Thailand needs new unifying icon
Thais tearfully accepted the end of an era after the year-long official mourning period for King Bhumibol Adulyadej, his five-day-long funeral and the consecration of his ashes in two holy spots. He was the revered ninth king of the Chakri dynasty – in his time, the world’s longest-reigning monarch. With the closing of that chapter, black and white bunting has been taken down and Thais are back to wearing regular clothes. But things might not be the same again. New King Maha Vajiralongkorn, King Bhumibol’s only son, is now on the throne, while the military calls the shots in government. Thailand’s 68 million people must now ponder their future without the benign stewardship of their beloved late king.
Given the reverence accorded to the monarchy, and the influence it achieved under King Bhumibol, any assessment of the future must begin with the new king, who is a former military pilot. There is no question that King Maha Vajiralongkorn has big shoes to fill and, aged 65 already, has to move quickly to do so. During his long years as Crown Prince, he was wont to divide his time between Munich and Bangkok. Naturally, his focus will have to be different now. The first indications are that he seems to get along with the entrenched military junta. That augurs well for Thailand, although the relationship between the palace and those in power is bound to be tested in the years ahead, as happened in his late father’s time.
Next is the question of the military. The way it grabbed power from a popularly elected leader caused rifts with Thailand’s key allies and saw the country lean away from its Asean neighbours which had successfully sent the forces to the barracks, where they rightfully belong. Officially, the country is on course for elections to be held next November. But the constitutional amendments choreographed by the military make it clear that no single party will be allowed to get a majority in the Lower House. In this way, the forces expect to keep control for at least the next five years. As he picks up the levers of influence, the King must decide if Thailand deserves a truer democracy or an indefinite period under the rule of generals.
Upholding democracy could give a bigger boost to the economy, South-east Asia’s second largest. The uptick that saw second-quarter growth at a faster than expected 3.7 per cent came on the back of tourism earnings and strong external demand. Yet it contrasts with the neighbouring economy of the Philippines, which saw 6.5 per cent growth in the same period, helping it to become Asean’s No. 3 economy. Thai consumer spending remains moderate and after three years of junta rule, private investment is sluggish. Of course, a return to divisive politics would harm the entire nation irreparably. What Thailand needs in the new era is inspirational leadership committed to inclusive growth.
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