David Streckfuss examines why Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn hasn’t been declared King Rama X, why the throne sits empty and what the interregnum means.

 

I.

For the last few decades, one of the favourite pastimes in Thailand has been to gossip about the question of succession. Rumors of all stripes and colours—the only form of “information” on the question given that public discussion on the topic risks lese majeste charges—have been bandied about. Many scholars believe that one of the reasons behind the coups in 2006 and 2014 was to ensure that the military managed succession in the advent of the king’s passing.[1]

Given the importance of the process and if the intent of the military is truly to provide stability, one might think that succession needed to be as straight-forward as possible. So it is more than surprising that the throne remains empty even after seven days of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s passing. How is the government handling the awkward state of affairs and what might it mean?

The purpose of the Palace Law on Succession of 1924 and corresponding constitutional provisions were intended to eliminate ambiguity from the process of succession. In this case, King Bhumibol designated an heir-apparent in 1972. So Section 23 of the 2007 constitution provides a clear set of steps:

In the case where the Throne becomes vacant and the King has already appointed His Heir to the Throne under the Palace Law on Succession, B.E. 2467, the Council of Ministers shall notify the President of the National Assembly. The President of the National Assembly shall convoke the National Assembly for the acknowledgement thereof, and the President of the National Assembly shall invite such Heir to ascend the Throne and proclaim such Heir King.

In short, these five steps are:

  1. A designated heir-apparent is named
  2. Cabinet tells the president of assembly
  3. The president calls a meeting of said assembly
  4. The assembly acknowledges the heir
  5. The president invites heir-apparent to take throne and proclaims him king.

It appears in this case, something went off course in the second, fourth, and fifth steps. The prime minister had done his duty in notifying the president of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) but then added:

His Royal Highness’s only wish is to not let the people experience confusion or worry about the service of the land or even the ascension to the throne…He said that at this moment, everyone and every side, including His Royal Highness himself, are still stricken by grief and sorrow, so every side should get through . . . this enormous grief first. When the religious ceremony and funeral have passed, then it will be an appropriate time to proceed.

It was suggested that ceremonies could take as long as a year.

The NLA apparently only acknowledged the King’s passing and its president “will invite His Royal Highness Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn to ascend the throne by law and tradition shortly.” On 14 October, the NLA vice-president announced that Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda has been named “Regent pro tempore” by virtue of Section 24 of the constitution which states: “Pending the proclamation of the name of the Heir or the Successor to the Throne under section 23, the President of the Privy Council shall be Regent pro tempore.”

The NLA vice-president said that during the evening session on 13 October, “the cabinet should have submitted the heir name for acknowledgment. Then the NLA chairman would invite the heir to step on the throne.” As the prime minister told the NLA that the crown prince needed time to grieve, “a regent pro tempore is needed during this transition period,” and that the Privy Council president “automatically” took the position.

On 15 October, Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam clarified the situation for the public. First, as Prem had been made regent, the Privy Council would elect a new president. Once a successor had been proclaimed, the regent would “automatically” be reinstated as president of the Privy Council. Second, Wissanu wanted to counter rumors that “the regent could nominate the new king as he sees fit.” Saying “there is no question as to who is going to be the new king” as the late king had designated an heir-apparent. “The steps to be taken are just a formality to fulfil the late king’s wish,” he added.

The cabinet notifies the NLA president, the assembly is convened to acknowledge the notification, and then “its president shall seek an audience with the Heir to invite him to be king. After that, it will be announced to the public.” At that point, Wissanu announced, “Thailand will have a new king,” whose reign would be counted from 13 October, thus “the continuity of the royal line is uninterrupted.”

The deputy prime minister said that in fact the prime minister had not, could not, inform the NLA about the heir as the crown prince had said he wanted some time “before accepting the invitation,” and so “the NLA simply acknowledged the passing of the King” before adjourning. As such, the heir-apparent, as “next in line to the king” has “no authority except for royal ceremonies.” He could then not, for instance, sign the new constitution.

Finally, the deputy prime minister, in yet one more level removed from the source, quotes the prime minister who recounted what the crown prince had told him, “HRH Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn told the prime minister he would like everything to be the same as it was when HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej was still alive, at least for now. He said: ‘Don’t let it be felt that the kingdom is empty. Let’s not turn everything into the past so fast. Let’s cherish it as the present.’”

