What the royal succession will mean for Thai elite politics.

On 9 June 2016, Thailand celebrated the 70th anniversary of the accession to the throne by Bhumibol Adulyadej.  It was a celebration by both the ultra-monarchists and those who had to go through the motions. Conveniently scrubbed from royal history and public discourse (especially with the abuse of lèse majesté laws) is how he ascended the throne, almost certainly having accidentally killed his brother Ananda in 1946.

Almost all Thais have lived under Bhumibol’s reign, and benefitted from the transformation of the country from a poor developing agrarian society with 67 per cent poverty in 1986 to a $390 billion economy with a poverty rate of only 11 percent in 2014, though one that is clearly underperforming since the 2014 coup d’etat.  Criticism of the monarch has grown, but during his reign, Thailand was transformed from a subsistence agrarian economy to a middle income.  Peasants have become the aspirational middle class, setting the stage for the country’s ongoing political conflict.

Missing from the paeans was Bhumibol, who was too ill to make a public appearance.  The media often speaks of the societal unease regarding his imminent passing.  But this is overstated.  The King has spent the last year living in Siriraj Hospital, and just underwent angioplasty surgery.  While not a serious procedure anymore, it is on an 88-year-old man who has spent almost all of the past five years confined to a hospital and has recently been treated for water on the brain and lung infections.

While the yellow shirted ultra-royalists prostrated themselves, most Thais went on with their lives with only cursory notice of the anniversary.  The reality is the monarchy means less to average Thais than it did in the past for three key reasons:

First, the King has largely been out of their lives for the past five years, if not more.

Second, while journalists often phrase it as the Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn “not enjoying the same levels of support for his father,” the reality is he commands almost no respect from society.  The moral authority and legitimacy of the monarchy will plummet, and as such, so will its importance in the lives of ordinary Thais.

Third, there is growing fatigue of the political upheavals done in his name, including coups in 2006 and 2014, and the rampant abuse of the lèse majesté law and Computer Crimes Act.  In the two years following the coup, 68 people have been charged with lèse majesté (Art. 112 of the Criminal Code).  If the monarchy is as revered as Thai ultra-royalists and the military say it is, then why must it be so vigorously defended by draconian laws?  A robust monarchy could handle criticism, whether in principle or satire.

So why is the King’s passing so important?  I outlined why here, and a year later the points largely stand.  There are, however, a few aspects that take into account events of the past year.

First and foremost, the succession is about Thai elite politics. The May 2014 coup was thrown, in large part, in order to control the succession.  Neither the military nor the ultra-monarchists could fathom the Pheu Thai under direct, or even indirect, control of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to be in power during the transition.  The political instability was simply their justification to seize power, which they show no sign of relinquishing, now in the third year of military rule.

We know there were rifts between the junta, led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, and the ultra-monarchists, led by Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda.  Under the 1924 Palace Law, which predates the establishment of the constitutional monarchy in 1932, the 63-year-old Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn should ascend the throne as the male heir. The ultra-monarchists cannot countenance the Crown Prince be-spoiling the institution of the monarchy.  Despite desperate attempts to clean up his image and make him appear more kingly, his reputation will be a hard one to whitewash.

Despite early and regular signals by Prem and the Privy Council that the Crown Prince is unfit to rule and a peril to the institution of the monarchy, Prem seems to have acquiesced to the reality that he will become the King and has made tepid endorsements. Very tepid in fact, such as showing up for the start of the 16 August 2015 Bike for Mom event led by the spandex-clad Crown Prince, and organised by the Royal Thai Army (RTA).  And the Crown Prince, for his part, has made efforts to patch up the relationship with Prem and the ultras to ensure his succession. In December 2014, he divorced his wife Princess Srirasmi  – whom royalist elites called a “bar girl” – and cut their son out of the line of succession.  At the same time allowed her parents, three brothers, and members of her extended family to be convicted of lese majeste and sentenced to three to five year prison terms.

Prem probably still views the Crown Prince as an existential threat to the wealth, power and privilege of the ultra-monarchists, but their ability to orchestrate Crown Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn’s ascension to the throne is limited.  Although the Privy Council does have constitutional prerogative to influence the succession, the only part of the 2007 constitution that is currently still in force, following the 22 May 2014 coup, is Chapter II, the section on the monarchy that was incorporated into Chapter I of the draft constitution released in April 2015 in toto.  Chapter I, Section 22 states clearly: “succession to the Throne shall be in accordance with the Palace Law on Succession, B.E. 2467.” In Section 23, if the King has appointed his successor, the Council of Ministers submits the name to the National Assembly for endorsement.  The appointed National Legislative Assembly (NLA) is dominated by military, serving and retired officers. It’s just hard to see them voting against Prayuth and the junta on this issue.

