Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand’s king for the past 70 years, died on Thursday in the hospital where he and the queen have had to spend much of the last two years. His death came a few weeks shy of his 89th birthday.
The king had not been able to perform his duties effectively for some time. The duties of the monarch evidently have been administered by the Palace, with the advice of the Privy Council and especially of its president, Prem Tinsulanonda.
The late king had chosen his son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, to succeed him. But Vajiralongkorn has asked for some time “to grieve” before assenting. This curiously leaves Thailand without a monarch, although Prem is able to act as king-in-waiting.
Such an indeterminate state of affairs is not unusual in Thailand, where such is the interim constitution that part of the 2007 constitution had to be enlisted to handle the succession.
A battle for respect
The king was held in respect by the Thai people in general; they had a genuine and deep affection for him. Thousands of people waited at Siriraj Hospital to escort the king’s body to the Grand Palace.
Bhumibol was held to epitomise Buddhist dharma, or the principles of moral order and self-discipline identified with Buddhism.
Bhumibol’s authority among the people was extensive. However, some of the bases for this authority – such as his pretension to having articulated a sound prescription for economic self-sufficiency and the conceit that he was even-handed in his treatment of partisan politics – were shaky.
In contrast, his successor enters his reign with no authority other than that of the office he will hold.
It is hard to imagine that Vajiralongkorn will have any more power than he will have authority, except perhaps the potential for social and cultural destruction.
Some commentators have entertained the notion that at the beginning of the 21st century, Thailand’s then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra sought somehow to convince Vajiralongkorn to agree to step down as monarch on succeeding his father, to enable the founding of a republic.
In recent times, it has become clear that Prayuth Chan-o-cha’s military government has come to an agreement with Vajiralongkorn that is hardly likely to lead to a republic. The military government is said to have defended its flanks recently, in the annual reshuffle of senior officers, from rumoured indications that there may be rebellion within the army.
The crown prince is three times divorced. His adult life in Thailand has left a trail of detritus.
State of political play adds challenges
In the Thai ideal, the balance of king, Buddhism and nation is critical to maintaining social and political order. Even in ideal circumstances, though, one would not be wise to hold one’s breath waiting for Vajiralongkorn to play his part as king.
Thailand’s status quo includes the dominant military. Against such dominance Vajiralongkorn is very unlikely to be able to assert a voice for the monarchy, even if he were to want to.
A junta, the National Council for Peace and Order, is in control of Thailand’s government. An interim constitution gives effectively dictatorial powers to the prime minister under Section 44. What passes for a parliament, the National Legislative Assembly, has recently been expanded by the inclusion of more military officers.
The leadership of the business community is resolutely silent as far as one can tell, despite the government’s failure to promote growth.
A new constitution passed in a referendum in August will maintain military rule for at least five years after the new constitution is made law. In the meantime, even political parties cannot assemble to discuss policy or strategies, although that ban is likely to be removed before the first elections under the new constitution, scheduled for next year, are held.
The leader of the “red shirts” (the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship), the most united opposition force, lost an appeal in June against a two-year prison term.
Faced with an increasingly assertive military government and a monarch with little taste or skill for the job, it would be little wonder if the people began to murmur with stronger voices as the dust settles.