหลวง แต่จะมีการประดับไฟและการถวายพระเท่านั้น).

Concerning the ‘order’ not to have fireworks in the provinces, and whether or not the provinces (who have already prepared them for weeks if not months) still setting them off constitutes as an act of breaking the ‘order’, permanent secretary for the Prime Minister’s Office Tongthong Chandransu avoids the question by saying this:

Permanent secretary for the Prime Minister’s Office Tongthong Chandransu said “several phuyai” (respected senior figures) had suggested that the committee of the Foundation of King Rama IX the Great, the organiser of the King’s birthday celebrations at Sanam Luang in Bangkok, wisely consider the use of budget in arranging suitable activities.

Royal Bureau ‘did not order’ fireworks ban“, Bangkok Post, December 4, 2012

He also believes (since that doesn’t guarantee knowing) that the Ministry of Interior has invoked the ‘order’ after there have been considerations to find “more appropriate ways of celebration” (ได้พิจารณาแล้วและเกิดความคิดว่าน่าจะเหมาะสมกว่าในการเฉลิมฉลอง).

However, when reporters pressed again why there is this fireworks ‘ban’, Thongthong had nothing else to say than: “Shall we talk about something else…?” (ผู้สื่อข่าวถามว่า ขอทราบเหตุผลการงดจุดพลุเฉลิมฉลองฯ นายนิวัฒน์ธำรง กล่าวว่า เราคุยกันเรื่องอื่นดีมั้ย)

In the end – and right in time for this auspicious day for nearly all Thais – there is some official clarification:

Every province in the country is allowed to hold a fireworks display to mark His Majesty the King’s 85th birthday Wednesday, Interior Ministry permanent-secretary Wibool Sanguanphong announced Tuesday.

Wibool said that the committee tasked with organising celebrations to mark His Majesty’s birthday had decided to keep fireworks displays at Sanam Luang restricted on grounds of safety (…)

He said that he had ordered officials to be careful and observe safety measures while setting off fireworks, especially if the displays were positioned on the premises of state offices.

Interior Ministry denies banning fireworks“, The Nation December 4, 2012

So in the end, it was not a direct order to ban fireworks rather than an ‘order’ to be careful setting them off. But given the complicated and multi-layered realm of officialdom and bureaucracy things can come out more muddled than originally conceived – and any move outside the perceived usual, traditional norm is met with suspicion that can become something entirely else based on emotions rather than truth, especially in these times.