It is still likely that Prem and the Privy Council will try to use their influence to at least delay the forwarding of the name to the NLA by calling for an “extended period of mourning” upon the Kings passing; that in itself would weaken Vajiralongkorn’s legitimacy.  But getting the NLA to support Sirindhorn’s ascension or at the least her regency over the Crown Prince’s infant son, born to his fourth wife, is looking increasingly unlikely.  Prem himself is less visible, which is no surprise at age 95.

The single most important reason that Prayuth and the RTA are lining up behind the Crown Prince, is not the Constitution (for which they have proven to have no regard for), or their love of the King, in whose name they shamelessly cling to power.  It is about the protection of the military’s and ultra-monarchists’ long-term power, wealth and privilege.  Prayuth and the RTA respect the Crown Princess and probably agree that she would serve their interests well.  The RTA made a huge show and diverted resources from their royal adoration budget, which increased by 20 per cent following the coup to US$536 million in 2015, to celebrate her Sixth Cycle.

Ultimately for the junta, it is ultimately about stability and political order.

Despite the draft constitution that has done everything it can to strip power away from political parties and elected politicians while empowering the military and non-elected elites including provisions for a non-elected prime minister and military oversight for the following five years, there is strong evidence that the Pheu Thai party will continue to be the predominant political party.  No credible and independent analysis of the draft constitution believes it to be workable charter that will lead to the return of civilian politics, free of military interference.  Indeed, most analysis believes that the charter will lead to years and years of prolonged political strife and deep and societal cleavages.  That the military will not even allow a public debate over the draft charter ahead of the planned 7 August referendum, is telling.

The junta’s claims that it has brought reconciliation or political stability is ludicrous.  Things are calm on the surface because of restrictions on the media and civil society.   According to ILaw, in the two years following the May 2014 coup d’état, 926 were summoned – errr “invited” – to report to the military for “discussions,” 527 have been arrested, 47 have been charged under the Sedition Law, and 167 civilians have been tried in military courts with no right of appeal.    The tempo of political persecutions has been increasing. In April 2016 alone, four people were summonsed to meet with the RTA, 10 were arrested for peaceful demonstrations, three people were arrested for lese majeste, and nine people were tried in military courts.  The military regime is brittle.

The junta believes that the Crown Prince can be managed.  Or to look at it another way, they truly fear what the Crown Prince is capable of should he be passed over;  and here we do not need to revisit the long history of business interests and other ties between Thaksin and the Crown Prince.  There is evidence that the Crown Prince was pressured to break those ties, but if the Crown Prince is passed over, he would have significant grievances with the ultra-monarchist elites.  More importantly, he would have a potential ally in Thaksin Shinawatra.  Though less public since Thaksin’s ouster, the two have met on at least one occasion, and both have a well-founded dislike of the ultra-monarchist elites and military.

There is only one way back for Thaksin, both physically, but also politically and financially: a royal pardon.  He needs the Crown Prince on the throne.  As King he could pardon Thaksin and there is absolutely nothing that the military and the ultra-royalist elites could do to prevent this.

Why would he do this? Simple, the crown prince enjoys little popular support and Thaksin’s endorsement would do much to bolster his legitimacy.  As much as Thaksin needs him, he needs Thaksin.  Moreover, as the RTA has proven disingenuous with their attempts at national reconciliation, the new King could possibly force just that in attempt to quickly broaden his legitimacy, and demonstrate his independence from his military handlers.

This is what causes the greatest fear in Prem and the ultras, and the military is obviously trying to prevent this alliance from happening.  That is why Prayut is working so hard to slavishly court the Crown Prince, ride behind him on his bicycle rides, and try to cut off any questions about the Crown Prince ascending the throne.  The RTA believes that the Crown Prince can be managed, and that they can convince him that pardoning Thaksin would usher in a new wave of political instability.

And if the Crown Prince, ie Thaksin’s get out of jail card is passed over, then the fugitive prime minister has no reason to hold back his Red Shirt supporters.  Since the 2014 coup, Thaksin has maintained a low profile and called on his supporters to work with the junta.  This is the real reason that there was less violence following the coup than predicted. Yes, the military has cracked down and systematically upended all human rights protections, but Thaksin also ordered the Red Shirts to stand down as he tried to negotiate a grand bargain for himself and his sister, Yingluck.  While we cannot fall into the military’s trap of thinking that Thaksin and the Red Shirts are one in the same, as they have different agendas and interests, he has clearly held them back in the past two years, trying to give the junta enough rope to hang themselves.

