An ailing king and succession intrigue put coup leaders on edge

Thais pray at Bangkok’s Siriraj hospital for the king who has reigned over them for 69 years. EPA/Narong Sangnak

Late last Friday the King of Thailand was rushed from his seaside palace in Hua Hin to Siriraj hospital in Bangkok. The Palace issued an announcement that the King was suffering from a fever and a rapid heartbeat, but was responding to treatment. A subsequent statement reported that his gall bladder had been removed on Sunday night.

The King, aged 86 and for a long time in declining health, may very soon pass from the scene. He is the longest-serving head of state in the world. His passing is a once-in-a-century event.

Due to a religious taboo about speaking ill of the King, not to mention the country’s strict lèse majesté law forbidding criticism of the King and royal family, the true state of the King’s health is unclear. Respected journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall claims that the King has suffered a stroke, his second in two months.

On Monday Thailand’s SET stock market index dropped sharply. A hard-line royalist social media site has warned people not to spread “inauspicious” rumours. The leader of the military junta and now prime minister, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, has led his Cabinet to the hospital to pay respects to the King.

Thailand could be entering a period of interregnum. If so, the ramifications for Thailand’s military dictatorship, and Thailand more generally, will be enormous.

Was the coup a move to control succession?

According to one theory, the military coup in May this year was a pre-emptive strike by Thailand’s royalist establishment to seize control of the National Assembly from the elected government in preparation for the imminent succession. Under the constitution, changes to the succession arrangements require the approval of the National Assembly.

For nine years the royalists have been in a political war of attrition with the popular telecommunications businessman-turned-politician, Thaksin Shinawatra. His political platform of cheap health care, debt alleviation for farmers and accelerated rural development has made his political parties hugely popular among rural and lower-class urban voters – who make up over half the electorate. Pro-Thaksin parties have easily won the last six national elections.

For the first time in Thailand’s political history the masses have had a direct say in national politics, through the mechanism of electoral politics. In doing this, Thaksin has challenged the grip that the military and bureaucracy, under the symbolic leadership of the King and royal family, have held on Thailand’s politics since the Cold War. The Thai word for bureaucrat – which includes the military – is kha ratchakan: “servant of the king”.

Thailand’s succession will be critical to the outcome of this political conflict. The monarch is enormously influential, belying the country’s official status as a constitutional monarchy. For example, all appointments to the military leadership must be approved by the Privy Council, the King’s hand-picked council of advisers.

The King is also the wealthiest monarch in the world. According to Thai law, he has sole control of assets worth around $US41 billion. The monarch’s role is legitimised by the propaganda organs of the Thai state, which promote a modern-day Buddhist version of divine kingship through all levels of the education system and the mass media.

The successor to the throne will inherit this immense store of political, economic and ideological power. It is understood that there is deep-seated resistance among Thailand’s royalist elite to the designated successor to the throne, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. The prince also lacks popular support.

Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej addresses a crowd of hundreds of thousands on his 85h birthday in December 2012. Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn is second from right. EPA/Royal Household Bureau

Royalists fear heir friendly with Thaksin

The prince is, however, believed to be close to Thaksin, presumably due to Thaksin’s electoral popularity. Herein lies the existential fear that preoccupies this royalist elite.

Should Vajiralongkorn succeed to the throne, Thaksin would not only control the electorate, but effectively the monarchy too. This would represent the final defeat of the royalist establishment and all the interests that depend on it.

Their survival, therefore, depends on doing everything possible to prevent this scenario from taking place. According to this theory, in order to block Vajiralongkorn and Thaksin, the military regime and its royalist backers may engineer a change to the succession, perhaps elevating the more popular Princess Sirindhorn to the position of regent.

This would be an extreme course of action, but not unprecedented. In Thailand the principle of primogeniture has a weaker historical precedent in royal successions than in European monarchies. Succession struggles were not unusual.

Since seizing power in May, the military regime has tried to destroy Thaksin’s support base. Hundreds of mostly pro-Thaksin supporters have been detained. Pro-Thaksin politicians, democratic activists and intellectuals have fled the country.

Media organs linked to Thaksin have been closed down. Regime loyalists have replaced officials regarded as sympathetic to Thaksin. The interim constitution gives virtually absolute power to the junta leader. Martial law remains in place for most of the country.

A new constitution currently being drafted is expected to dilute the influence of elected politicians with the aim that they will never again be able to challenge the power of the military and the bureaucracy. This extreme centralisation of power, together with the high level of repression and heavy propaganda – excessive even by Thai standards – stems from acute uncertainty over the imminent passing of the King and the threat this poses to the establishment.

Military’s hold on power is not secure

Prayuth Chan-ocha has struggled to win public support for his military regime. EPA/Narong Sangnak

Despite the regime’s propaganda to the contrary, the military lacks popular support. Prayuth has few political skills; he has even succeeded in alienating sections of his own support. His relations with the media are testy.

The crackdown on academic freedom and the rare detention of a number of high-profile academics have angered the more liberal sections of the academic community. Already corruption scandals and charges of cronyism in political appointments are being discussed, even in the compliant media. Tourism, a major revenue earner for the country, is down and the recent murder of two British tourists has been handled poorly by the military regime.

Most importantly, the economy (which had always been Thaksin’s strength), is in trouble. The World Bank has forecast a mere 1.5% growth this year - the lowest in ASEAN. Rumours of a counter-coup refuse to go away.

The regime has few foreign friends. The United States, the European Union and Japan condemned the coup. The Australian government has banned travel to Australia by the junta leaders. The military leadership’s apparent attempt to turn to China for diplomatic support has done little to win the confidence of Western states.

The regime is therefore less secure than it appears. The political situation is unstable and volatile. Having stayed loyal to Thaksin after coups, party dissolutions and the killing of upwards of 90 Red Shirt protesters and wounding of thousands, it is difficult to imagine that the pro-Thaksin forces will simply vanish in the face of the regime’s repression. More likely they too are waiting for the succession.

The King came to the throne in 1946. The one constant over the last 69 politically turbulent years will soon disappear from the scene. The succession is not simply about the future of the monarchy but also the authoritarian political edifice that formed around the King from the late 1950s. Thailand will soon be entering uncharted territory.