The prime minister announced that he and the new regent had been granted an audience with the crown prince that evening. He said the crown prince did not wish “the people not to be confused or feel concerned over the succession to the Throne because this matter is clearly stated in the constitution, the Palace Law and traditions.” According to the prime minister, the heir-apparent wanted “to join the Thai people in mourning the passing of his father before he accepted the invitation to become the new king,” and that “the coronation could take place sometime after the royal cremation.”

The prime minister announced on 18 October, seemingly as a rule, that “Thailand must observe at least 15 days of mourning for King Bhumibol Adulyadej before his successor can ascend the throne.” He seemed to be addressing unspecified concerns, perhaps related to the impression the government had left that succession would not happen until after a year of mourning: “On the matter of succession, in accordance with the constitution, citizens in Thailand and abroad should not be worried or concerned.” He seemed to imply that the crown prince could ascend the throne now and the actual day of coronation was another matter.

Latter in the day, it was reported that the crown prince had assented to having Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn oversee the royal cremation—while the crown prince has yet to appear or say anything on his own behalf since the King’s passing.

II.

To get at the significance, or possible significance of what has happened so far, let me pose some questions and suggest some answers.

Q: Is there or isn’t there a king in Thailand right now? Has Thailand ever left the throne vacant before?
It seems from Wissanu’s so-called clarification, the reign of Rama X has started, even before there is a king to occupy the throne. When the ascension actually happens, then the start date will be backdated. He says clearly that there is now no king, and talks in future tense of one.

Has this ever happened before? As a general rule of monarchy, it is for stability’s sake that a throne be reoccupied as soon as possible: “The king is dead. Long live the king.” In some countries, like Norway for instance, it is constitutionally stipulated that the throne be continuously occupied; upon the death of King Olaf V in 1991, King Harald V became king. A few days later he made an oath before parliament and six months later was crowned/consecrated.

In Thailand/Siam, the same tradition has been held. Section 6 of the Royal Succession law reads (emphasis added):

Once the King has designated the Heir to the Throne and has had such designation proclaimed to members of the Royal Family, officials and the public at large, the position of such Heir is secure and indisputable. When the necessary time comes, the said Heir shall immediately ascend the throne to succeed the late King in accordance with the latter’s wish.

Even in chaotic situations and when the nation felt a great loss, the Thai royal family has made sure someone was on the throne.[2] One can imagine the confusion after the death of the young King Rama VIII who died without a designated heir-apparent. But before the day was out, King Rama IX had been proclaimed king.

The deputy prime minister said that the government was “crafting the process” by taking into consideration “the constitution, Palace Law and traditions.” But either the Cabinet did not notify or the NLA did not acknowledge, and so the NLA president did not proclaim the new king.

As a result, Thailand is in an interregnum, with the throne vacant and a regent acting in a king’s/the king’s name (which king, exactly?). Or is the late king still reigning?[3]

Q: Had the Cabinet and National Legislative Assembly complied with their constitutional obligations?
No, it appears that they had not. Ostensibly, these parties did not comply with the constitution out of sensitivity to the alleged request of the crown prince. The Cabinet or NLA could have said something to the effect that “Yes, you may grieve, but in the meantime we proclaim you king.” There is nothing in tradition—if “tradition” here means history—the constitution, or the Palace Law requiring consent of the one made king.

But because the procedure was not followed, it allowed an opening—the “automatic” assumption of the president of the Privy Council to the position of regent.

Q: Was the deputy prime minister right when he said that the regent can’t change the Palace Law or designate another?
It does not appear that he was. At the same time, the prime minister has said that succession will happen according to Section 23 of the constitution. But Section 22 could change how Section 23 plays out. The former says that “the succession to the Throne shall be in accordance with the Palace Law on Succession, B.E. 2467.” It then explains how this law may be changed. It is the sole prerogative of the king to change the law.

However, this could easily be interpreted to mean that when there is no king, a regent could, as royal authority lies with him (or her). A king (or a regent) can initiate an amendment and the Privy Council would then draft it and present it to the king. When the king approves the draft, he then signs it, and the president of the Privy Council then has to merely “notify” the president of the assembly who in turn then merely informs the assembly. The present of the assembly countersigns “the Royal Command, and the Palace Law Amendment shall have the force of law upon its publication in the Government Gazette.”

The Privy Council could cite Section 10 of the Palace Law:

Section 10. Whoever is to ascend to the throne should be one who the masses fully respect and can be contentedly taken as their protector. Therefore any royalty whom the multitude holds as loathsome, such person should foreswear the path to succession in order to remove the worry from the King and the people of the realm.