Finally, the military needs to win over the Crown Prince for the very fact that they are clearly planning to stage continued interventions in civilian politics.  They are trying to do this “legally.”  The draft charter, for example, gives the military several avenues to control democratic politics. It will be able to appoint the members of the 250 man senate, with six ex officio positions for the military chiefs, who in turn can appoint the prime minister.  The appointed upper house will have additional appointment and vetting powers, and will be able to check the independent law-making responsibilities of the elected lower house, including constitutional amendments.  The military will lead another unelected body, the National Reform Steering Assembly, responsible for the defining and vetting public policies, including the junta’s “roadmap” to democracy as well as a 20-year national development plan.  The draft charter gives the military sweeping powers in pursuit of law and order, without any accountability, undermining the rule of law.  As one thoughtful analysis recently put it:

The draft Thai charter adds far-reaching discretionary limitations on rights and liberties that fall outside the strict letter of the constitution, as long as any restrictive measures imposed accord with the rule of law. While a limitation of this kind would be exceptional in any context, it is doubly striking and problematic in Thailand, where the concept of the rule of law is imprecisely defined, subject to broad interpretation, and historically vulnerable to manipulation and abuse.

As if all of these powers are not enough, the military is prepared to launch another coup d’etat.  This is what makes the monarchy so indispensable to the military: an extra legal seizure of power becomes legal with the King’s endorsement, just as Bhumibol did in 2014. Without that endorsement, it’s treason.  What if the new King doesn’t sign off on extra-legal actions or fails to endorse a constitution that all objective commentators view as destabilising?

But it is also about the military’s own purview.  The new King will almost definitely appoint a new 18 person Privy Council, people loyal to him.  He will keep few if any of the current members (and many would refuse to serve under him). The Privy Council sits atop what Duncan McCargo refers to as the “network monarchy” and has vast power, whether through patronage ties through the judiciary, over the Crown Property Bureau that oversees $30-40 billion in assets, but also the military.

The Privy Council formally forwards the names of all flag officers to the King for endorsement. While the military has tried to put itself beyond accountability to civilian politicians under the new charter (budgets and promotions), it still has to account to the monarchy, via the Privy Council, and that is important for Thailand’s nearly 1,100 flag officers. The Crown Prince, who holds the rank of Air Chief Marshall, will promote a cadre of generals loyal to himself. Here the new King, should he chose, could thwart the power and the influence of the Eastern Tigers, who have dominated the Thai military politics and staged the 2006 and 2014 coups.  The new King could completely alter the seeding of protégés that Prayut has overseen to maintain his influence.

The generals have painted themselves into a corner and their legitimacy is quickly ebbing.  The economy continues at an anemic pace with both declining foreign direct investment and exports.  In 2015, foreign direct investment plummeted 78 per cent due to the junta’s continued mismanagement and political risk.  Exports in April 2016 fell 8 per cent from the previous year.  At the same time, income inequality is soaring, with the top 0.1 per cent controlling 46.5 per cent of total assets, making Thailand the sixth most unequal country in the world.  All of this has accelerated under the royalist-elite backed junta.  As Kevin Hewison so rightly pointed out, Thailand is beset by the “prodigious and pernicious influence of a social, political and economic system that is structured to maintain inequality.”  That will continue to fuel support for the Red Shirts and any politician that begins to address the grievances of rural Thais.  But even in the cities, it is increasingly hard to see sustained middle class support for Prayuth, as their economic condition becomes even more precarious, and Thailand continues to lose out to regional competitors, such as Vietnam.

The military has backed its longterm fortunes to an unpopular Crown Prince.  Yet the military has legitimized its rule and power as the ultimate defender of the Monarchy.  Soon it will be defending something that few will care to defend.

This has forced the Thai military to increase its assault on democracy, human rights, accountability and oversight, and the rule of law.  New laws are being forwarded to control the internet and social media, while existing laws are being manipulated and abused.  That is not a sign of strength, but a sign of weakness.  This edifice is sure to crack even more, built on the crumbling foundation of the monarchy under Rama X.

Llewellyn McCann is a pseudonym. The author is a long-time watcher of Southeast Asian politics.