Earlier in the year I wrote an essay for East Asia Forum Quarterly that deals with the challenges facing Thailand at the end of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s reign. It was published under the title, “What happens when the king’s gone?” In one section I suggest:
It is precisely this winner-takes-all approach to statesmanship that has created the conditions for a decade’s worth of grief. This can be measured not just in the blood spilled, careers destroyed and buildings burned, but in the immense loss of opportunity that Thailand has suffered. The rest of the world has not been standing still. Across Southeast Asia some countries have begun to take big strides towards closing gaps in development with their Thai neighbours.
The most obvious example is Myanmar which has made moves towards normalising its internal and foreign affairs since 2011. This does not mean that Myanmar enjoys Thailand’s economic or cultural heft, but there is certainly the potential for the country to make significant moves in that direction. Much will hinge on the performance of its government after the November 2015 election. As Thais well know, a democratic system takes decades to fully bed down.
So what will happen next for Thailand? Without its own robust institutions to manage legislative, judicial and executive power, the country once again looks to the palace for inspiration and guidance. The military knows that royal charisma helps to support their longer-term goals. Questions about authoritarianism can be quickly deflected as rebellious, anti-monarchy talk. As self-proclaimed custodians of the kingdom, the top generals imagine they are also protected by the king’s benevolent aura. Such conflation of different powers–particularly when democratic concepts are belittled and electoral mandates destroyed–leaves the country without any immediate prospect of positive change.
The full version can be read here.