It could then designate a new candidate, submit the name to Cabinet which would be obligated to notify the NLA. If this manoeuvre attempted, it would be completely “legal” and there would be very little legal recourse in challenging it.[4]

III.

How likely is a scenario deviating from the straight-forward process we seem to be faced with now? Not very, one would like to think. But with each passing hour and day that the throne remains empty, doubt grows.

The possibility of an alternative succession scenario has been described in academic articles for some time now. For instance, Michael J Montesano, predicted in 2009 that:

The nature of the network monarchy and the Privy Council themselves, the example of the early years of the current reign, and indeed the spirit of ostensible consensus relating to royal succession characteristic of nineteenth-century Siam all make likely an attempt among royalist insiders to effect a managed transition to the next reign.[5]

The impulse to intervene might be part of a larger cultural orientation concerning Southeast Asian conceptions of kingship and succession. Robert Solomon notes that traditional models of kingship in Southeast Asia were characterised by a “vagueness of succession” that allows elite factions (and maybe, sometimes, along with the people) to find compromise.

Southeast Asian practice – and ideal – regarding royal succession kept within the two poles of standardisation of rules (which makes the transfer of office a smoother, more acceptable affair) and flexibility (necessary to maintain a minimal level of competence and adequacy). …where the rules of succession were vague, legitimising concept and ritual had to be strong to maintain stability; or, where the aura of legitimacy was inordinately powerful, principles of succession had to avoid complete automaticity.[6]

But would such managing/intervention afforded by vagueness be accepted in modern-day Thailand? Would the Bangkok elite or a faction of it actually take this fateful step?

Unfortunately, the answer might be yes. The impulse to intervene in succession is the same that drives generals to stage coups and feel absolutely comfortable and confident in jailing hundreds for perceived insults to the monarchy. Members of the Bangkok elite consider themselves as morally superior persons. They prefer coups to elections because it is they who know the real problems and ways to solve them. It is a waste of time, or even dangerous, to share power with the masses. Coups also save the monarchy from the deleterious effects of corrupt politicians who might unscrupulously put a puppet on the throne.

One of the key reasons for engineering coups was to ensure that pro-Thaksin governments were not in power when succession happened. But if the succession process was already as straight forward as could be—in other words, it would be the same under a pro-Thaksin government as a military one—why indeed did they stage a coup in the first place, unless it for the Bangkok elite to produce a different outcome?

If something does run afoul with the succession, the Thai public can be sure that it never learn the details; criticism of the new configuration of royal position in the person of the regent produced its first lese majeste case earlier this week.

David Streckfuss is an Honorary Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

End notes

[1] For this article, I draw on two of my previous short pieces: the chapter on succession in Nicholas Grossman and Dominic Faulder (editors), King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2012), and “Future of Monarchy in Thailand,” Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia (13), March 2013, “Monarchies in Southeast Asia.”

[2] In 1935, the throne remained empty for five days after King Rama VII abdicated without designating an heir.

[3] The deputy prime minister, out of convenience for the people, advised that the late king could just be addressed as “His Majesty for the time being.” http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/general/1112833/princess-to-have-final-say-over-pyre

[4] King Rama VII pondered the question and seemed unable to say whether kings elected by a small group of royal elders or by designating their own successors was better. If kings did not designate an heir-apparent, upon his death “the vying for royal power has opened an opportunity for persons…who have been obstructive to the prosperity of the kingdom” and “has brought disaster to the Thai nation. The king has thus desired to have a law determining succession in order to reduce trouble of contending [for the throne] within the royal family.” On the other hand, primogeniture also posed problems:

The King has absolute power in everything. This principle is very good and very suitable for the country, as long as we have a good King. If the King is really an Elected King, it is probable that he would be a fairly good King. But this idea of election is really a very theoretical one, and in reality the King(s) of Siam are really hereditary, with a very limited possibility of choice. Such being the case, it is not at all certain that we shall always have a good King. Then the absolute power may become a positive danger to the country. …Some sort of GUARANTEE must be found against an unwise King.

[5] Michael J Montesano, “Contextualizing the Pattaya Summit Debacle: Four April Days, Four Thai Pathologies,” Contemporary Southeast Asia, vol. 31, no. 2 (2009), p. 233.

[6] Robert L Solomon, “Aspects of State, Kingship, and Succession in Southeast Asia” (The RAND Corporation, unpublished paper, June 1970), p. 7.