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Thailand’s year of living dangerously

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24 October 2016 14:33

There has been great speculation, both inside Thailand and internationally, as to the reasons for the Thai Crown Prince’s unexpected decision to not immediately succeed to the throne – ostensibly to mourn his late father.

Some observers of Thailand’s politics are attracted to the theory that the Crown Prince may have been 'blocked' from assuming the throne by his enemies in the Thai royalist establishment. Such a view is particularly influential among some sections of the Red Shirts movement, who believe that succession instability may provide an opportunity for an uprising against the royalist establishment that have repeatedly destabilised and overthrown pro-Thaksin governments (former PM Thaksin Shinawatra was overthrown by a military coup in 2006) in  the last decade. The international media focus on the Crown Prince’s unorthodox and colourful private life tends to convey the impression that he may not be 'up to the job' – or even interested in it.

But based on what we actually know at this time, such speculation is almost certainly wrong, for the following reasons.

First, the long official mourning period – at least one year – means that any overt political activity at this time would be portrayed by the military regime as disrespectful to the late king. Indeed, this may have been one of the considerations of the regime in imposing such a long mourning period.

Second, as many observers have argued, the military coup of 2014 was carried out precisely to ensure that the military was in control when the succession took place. The military has been successful in suppressing all political activity during this time. There is no reason why this should not continue.

Third, the military and the monarchy have been in a close and mutually beneficial political alliance since the late 1950s. The military provides ultimate protection for the monarchy; the monarchy has long provided legitimacy for the military’s political role, which has included sanctioning coups and approving amnesty bills which absolve the military from all legal responsibility for their actions. For this reason, it is in the interests of both to ensure that the succession is as smooth as possible. The last thing either institution wants is disunity.

Fourth, and most importantly, it is clear that the Crown Prince is already in a powerful position. Well before the late king passed away he had begun to move decisively to prepare for his assumption to the throne. Two years ago the prince divorced his wife, Srisasmi, and removed her royally-bestowed name and title, presumably because she was seen to be unsuitable as a future queen. Her young son has been taken from her, she is currently under virtual house arrest, while her father, mother, brothers, sister and uncle have been imprisoned on charges of lèse majesté. The Crown Prince has begun to allow his new consort, Suthida, a former THAI Airways hostess who currently lives with the prince in Munich, Germany, to accompany him to official functions in public. She has taken the prince’s name, Vajiralongkorn, and has been given the rank of major general. All this suggests that she is being prepared to take on the duties of the new Queen of Thailand.

The Crown Prince has also begun to 'clean house'. When claims that some of his entourage were involved in corruption in a charity event organised last year in honour of the former king, they were swiftly arrested, charged with lèse majesté and imprisoned. Three of those arrested were later reported to have died in prison, two by 'suicide', one of a 'blood infection'.

Last August the acting head of the Bureau of the Royal Household – whose family was known to be close to the former king – was summarily dismissed. The new 'Lord Chamberlain' is Chirayu Isarangkun na Ayuthaya, Director of the Crown Property Bureau, which manages assets with an estimated value of between $US40 billion-$50 billion for the monarchy. But there are unconfirmed rumours that Chirayu may be in the process of being moved from the directorship of the Bureau to make way for someone closer to the Crown Prince. As exiled political historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul has argued, it is likely that the Crown Prince’s decision to delay the succession is purely idiosyncratic, typical of his well-known lack of respect for convention and tradition. Given the prince’s reputation, few would dare question his decision.

It is likely, though, that the succession will come soon, since any new legislation – most importantly the new constitution – requires the royal signature to be signed into law.

In the weeks and months to come the key task for the new king will be to continue to establish his authority over the institution of the monarchy. This will likely involve purging many of his father’s former appointments and perhaps even punishing some who are known enemies of the prince.

One problem the new king will face is how to win the hearts and minds of the Thai population. It will be impossible for him to emulate his father’s image as a deeply pious Buddhist monarch, a 'future Buddha'.

It is no secret that the Crown Prince is generally unpopular. Yet he has support among some sections of the pro-Thaksin Red Shirts movement, based on the widespread rumour that Thaksin is close to the Crown Prince. According to his theory, once the Crown Prince becomes king, this may open the way up for Thaksin, who is currently living in exile in Dubai, to return to Thailand. Even if the former prime minister does not himself return to politics, he may be able to finally exert his political influence without being destabilised by the royalist establishment as in previous instances over the last decade.

For his part, Thaksin has something that the Crown Prince lacks: enduring popularity with around half the population, especially the rural population in the northeast and north of the country, as well as in working class urban areas around Bangkok and parts of the central region. Thus there is the potential for an alliance of convenience between the new king and the former prime minister.

Yet Thaksin is hated in equal measure by the middle and upper class in Bangkok and through most of the upper- and mid-south. How the new king manages this political fault-line that has opened up over the last decade will be crucial to the stability of his reign.

The new constitution drafted by a military-appointed lawyer and approved at a tightly-controlled plebiscite in August makes for a weak parliament, an enhanced political role for the military, and the possibility of a non-elected prime minister. This is also to the benefit of the new king.

All this suggests that the authority of the Crown Prince has been underestimated. In particular, his ruthless use of the lèse majesté law as his political weapon of choice, not only to destroy his enemies but to forbid any criticism of his actions, is an indication of what we might expect when the reign of King Rama X finally officially begins.

Photo credits:Flickr user Ivo Verhaar and Getty

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