In the aftermath of succession, the NCPO has both incentives and the room to evolve towards a regime far less dependent on hyper-royalism.
King Bhumibol’s passing represents not merely the replacement of one royal with another, but a deep rewiring of the monarchy’s tensioned relationship with the country’s ruling military junta.
In this unprecedented post-Bhumibol period, Thailand’s political order is renegotiating towards a necessarily foreign form.
For a decade, Duncan McCargo’s theory of the ‘network monarchy’ has dominated analysis of the royal institution, with sound reason. McCargo’s theory provides a clear account of how an informal network of elites (from the palace, military and bureaucracy), that associate with and draw upon the King’s hyper-royal hegemony, can marginalise the substance of democratic institutions to mere procedure through extra-political interventions (including speeches, sanctions and coups). But a decade later, there have been few meaningful inquiries into whether a ‘network’ still captures how key actors in Thailand’s political system are connected; those existing often merely insinuate that the decline of one network will be replaced by another.
Earlier this year, Eugénie Mérieau’s theory of Thailand’s ‘deep state’ challenged McCargo’s fluid, personalised network. Documenting how the monarchy increasingly pursues its interests through the rulings of the Constitutional Court, Mérieau shows how the monarchy increasingly disguises its politicised nature by working through ‘legal-rationalist’ institutions. Here, Mérieau highlights the unsavoury risks associated with the personalised nature of the traditional network. The network has based itself on King Bhumibol’s hyper-royal aura, while the network monarchy’s extra-political interventions (for example, public backing of yellow-shirt leaders) have increasingly embroiled the supposedly neutral monarchy.
But the network approach needs to be interrogated even further, especially to uncover what it may overlook during succession. In the post-Bhumibol period, the re-configuration of elite power will be driven considerably by tension generated between the institutional and personalised aspects of the network monarchy. What happens when nodes in the network rely on the institution of the monarchy, but are simultaneously made more vulnerable by association with the individual occupying that institution? Something has to give. McCann’s recent analysis on New Mandala captured the paradox: ‘the military has legitimised its rule and power as the ultimate defender of the Monarchy. Soon it will be defending something that few will care to defend.’
Both the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and the monarchy invested in the network monarchy/ deep state out of a distinct desire to avoid the uncertainties associated with competitive democracy. Yet if existing elite models were to cease managing threats to elite interests, there would be reason to expect movements towards novel methods for consolidating power.
In the aftermath of King Bhumibol’s passing, the very conditions whereby the network monarchy/deep state would cease to fulfil its risk-management functions are emerging. The NCPO is well aware that the Crown Prince has not inherited the hyper-royalty of his father required to consistently legitimise the military’s praetorian interventions in Thailand’s democracy. Accounts of how King Bhumibol’s passing represents a fracturing of the network argue convincingly that the Crown Prince’s unsavoury character lends him little of the pseudo-religious popular worship required to underpin extra-political interventions. He is viewed by many as capable of splintering the network between ultra-royalists who condemn his tarnishing of the majestic institution, and members of the NCPO who have greater incentives to establish an alliance with Vajiralongkorn.
I don’t propose that the monarchy’s legitimacy is dwindling post-Bhumibol. Yet, a reliance on not antagonising the monarch is not the same as depending primarily upon the Crown Prince’s symbolic capital for the effective exercise of power. In the light of King Bhumibol’s lingering aura, the NCPO would certainly be mad to antagonise its relationship to the Crown Prince, or to publicise an image of anything other than cosiness with the monarchy.
But it would be prudent for the NCPO to hedge its bets by building sources of legitimacy and mechanisms for exercising power less reliant on royal luminosity. Unfortunately, analysts have rarely elaborated a comparison between the benefits that would be gained from such a partial defection and those that are currently repeated from investing in the network monarchy/ deep state. Commentators have instead overwhelmingly concentrated on a one-sided description of the network monarchy’s increasing instabilities, without analysis of the alternatives currently being prepared by the NCPO.
