Political implications of Thailand’s royal succession

Thai royalist holds a portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.  Photo by EPA/ Rungroj Yongrit.

Thai royalist holds a portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Photo by EPA/ Rungroj Yongrit.

The King’s passing will create an enormous vacuum in Thai politics and there is palpable fear about Thailand’s future without him.

The imminent passing of the 87-year Thai monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej, will send tectonic shock waves through Thailand’s body politic.

Bhumibol, the world’s longest-serving monarch, is a pillar of Thai politics. During his reign Thailand emerged as a $390 billion economy, a middle income state. Even the red shirt farmers in the impoverished northeast still understand the centrality he has played in their lives. Though criticism has grown, during his reign, they went from subsistence farmers to the aspirational middle class, setting the stage for the country’s current political conflict.  If nothing else, his passing creates an enormous vacuum in Thai politics and there is palpable fear about Thailand’s future without him. The uncertainty is real because the succession has the potential to upend Thai politics.

Under the 1924 Palace Law, which predates the establishment of the constitutional monarchy in 1932, the Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn should ascend the throne as the male heir.  But that’s where politics comes in.  There can be little doubt that the May 2014 coup was thrown, in large part, in order to control the succession.  Neither the military nor the ultra-monarchists could fathom the Pheu Thai under direct, or even indirect, control of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to be in power during the transition.

But over a year since the coup, schisms have emerged between the National Committee on Peace and Order (NCPO) and the ultra-monarchists who fear not enough has been done to purge Thaksin and his political machine, and that the junta is still too concerned with even the pretenses of constitutional democracy. But most of all, the ultra-monarchists fear that the NCPO is likely to acquiesce on the issue of the Crown Prince’s ascension to the throne.

The ultra-monarchists, led by 94-year old Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda, have made abundantly clear that the Crown Prince is unfit to rule.  Prem views Vajiralongkorn as a peril to the institution of the monarchy and an existential threat to the wealth, power and privilege of the ultra-monarchists. They are willing to use all of the tools at their disposal to orchestrate either Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn’s ascension or at the least her regency over the Crown Prince’s infant son, born to his fourth wife.

The 1997 and 2007 constitutions both allowed for female succession to the throne.  The only part of the 2007 constitution that is currently still in force, following the 22 May 2014 coup, is Chapter II, the section on the monarchy. It has been incorporated into Chapter I of the draft constitution released in April 2015.  Chapter I, Section 22 states clearly: “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.

As there is no time frame for submission for endorsement, it’s possible that the Council of Ministers delays forwarding a name by calling for an “extended period of mourning”; that in itself would weaken Vajiralongkorn’s legitimacy.

The draft constitution is vague on how the King names his successor.  If no heir is named, or if there is any doubt, then it is up to the Privy Council to submit a candidate for endorsement. If the Privy Council bypasses the Crown Prince, it has the legal authority (Chapter 1, Section 19) to name a regent. And Prem could move very quickly before the Crown Prince could build up momentum to stop this from happening, while the Queen has been incapacitated by stroke.

While some argue that Prime Minister Prayuth and the NCPO are firmly behind the Crown Prince’s accession, it’s not so simple. They, too, have misgivings about the Crown Prince and have utmost respect for Sirindhorn who gave tacit approval for the coup. Prayuth made this year, the completion of her Fifth Cycle, an official celebration.  But they cannot support Prem’s machinations for several reasons.

First, Prayuth and many of the NCPO come out of the 2nd Army, the Queen’s Guards and, until her 2012 stroke, the Queen had been vocal about wanting Vajiralongkorn on the throne. Second, the NCPO is concerned about the legal order of succession.  Though they have no compunction against throwing coups and suspending the constitutional order, they would not interfere with Palace Law. Third, though they may not like the Crown Prince, they believe that he can be managed.

But that is a gamble, as the Vajiralongkorn’s ascension to the throne could have profound implications for the future of Thai politics.  Under the many Thai constitutions – including the draft charter – the King reigns, but does not rule.  Yet for any observer of Thai politics, this is complete nonsense.  Even if indirectly, things are done in his name by what Duncan McCargo terms the “network monarchy.”

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Queen Sirikit and Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn review troops in Bangkok. Photo by AFP.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Queen Sirikit and Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn review troops in Bangkok. Photo by AFP.

The Crown Prince’s views of the coup are unknown.  He was in Europe during the military takeover and has said little publicly since. The Crown Prince has a tenuous relationship with the military and ultra-monarchists, who largely despise him for his scandalous behavior.

Yet, he appears to be making efforts to patch up the relationship to ensure his succession. In December 2014, he divorced his wife Princess Srirasmi and cut their son out of the line of succession.  Srirasmi was reviled by the monarchist elites; often described as a “bar girl,” whose presence soiled the royal lineage. She not only relinquished all of her royal titles, but her parents, three brothers, and members of her extended family were convicted of lese majeste and sentenced to three to five year prison terms in March 2015.

But Prem’s real concern is that Vajiralongkorn has the power to fundamentally upend Thai politics and roll back everything that the ultra-monarchists have tried to achieve since the 2006 coup.  The King is able to grant amnesties (Chapter 4, Section 194).  Thaksin and the Crown Prince were for many years quite close, infuriating the ultra-monarchists.  Though less public since Thaksin’s ouster, the two have met on at least one occasion, and they both have bristled with the old monarchist elites and military.

