Thailand mourns its king and heads into the unknown

Mourning the king outside Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok. EPA/Rungroj Yongrit

After a prolonged illness, Thailand’s King Bhumibol has died at the age of 88. His long-anticipated passing will be mourned by many (but not all) Thais – and after Bhumibol’s 70-year reign, it will compound the country’s uncertainty and instability.

The media is full of obituaries eulogising Bhumibol’s role in Thai society, stating he was “widely revered”, considered “semi-divine”, and was a “unifying” figure who regularly intervened to stabilise Thailand’s political system. This is far too simplistic – and it overlooks the role he often played in legitimising less-than-democratic regimes.

Thailand’s successive authoritarian governments relied heavily on propaganda to build up a personality cult around Bhumibol. As any visitor to Thailand will see from the ubiquitous photos of the king and obligatory standing for the national anthem in cinemas, this cult is alive and in rude health.

Many Thais will indeed be genuinely and deeply saddened by Bhumibol’s passing – but this cult is also enforced by draconian lèse majesté laws, which can land critics of the monarchy in prison for decades. Prosecutions under the laws have been mounting over the past decade as people increasingly question the monarch’s role in Thailand’s serious social and political conflict. And some say Bhumibol’s reputation as a stabilising and positive political influence is largely a myth.

Giles Ungpakorn, a radical government critic forced into exile in Britain by lèse majesté investigations, has persuasively argued that Bhumibol never exercised independent political influence. Instead, he was a symbol deployed by genuinely powerful groups – a network of senior military, state, political and business elites – for their own purposes.

Seal of approval

Far from supporting democracy during the Cold War, Bhumibol supported anti-communist paramilitaries, whose attacks on leftist youth culminated in the 1976 Thammasat University massacre and a military coup. Ungpakorn has argued that the king’s famous public interventions against brutal military leaders in 1973 and 1992 occurred only when mass resistance had become insurmountable; his appearances “were merely attempts by the elites to keep control of events, while sacrificing unpopular dictators”.

In 2003, during the reign of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Bhumibol publicly backed the government’s “war on drugs”, in which more than 2,500 people were killed without due process. Then in 2006, when a military junta overthrew Thaksin, the coup leaders promptly won the king’s endorsement.

The king in 2012. EPA/Pongmanat Tasiri

By the time of the country’s most recent military coup in 2014, Bhumibol was arguably less than compos mentis, but he was nonetheless once again wheeled out to sanctify the destruction of democracy.

So King Bhumibol was never a consistent supporter of democracy or even basic human rights. His role in the 2006 coup in particular – and the royal family’s blatant support for the anti-Thaksin “yellow-shirt” protest movement – disillusioned many Thais, fomenting growing anti-royalist and even republican sentiment among pro-Thaksin “red-shirts”. This sentiment is denied expression by the lèse majesté laws – and claims that the monarchy is universally revered therefore persist.

Bhumibol’s passing is therefore politically destabilising not because he was personally powerful or a linchpin for stability, but because powerful groups are worried they may no longer be able to use the monarchy for their own purposes.

And while state propaganda had successfully cultivated reverence for Bhumibol, the same cannot be said of Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, who will eventually succeed his father as King Rama X.

Suitable heir?

Despite the lèse majesté laws, many believe Vajiralongkorn cares little for them or his royal responsibilities. He spends much of his time abroad, flying in his personal jumbo jet.

Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. EPA/Rungroj Yongrit

Now Bhumibol is dead, the incumbent military regime will use the year-long mourning process to do all it can to cultivate popular reverence for his chosen heir. But many believe the prince’s conduct, as widely reported, is often unsuitable for anyone seeking to use the dubious mystique of the royal person to rubber-stamp their political designs.

Indeed, the monarchy’s declining lustre may explain why the forces behind the repeated attacks on Thai democracy are increasingly resorting to legal chicanery and “judicial coups” rather than royal intervention. This includes politicised lawsuits against leading pro-Thaksin politicians, the forced dissolution of their parties, and manoeuvres by the constitutional court and election commission.

The junta’s new constitution for a diminished democratic system – endorsed half-heartedly by the Thai public in a referendum in August – promises more of this to come. It deliberately seeks to weaken dominant political parties and establishes powerful extra-parliamentary bodies to vet politicians and their manifestos, creating ways to remove governments not to the liking of entrenched political elites.

However, it is now likely that elections will be delayed until after the one-year mourning period ends, and the new king is bedded in. Whether Vajiralongkorn will consent to being disciplined by those who have long manipulated the monarchy remains to be seen. He may instead opt to continue living mostly abroad.

Either way, if Thailand’s political conflicts resume their former intensity following the elections, these forces will have to confront their enemies with a greatly diminished symbolic arsenal at their disposal.

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