Examining whether the junta has the capability to proactively establish alternatives to the network monarchy, as opposed to concentrating on whether the network monarchy is slowly disintegrating, will help avoid undue assumptions that the Thai junta is ‘weak’. Such arguments that the junta’s survival is tied to the monarchy appeal often to the junta’s escalating resort to oppressive measures, implying that the military regime would not be tolerated in the absence of the legitimacy conferred by the monarchy. For example as one commentator writes, ‘The military has cast their lot with the Crown Prince out of political expediency. The military junta is brittle, which is why they have to rely on a host of coercive measures to quell any opposition’.
But quantitative surveys suggest both strong and weak military regimes have incentives to intensify their rates of repression. If we compare the conditions under which Thailand’s current junta operates to the mass political movements and violence that have marked the past decade, the junta must be feeling comparatively comfortable. Moreover, the securing of its preferred result in the August 2016 referendum indicates either pervasive public apathy with politics (suggested by modest voter turn-out) or the junta’s effectiveness in stifling freedom of speech, assembly and information — most likely, a mixture of both.
The junta’s oppressive measures indicate not regime weakness, but its capacity to by and large get away with dealing with relatively contained pockets of dissent. In this state of security, what alternative to the network monarchy might the junta feasibly arrange?
From its experiences with the network monarchy, the military has learned the mistake of relying on the capital of a finite individual. Despite some calls for General Prayuth to establish his own political party, and his willingness to hold on to power, we are unlikely to see the development of a regime revolving around a military leader. The military’s notorious factionalism makes this doubly unlikely.
Instead, Thailand’s new constitution, and its related organic laws, is systematically installing a checks-and-balance system designed to offer the military significant formal controls over the government. This includes the coupling of a military appointed senate that has the power to vote jointly for a non-MP prime minister in the event of a hung parliament, with reforms to the electoral system specifically to promote such a situation.
This formalisation of junta rule fits Mérieau’s claim that public reticence towards explicit military intervention in Thailand’s democracy previously motivated the network monarchy to disguise itself under a veneer of institutionalisation. Now, however, the need for a supposedly low profile has expired — it did so the moment King Bhumibol passed away. In the turbulence of the succession period, the NCPO will have no difficulty finding justifications for abnormal interference with normal politics. Lese-majeste cases have already spiked this month. While the deep state aimed to minimise its visibility to the Thai public, the sheer historical nature of this moment in time provides the NCPO room to indulge in more direct praetorianism, or excessive and abusive influence over politics.
While this escalated praetorianism is currently tied to succession, the NCPO — if it has the sense — will work to normalise its interventions by transitioning to justifications unrelated to the monarchy, and by concentrating on short-term crises. This would hark back to the ‘personal’ interventionism of the network monarchy — but now legitimated around the unique stabilising role of the military as an institution and the simultaneous demonisation of ‘threats’ to public security. For the last decade, coup-makers have driven claims that electoral politics is itself a crisis not entirely linked to the monarchy, but caused by other ‘ailments’ like corruption and class politics. In contrast, in the immediate aftermath of King Bhumibol’s passing, the junta has noticeably sought to mute expressions of hyper-royalism, publically condemning vigilantism against lese-majeste defendants and condemning forced prostration in front of the King’s portrait.
Over the last two years, the military has successfully accumulated an impressive array of tools of oppression that have been installed during times of ‘emergency’ but which have then lingered on. We saw this in the lifting of martial law in April 2015, but not the removal of most of the junta’s powers. The junta possesses unbridled authority under Article 44 until the formation of an elected government, and has been exercising this power regularly. But the mechanisms for amending the article in the future are ambiguous. Reform of Thailand’s new constitution will be nearly impossible.
In the aftermath of succession, the NCPO has both incentives and the room to evolve towards a regime far less dependent on hyper-royalism. Thailand is likely to see the emergence of a military regime that consolidates the best of both the network monarchy and the deep state — without the monarchy.
Shui Yu is a pen name. The author is a research student studying Thailand.