The seven countries in our Asia-Pacific backyard where kings and queens still rule
Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, left, and Queen Jetsun Pema. (Reuters: Mathur, file)
When it comes to monarchy, most people think of the pomp and majesty of the British throne, with its palaces and historic ceremonies.
- Malaysia’s sultan Muhammad V abdicated earlier this week in a shock move
- Japan’s first peacetime Emperor is set to abdicate in April after 30 years on the throne
- Thailand’s king will be formally crowned in a lavish three-day ceremony in May
But it’s far from the only monarchy — the Asia-Pacific is home to a quarter of the world’s 29 remaining monarchies and they are among the most powerful and influential in the world.
Whether it be through ruling in absolute power or through the influence of their histories and long-running impact on their culture, the queen — and king — is very much alive.
Excluding a clutch of states in the Asia-Pacific headed by Queen Elizabeth II, there are seven monarchies: Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand and Tonga.
Gavan Butler, honorary associate in political economy at the University of Sydney, tells ABC the monarchies are so entrenched in their respective countries that there has been no discussion or appetite to abolish them.
But for Thailand and Malaysia, Michael Vatikiotis, Asia regional director at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, says political stability is closely tied to that of their respective monarchies.
“In all cases, the surviving monarchies of South-East Asia have power and influence that potentially or in reality exceed that described in constitutional terms,” he says in an opinion piece for the Brookings Institution.
“This has come about chiefly because of the continuity of the archaic sacred and cultural symbolism of monarchy, which the monarchs themselves have cleverly perpetuated — as well as the patronage derived from their considerable wealth.”
Asia-Pacific is home to a quarter of the world’s 29 remaining monarchies. (ABC News: Jarrod Fankhauser)
2019 is set to be a big year for several monarchies in the region, including the abdication of the current Japanese emperor in April, in which his eldest son will take the Chrysanthemum Throne.
This will be followed by coronation of the King of Thailand, who will be formally crowned in a lavish three-day ceremony in May.
And in a shocking and unprecedented move, Malaysia’s sultan Muhammad V abdicated earlier this week, which means that a new sultan will be elected within months.
Here is a snapshot of some of the monarchies in the Asia-Pacific region:
King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is refered to as the ‘Prince William of The Himalayas’. (Wikipedia)
Style: Constitutional (formerly absolute)
Monarch: King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck
Succession: Hereditary (males are preferred over females and if there is no suitable candidate, the king can choose his own heir.)
Fact: Bhutan’s current king is the only monarch in the world who has ever given up power without any influence, pressure or expectation, but for the good of their country.
Bhutan’s hereditary monarchy was established in 1907 following several hundred years of loosely connected regions that the reigning Wangchuck family played a significant role in running.
Since then, five kings have ascended the ‘Golden Throne’ and guided the relatively isolated country through several significant changes, including building ties with India and Britain, developing its highly lucrative tourism industry and the creation of its Gross National Happiness (GNH).
GNH is Bhutan’s guiding philosophy for socio-economic development, environmental sustainability, good governance, plus strong health, cultural diversity and high living standards.
Current King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck shocked the country when he announced that he would be abandoning absolute monarchy in 2008 — but he retains significant influence and remains a highly popular figure.
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah is the second-longest serving monarch in the world still alive, only behind Queen Elizabeth II. (Reuters: Piroschka van de Wouw, file)
Monarch: Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah
Fact: Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah is one of the richest men in the world thanks to Brunei’s abundance of oil and gas reserves. His personal wealth is valued at $US40 billion ($56 billion), according to Forbes.
This tiny country, sandwiched between the South China Sea and Malaysia, is one of the few absolute monarchies left in the world. Brunei does have a parliament, although elections haven’t been held since 1962.
And with a long history of invasion and foreign control, now-independent Brunei’s laws are a mix of English common law and strict Sharia law.
Despite the country’s strict Islam-based morality, the royal family is well known for its ostentatious spending, which includes living in one of the world’s biggest palace, despite the country’s population being just 436,733.
The sultan’s brother, Prince Jefri, is commonly dubbed the “playboy” prince and reportedly owns a luxury yacht named “Tits”.
Sultan Bolkiah celebrated his 50th anniversary on the throne in 2017, making him the seconding-longest reigning monarch in the world still living, behind only Queen Elizabeth II.
Monarch: King Norodom Sihamoni
Established: 1st century AD
Fact: Cambodia followed in the footsteps of Thailand and in 2018 introduced majeste law, which makes it a crime to criticise or insult the king.
Cambodia’s historic monarchy is well documented and has undergone several dramatic evolutions since it was established 2000 years ago.
This includes the names of its very first monarch, who was a woman — Queen Soma, who ruled alongside her husband, Kaundinya I.
In a highly unusual move, the monarch’s succession was moved to an elective model in 1993, one of just two in the world. The elected monarch, who holds the role for life, must be at least 30 years old and whose lineage can be traced to one of either two of Cambodia’s historic royal houses, the house of Norodom or the house of Sisowatch.
