With news of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s ailing health, Llewellyn McCann outlines three key developments to watch after his reign ends.
Yesterday was a tense day in Bangkok.
Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn rushed back from one of his frequent overseas jaunts. There were four royal motorcades that sped to Siriraj Hospital, where the ailing 88 year-old monarch is being treated. Earlier this week, the King’s condition was declared as “unstable.” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, called off a meeting and raced back to Bangkok. All state events were cancelled. The stock market plunged 6.8 percent. By the end of 12 October, the Palace issued a statement that King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s condition “had not yet stabilised,” and that he was on a ventilator, with low blood pressure and an infection in his liver. Prognosis grim.
I’ve laid out what the King’s passing means here (2015) and here (2016). While the country will be collectively in a state of shock, there will be intense behind the scenes movements. Obviously, there will be extreme jockeying among elites to be on the official funeral committee.
But let me lay out the key things to watch for in the short- to medium-term.
First, will there be an “extended period of mourning?”
If the succession is orderly and the ultra-royalists acquiesce to the inevitable, the Crown Prince should quickly be put on the throne. That is what is supposed to happen on the basis of Chapter I of the interim constitution (the only hold over from the Constitution) that the National Council on Peace and Order scrapped following their 22 May 2014 coup d’etat.
Chapter 1 outlines that “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. All pro forma.
The King has supposedly named his son as his successor and the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) is dominated by the military. Indeed, over 50 per cent are active or retired military or police, the remainder ultra-royalists. In early October, the NCPO expanded the rubber stamp parliament from 217 to 250 members; 28 of the 33 new legislators are active duty military or police. Prayuth should have full control over the legislature.
Yet it is unlikely that things go so smoothly. Prem and other ultra-monarchists who oppose the Crown Prince as being “unfit” to rule, are likely to stall for time, by proposing an “extended period of mourning” to delay a coronation. That in itself would weaken Vajiralongkorn’s legitimacy. But the ultra-monarchists are looking for Prem Tinsulanonda and the Privy Council to question whether the King indeed named his son, and push for at the very least, Princess Sirindhorn to serve as regent for the Crown Prince’s toddler son.
The declaration of an extended period of mourning will be a clear signal that not all is settled, and the ultra-monarchists are standing up for their principles and the sanctity of the monarchy, against Prayuth’s realist political calculation to endorse the Crown Prince, who, if passed over, could find common cause with ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Second, how quickly will the Crown Prince clean house?
The ultra-monarchists hate the Crown Prince and it goes without saying that the feeling is mutual. Many in the Privy Council, Royal Household Department, the multi-billion dollar Crown Property Bureau, and other royal institutions and foundations, will use the opportunity of the King’s passing to retire.
Too many have told me over the years that under no circumstance would they serve the Crown Prince (frankly an extraordinary violation of lese majeste, but they are untouchable). The Crown Prince will bring in an entire new cast of characters, and there is likely to be insignificant hold over. This will be a major loss of institutional memory, and perhaps constraints on the new monarch. But it could really disempower the ultra-monarchists. My guess is the first and most important to go will be Prem, himself.
Third, will the new King go rogue?
The military leadership and NCPO are no friends of the Crown Prince.
On a personal level, they are far more comfortable with Crown Princess Sirindhorn, who has fawned over the military and displays more of her father’s traits and demeanour.
But 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, including rampant abuse of the lese majeste law (Article 112 of the Criminal Code), the computer crimes act, arbitrary detention, and other provisions.
Their belief is that the Crown Prince can be managed, content with the trappings of power, leaving them alone to govern in his name. As such, he would have no need or incentive to involve himself in politics. And most importantly the military has to make nice with him in order to prevent him from issuing a royal pardon to Thaksin, which would up end everything that they have tried to accomplish since 2006.
But what if the new King decides to make his mark on Thailand, to resolve the crippling divisions in Thai society, in order to get out of his father’s shadow? What if he were to become an activist monarch, eager to secure his legacy, and build up an independent base of support and legitimacy, apart from the fawning sycophancy of the Royal Thai Army?
Llewellyn McCann is a pseudonym. The author is a long-time watcher of Southeast Asian politics.