Long live the King: What’s next for Thailand after Bhumibol’s death?

Long live the King: What’s next for Thailand after Bhumibol’s death?

The death of King Bhumibol of Thailand mark the passing of the unifying moral symbol in an extremely divided country. It will also finally put to the test the ability of the unpopular crown prince to carry forward the role of the monarchy in Thailand.

The world’s longest-reigning monarch, King Bhumibol (Rama IX) of Thailand, died on Thursday at a hospital in Bangkok. Bhumibol had been on the throne since 1946 and was seen as an unifying figure for a nation increasingly divided by politics and class. Thousands of Thais were grieving outside the hospital and the Thai government announced a one-year mourning period for the much loved monarch, whose reverence by the nation reached near divine proportions.

In contrast, his heir, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, is by many regarded as a flamboyant playboy with not nearly enough moral stature to follow in his father’s footsteps. After a decade of highly divisive national politics and two military coups against elected governments, the last thing the country now needs is a succession crisis.

The King and the military

The monarchy has over the last 70 years evolved into one of the two main pillars of the Thai political system. The second pillar is the country’s coup-happy military. In 2006 they overthrew the populist but democratically elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra (leading to his exile) and in 2014 the same fate befell the government of his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra. She is currently on trial for corruption charges, arguably a politically motivated ploy by the junta to limit the influence of her family.

When the older Thaksin, a telecom tycoon and one of Thailand’s richest men, entered the political scene 15 years ago, he turned Thai politics upside down. With charisma and populist policies that appealed to the poor and marginalized in rural areas, especially in Northern Thailand where he hails from, he managed the one feat the traditional Bangkok elites had never mastered – gaining popular support – and he won elections in landslides. The inability of the traditional elites to defeat him through elections eventually led to the ousting of his government at the hands of the military, with the implicit support of King Bhumibol.

Officially, Bhumibol was above politics as a constitutional monarch and he took care to maintain this image as the face of the nation during Thailand’s many tumultuous political crises. When he did intervene – such as during violent crackdowns on democracy demonstrations in 1970 and 1992 – he was credited with bringing an end to the killings, cementing his moral stature in the country. As he grew older his direct influence in politics waned and increasingly involved the Royal Court and his family members. His significance in the latest coups are disputed. Yet as a head of state and the military, he endorsed the appointment of government and military officials after the 2014 coup, seen as an explicit endorsement of the junta who has since ruled by claiming legitimacy from the King.

A public discussion impossible

Any discussion about the role of the King will inevitably include rumours and unconfirmed reports from Bangkok, as Thailand’s draconian lèse-majesté laws make a public discussion, not to mention any form of criticism, punishable by decades in prison. The king was unarguably popular, but the true support he enjoyed – much less the support of the monarchy as an institution – is a controversial issue. The number of lèse-majesté trials in Thailand has skyrocketed after the most recent coup with the government spending significant resources of avoiding any discussion of the topic. David Streckfuss, the author of a 2011 book on the monarchy in Thailand, argues that in the aftermath of a violent military crackdown on democracy protesters in 2010, “criticism of the monarchy went viral on the Internet, overwhelming government censors, who closed more than a million websites.”

There is little doubt in Thailand that the crown prince and apparent successor to the throne, Vajiralongkorn, enjoys far less public support then his late father. U.S. Embassy cables released by Wikileaks in 2010 revealed that top officials in the government and the Royal Court have “grave misgivings” over his suitability to succeed his father, stemming from both his well-known playboy image and from his ties with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. His 2014 divorce from his third wife, who came from humble beginnings and never found the approval of the royal elites, and the subsequent imprisonment of several of her family members was interpreted by some observers as a power shift inside the royal palace. Vajiralongkorn was seen to be increasingly aligning himself with the elites and military’s wishes, including about his personal life, and distancing himself from the Shinawatras and what they represent in an attempt to ease the way for a royal transition.

Where next, Vajiralongkorn?

Global Risk Insights have previously written about the host of unresolved issues – political gridlock, class divide, a struggling economy and the insurgency in the deep south – that have created the perfect conditions for a violent conflict. The king’s death could be the spark to set it alight.

The political gridlock is unresolved as the trial against Yingluck continues and the military junta, formally the National Council for Peace and Order, has intensified their repression of any political opposition. Since the coup, the junta has been promoting Vajiralongkorn in public in an orchestrated campaign to increase his popularity among ordinary Thais, many of whom would rather prefer to see Princess Sirindhorn, the King’s daughter, ascend the throne. While a Thai civil war is improbable at this point, it is near certain that Bhumibol’s death will lead to increased political turmoil and aggravate the existing issues in Thailand. The succession will be a tremendous challenge for the military junta and will be closely watched by the domestic audience and by international observers.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Havard Bergo

Håvard is a foreign policy analyst who works in Kampala for LPC Consult International, a consulting company that specializes on developing projects in East Africa and Mozambique. He has previously worked with the United Nations in Bangkok and as a project manager for a research project in Montreal. Håvard graduated with an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics (LSE).