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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Royal Mystique

Diana's death highlights some differences between Asia and Europe


EVER SINCE BRITAIN'S PRINCESS Diana was killed in a high-speed car crash in Paris on Aug. 31, the world has lavished much attention on the question of responsibility for her death. Charles Spencer has blamed the aggressive motorcycle-borne paparazzi who pursued the ill-fated limousine in a bid to photograph his sister with her companion, Dodi al-Fayed. Spencer has a point. But the scandal-sniffing press was only a catalyst in the tragedy. The real villain is relentless and morbid public curiosity about the private lives of British royalty.

As the shock of Diana's death gave way to mourning, it became clear to many in Asia that such a tragedy probably would never have occurred in the region. The reason is not hard to fathom. Unlike their counterparts in Britain and some other European countries, Asian monarchies tend to be revered by their subjects, who do not relish the public exposure, even mockery, of their royals' human foibles -- as long as those remain in the realm of private life.

The differing attitudes toward royalty are rooted in both history and culture. In Britain, the prestige of the monarchy has steadily declined since the British empire began to crumble half a century ago. Further, the populist pressures of democracy have obliged the Windsors to be more outward looking, whittling away the mystique that underpinned their position. In Asia, however, monarchies have continued to thrive despite the advent of adult franchise and an increasingly unfettered press.

One reason is that, unlike contemporary Britons, most Asians do not want their kings and queens actively to reach out to them or otherwise "be like them." They prefer monarchs to remain generally transcendent, serving as moral symbols of the country as well as its dignity. If they are made to lose face, goes the thinking, so is the nation. Such a compact is perhaps essential if royalty is to retain its aura and mystique in the contemporary era.

In Thailand, for example, the King is still considered godly, and it is a legal offense to cast aspersions upon him. Japan's royal family also inspires widespread public respect and affection. The Japanese paparazzi, who are almost as numerous and active as their European counterparts, never hound clan members. While titillating pictures of local celebrities routinely appear in the local media, royalty is always portrayed in the most respectful terms. Even Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk, despite his mercurial personality, commands a moral authority far exceeding his formal powers.

Those who consider such attitudes hypocritical might ponder an article published by British philosopher Roger Scruton two days after Diana's death. "In healthy societies," he argues, "people will accept that there are certain things that are none of their business, and conventions that protect public figures and limit information cause no offense to popular sentiment."

Evidently, Diana herself was longing for such social norms. "I think things are different abroad," she said in the last interview published during her lifetime, noting her own country's "ferocious" and intrusive media. "[Overseas] I'm accepted as I am, without watching for every faux pas. I think that in my place, any sane person would have left long ago." While no one can rescind the dictates of fate, it is tempting to speculate that if Diana had made Asia her home, perhaps she would still be with us today.


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