If the new king were to grant Thaksin amnesty, there is nothing that the military-dominated government or ultra-monarchists could do to prevent him from returning.  This would be a massive setback for the military that has done everything they can to keep Thaksin outside of the country and politically emasculated since 2006.

Is there a deal being done between the Crown Prince and Thaksin? Thaksin needs the support of the Crown Prince as without an amnesty, he will unlikely be allowed to return or recover his seized fortune.  But the Crown Prince also needs Thaksin, who can help legitimise his rule in the most populated parts of the country, especially Issarn, important as he enjoys none of the popular legitimacy of his father.

Even if Thaksin were to “retire” from active politics, his influence and presence in the country would be enormous.  Since the 2014 coup, Thaksin has maintained a low profile and called on his supporters to work with the junta.  This is the real reason that there was less violence following the coup than predicted: the military wasn’t necessarily adept at neutralising the red shirts; it’s that Thaksin ordered them to stand down as he tried to negotiate a grand bargain for himself and his sister, Yingluck.

There have been suggestions that junta member General Prawit Wongsuwan has quietly negotiated with Thaksin, which may seem completely counterintuitive. After all, the goal of the coup was to purge Thaksin from national politics, now enshrined in the draft constitution.  But here the junta is simply being realistic, betting that despite Prem’s efforts, the Crown Prince will ascend the throne.  While the junta seems completely unwilling to push through any sort of national reconciliation, the new king might force just that in attempt to quickly broaden his legitimacy.

Second, Prayuth does care about peace and security.  If Prem goes forward and installs Sirindhorn as either the monarch or the regent, Thaksin has no reason to hold back his red shirt supporters.

But there is a long-term calculation. King Bhumibol signed off on the 22 May coup, and “endorsed” the 250 person National Reform Committee and the replacing of martial law with rule under Article 44.

What if the new king doesn’t sign off or fails to endorse a cabinet, or prime minister, all of which are in his purview? Would he intervene if the NCPO tried to hold on to power or endorsee a constitution that all objective commentators view as destabilising?

This would be disastrous for the NCPO, but also for the military in the long run.  Although the coup was ostensibly thrown so the military will not have to throw another coup, it’s really hard to imagine the military not intervening in politics again.  The draft constitution sows the seeds of future political conflict.

To put it another way, could there be another coup, done in the name of the King, if the King is against the coup or does not acquiesce?  That’s the thing about Thai coups, once they get a “royal endorsement,” they are legal.

Prayuth and the military need the support of the Crown Prince, though Prem and the ultra-monarchists are doing everything they can to prevent such a deal.  What are the implications?

Violence, although a low possibility, cannot be ruled out. There is some concern about the 1st Army, which has been disenfranchised since the 2006 coup, taking orders from Prem. There is also concern about the “watermelon” soldiers from Issarn who are sympathetic to the red shirts.

If the King dies before an elected government comes to power (now pushed back to early 2017), the military will likely hold on to power for an extended period of mourning.

The King will appoint a new 18-person Privy Council, people loyal to him.  It is highly unlikely that he will keep many, if any, of the current members; and many would refuse to serve under him. The Privy Council is also how the crown maintains control over the judiciary: currently three of its 20 members are former presidents of the Supreme Court, and their patronage networks run deep.

The Privy Council has sway over the military as it forwards the names of all flag officers to the King for endorsement. Thailand currently has 1,092 generals or flag officers, all appointed by  Bhumibol. The Crown Prince, who holds the rank of Air Chief Marshall, will promote a cadre that is loyal to him. Here the new King, should he chose, could thwart the power and the influence of the Eastern Tigers, who have dominated the Thai military politics and staged the 2006 and 2014 coups.  The new King could completely alter the seeding of protégés that Prayuth has overseen to maintain his influence, including his younger brother Preecha, a frontrunner to become the next army chief.

In short, there will be a wholesale turnover across the “Network Monarchy,” including the Crown Household Bureau, the Privy Council, the Crown Property Bureau, and all the royal foundations, a massive loss of institutional memory. The coronation of Vajiralongkorn is the greatest threat to the power and influence of the ultra-monarchists.

The military may also fear this, but they are looking to cut a deal to protect their own interests.  Vajiralongkorn is not a young man, already 62, and rumored to have had serious health issues.  The military will most likely wait this one out and hope that Sirindhorn’s regency for his infant son comes sooner, rather than later.

Finally, there are human rights implications. Army chief General Udomdej Sitabutr has stated that the army’s primary responsibility is the “defense of the monarchy” and it has pursued lèse-majesté (Article 112 of the Criminal Code) cases aggressively, with some 51 cases since the coup, many of which have been tried in military courts with no right of appeal. Can the RTA continue to do this with a less popular monarch? Or conversely, will it increase the number to ingratiate themselves with the new King?

What is clear is that the institution of the monarchy will emerge weaker, at a time when popular agency is growing. Thai democracy cannot move forward when it is up against an elitist bureaucracy that is deferential to the crown, a judiciary that pledges allegiance to the King, not the constitution, a military that acts in its own self-interest, though in the name of the crown, and the crown itself, four institutions that see majoritarian democracy as an existential threat.

A weakened monarchy will ultimately undermine the military and bureaucracy. Then and only then, will Thai democracy begin to have a fighting chance.

Nothing scares the generals and ultra-monarchists more than this.

Llewellyn McCann is a pseudonym. The author is a long-time watcher of Southeast Asian politics.