The king’s role is ceremonial but he does in fact hold some power, including appointing the prime minister and cabinet. He also has the power of commutation and pardon, and can appoint a limited number of members to the Senate and Constitutional Council.
In a highly embarrassing move, in 2011 WikiLeaks released hundreds of diplomatic cables from the US Embassy, some of which describe the monarchy as a “tragedy, comedy and melodrama all rolled into one that could have provided grist for at least a half dozen Shakespeare plays”.
Japan’s Emperor Akihito, accompanied by his wife Empress Michiko, appears on the balcony of the Imperial Palace to mark his 85th birthday in 2018. (AP: Eugene Hoshiko)
Monarch: Emperor Akihito
Established: 660 BC
Succession: Hereditary (males only)
Fact: During World War II, Emperor Hirohito placed himself as the head of Japan’s traditional religion, Shinto, which led to the development of an extremist cult that created the infamous kamikaze bombers.
Home to the world’s oldest continuing monarchy, the Japanese imperial family are highly revered by the public and are the only monarchy that is still led by an emperor.
Historically, the emperor did wield some power, but never had complete authority and in 1947, the monarchy was formally stripped of any power and was instead shaped as “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people”.
The emperor and imperial family now play an important role in national ceremonies and traditions.
The imperial family are set for a momentous 2019 when Emperor Akihito voluntarily abdicates and his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, takes on the role.
Like parts of Japanese culture, the monarchy retains several archaic rules, including that only sons can succeed and that any female royal who marries a commoner must cede her title and royal income.
Malaysian King Sultan Muhammad V abdicated in early January 2019, after just after two years on the throne. No reason for the unprecedented move was given. (AP: Yam G-Jun)
Monarch: Sultan Muhammad V (abdicated January 2019)
Fact: Sultan Muhammad V, who was only two years into his five-year term, abdicated in early January 2019, just weeks after it was widely reported that he had secretly married Russian Oksana Voevodina, a former Miss Moscow who has a degree in business, although neither the Malaysian Government nor palace has confirmed.
Kuala Lumpur Reporter tweet: The photos of Malaysian King Sultan Muhammad V’s wedding with Russian beauty Oksana Voevodina in Moscow that have been viralled by puzzling Malaysian netizens via social media
The king of this Asian country is not born to rule but elected instead. Although the current system was established in 1957, monarchies across some of Malaysia’s 13 states and three federal territories date back to the 16th century.
Monarchs are elected to a five-year term by the rulers of nine of Malaysia’s states, whom together form the Conference of Rulers. Only these nine rulers can stand for the kingship, and all must be male, Malay Muslims of royal origin; most of those nine states have hereditary rulers.
The king, also known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, has extensive powers through the constitution, although in reality those powers are in fact quite limited. He can choose the prime minister from those elected into parliament, although he cannot dismiss the prime minister.
His role also includes attending diplomatic functions and being the symbolic head of the Malaysian Armed Forces.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn, centre, holds a candle light during Wesaka Bucha, at Emerald Buddha temple, Bangkok, in 2018. (AP/The Nation/Pool Photo)
Monarch: King Maha Vajiralongkorn
Fact: The monarch has several additional titles, including Head of State, Head of the Royal Thai Armed Forces, Adherent of Buddhism and Upholder of Religions.
Thai’s monarchy converted to constitutional-style in 1932 following a bloodless coup and is now a high-profile symbolic head of state; the king’s power is now exclusively exercised through the prime minister and parliament.
Despite that, the monarch is treated as a near-divine being, with current laws making it illegal to defame or insult the monarch or his family — offenders face up to 15 years in jail.
There is no actual definition of what constitutes ‘defaming’ or insulting the monarchy, and so it has been open to wide interpretation with hundreds of people fined or jailed in recent years.
In 2018, King Vajiralongkorn — who ascended the throne in 2016 and will be formally crowned in an elaborate three-day coronation in early May — signed over the royal family’s $30 billion wealth to himself.
Monarch: Tupou VI
Established: 10th century
Succession: Hereditary (males preferred)
Fact: There are six monarchies in Oceania, but Tonga is the only sovereign indigenous monarchy.
Tonga became a constitutional monarchy in 1875 but its origins go back far further, with the first rulers taking control in the 10th century.
During the 19th century, the then-king converted to Christianity, which quickly spread throughout the country’s 172 islands. Today, the overwhelming majority of Tongans are Christians, with many being active members of their churches.
Despite having its own monarchy, Tonga is also a member of the Commonwealth, one of just four countries in the group whose monarch is not Queen Elizabeth II.
It follows its status as a British protected state between 1900 and 1970, meaning that Britain looked after its foreign affairs but never had any sovereign power.
The previous monarch, George Tupou V, ceded most of his powers just days after his coronation in 2008, saying he and future monarchs would take the advice of the prime minister on most issues.
The Japanese monarchy is claimed to be the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world. (ABC News: Jarrod Fankhauser)