Once again, next-door Thailand is tense with uncertainty. As in 2009, it is the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, now a frail 86, who is at the knife’s edge.
The king has ruled for 64 years now and has not appeared in public for over a year. Early this month, he moved from Klai Kangwon Palace in southern Thailand to a hospital in Bangkok.
A junta, in the city, crafts what would be Thailand’s 18th constitution since 1932. Led by Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the 200-member stamp-pad committee is scripted to hand Prayuth the job of prime minister. Then, it’d slam the door to any return by the former prime ministers: Thaksin Shinawatra and sister Yingluck, who’ve won every election since 2001. Thereafter, it’d hold elections in October.
“It is unclear whether the expected [charter]… will be put to a referendum,” notes the Economist in “Five Hundred Days of Dictatorship.” The army has given itself 500 days to establish “genuine democracy” by fiat and ensure justice.
City-based royalists quit their barricades to support the junta. The interim charter mentions the king 38 times, signaling his influence. “The whole point of the coups of 2006 and 2014 has been to overturn the winner-takes-all system in favor of governance by ‘moral people’ who cannot win elections.”
In 1970, Southeast Asia had three royal families. In October of that year, the 11-century-old Cambodian monarchy was abolished, Lon Nol’s rightist republic ousted the flamboyant Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Laos King Savang Vatthana was ejected from his 600-year-old throne by the triumphant Pathet Lao in 1975.
Today, only the 142-year-old Chakri dynasty of Thailand remains. A looming power vacuum has emerged as the key but unmentioned issue. A harsh lese majeste law gags “any meaningful discussion about the country’s most meaningful institution: the monarchy,” the Washington Post’s Chico Harlan notes.
“The King Never Smiles” is a 2008 biography written by Paul Handley and published by Yale University. It has been banned. “You’re not supposed to talk about anything,” says associate professor Pavin Chachavalpongpun at Kyoto University. “Well, anything but glorification.”
However, there is no free lunch. Rapid economic growth since the 1960s—which raised incomes and bankrolled healthcare and education—has slumped. The World Bank found that “only half of all income shows up in Thailand’s national-accounts data.” Imports fell by 14 percent in June and industrial output by 6.6 percent. “Thailand is likely to be the slowest-growing economy in Asia this year.”
“The officer corps is a business club, serving the elite. The financial system remains a closed shop of the wealthiest Thais and leading Thai-Chinese business groups.” The Crown Property Bureau is the biggest conglomerate and digs in its heels against transparency.
Rule of law, a well-regulated financial system, transparency and support for science and education are in short supply, says the Economist. “So are freedom of thought and expression.”
“Bhumibol has been the one constant in the lives of most Thais today. Thailand lacks what constitutional monarchies like Denmark or Britain have: rules for succession that ensure against the ‘tragic capriciousness of royal succession.’” So this looming end portends “a frightening shift in the Thai cosmos.”
The sole male in the Chakri dynasty is Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. His three successive wives, plus assorted girlfriends, raise queries over whether he is the Chakri dynasty’s end.
“My son likes his weekends,” Queen Sirikit said in an unprecedented interview in the early 1980s. Vajiralongkorn is “discreetly nicknamed as ‘Sia O,’ a gangster name, due to gambling debts,” writes Tabatha Kinder in IB Times. “They have no solution to the danger he poses,” a WikiLeaks US embassy cable adds.
Is the king too frail now to cobble a different succession scenario? Then Thailand may end up with a monarch unloved and, at best, barely tolerated. Would Vajiralongkorn dip at will into the king’s assets, estimated by Forbes magazine at $10-20 billion?
Suppose Bhumibol does not name an heir? Would Thailand’s Privy Council, a royally-appointed advisory body, pick the successor, say Princess Maha Chakri? Over Vajiralongkorn’s dead body, scoffs an observer.
Yet, events could simply overtake blueprints. Activists and academics admit that dissolving the monarchy, as in Cambodia or Laos, is chit-chat for now. Most dissenters accept that their views will not matter. Perhaps, two, three years down the road, they will. For now, “many are too busy simply trying to make ends meet.”
Like it or not, Bhumibol’s passing, when it comes, “will open the floodgates to change. It will trigger unprecedented social unrest.” And that will rip out to a region grappling with an expansionist China and the change unleashed by a Cyber Age.
Can the generals ride the whirlwind? They’ll have to prove that brass knuckles translate into better lives for 68 million Thais. “If they pulled it off, theirs would be the first coup anywhere since the end of the cold war that actually raised the pace of income growth,” the Economist adds.
Many scholars outside Thailand write that the Bangkok tussle, at rock bottom, “is really a competition to hold power when the king passes away.”
“It’s like a musical chairs game,” writes Ernest Bower of Southeast Asia, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “When the music stops—when the king dies—whoever has power gets to organize the next steps.”
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