The death of eighty-eight-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand on October 13, 2016 triggered an immense public outpouring of grief across the nation. Black clothing flew off the shelves, tens of thousands gathered to sing the royal anthem in his memory, and the prime minister declared one year of official mourning. This unprecedented show of mass sorrow is a testament to the unique position of King Bhumibol, whose influence extended far beyond the few powers formally delegated to him. Throughout his exceptional seventy-year reign, he was a beacon of stability in the fractious world of Thai politics.
King Bhumibol was a constitutional monarch with no official authority over daily governance, yet he built a strong rapport with the Thai people because of his extensive travels throughout the country and his support for rural development projects. Two Thai students at the University of Chicago, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Gate, “Stories of the King’s projects, such as projects to improve irrigation, and his economic philosophy of self-reliance, are very popular in science and social science classes in elementary school.” They added that the majority of Thais “love or respect the king; there is very little opposition to him, and the grief is genuine.” It was this widespread public affection and respect that enabled King Bhumibol to intervene extensively in Thai politics throughout his lengthy reign.
Since it established a constitutional monarchy in 1932, Thailand has oscillated between periods of democracy and military rule, but no government has survived without being endorsed by King Bhumibol. In both 1981 and 1985, coups by factions of the military opposed to the government of General Prem Tinsulanonda collapsed after the king announced his support for Prem. On the other hand, the king endorsed a military coup in 2006 that successfully ousted the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin was a populist with a fiercely loyal following among the rural poor, yet even with this popular support, he was unable to maintain power without the king’s support. Most recently, in 2014, the king’s endorsement facilitated the success of a military coup that suspended democratic rule and established the military junta that still governs Thailand today.
King Bhumibol’s informal authority allowed him to wield tremendous influence as the final arbiter in Thai politics, and his actions could singlehandedly shift Thailand’s political direction. This power led to the development of a symbiotic relationship between the military and the monarchy. On the one hand, the military needed the king’s blessing to maintain power and to consolidate popular support for its political maneuverings. In return for this support, the king relied on the military to safeguard his interests, allowing him to maintain his image as someone who was “above politics.” This dynamic was best illustrated by the events of October 1976, which came after three years of weak and unstable democratic governments. Faced with a rising Communist insurgency that directly threatened the existence of the monarchy, King Bhumibol endorsed the military coup that overthrew the democratically-elected government by appointing a palace favorite as the new prime minister, and he did not intervene to stop a military-led attack on thousands of students demonstrating against the return of a former military dictator. Since then, a biographer of the king, Paul Handley, has alleged that Bhumibol “gave up … on the idea of Western democracy,” which perhaps explains why the king chose to side with the elite in Thailand’s political struggles after 2006.
Now, the recent passing of King Bhumibol threatens the long established order in Thai politics. The monarchy’s outsized influence in politics was possible only because of widespread public reverence for and deference to King Bhumibol, who cultivated the image of a devoted, hardworking, and moral monarch. The same cannot be said of his designated successor, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. The crown prince is a playboy who has cycled through multiple wives and mistresses since the 1970s, when, according to Handley, he had his first illegitimate child with a “nightclub girl and aspiring actress.” He has spent much time abroad, and he even decorated his pet dog, Foo Foo, with the rank of Air Chief Marshal. As one Thai student said, “You can find many portraits of King Bhumibol, Queen Sirikit, or their daughter, Princess Sirindhorn, throughout Thailand, but not the crown prince. People gossip about him in Bangkok.”
In spite of the prince’s poor reputation, the current military regime, led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, has firmly allied itself with the crown prince. Since the King’s death, the military has mounted an aggressive campaign against anyone perceived to be denigrating the monarchy using lèse-majesté laws, which punish anyone found insulting the royal family with up to fifteen years in prison. It has also attempted to sanitize the crown prince’s image, in one case by installing the prince as the leader of a mass biking event, “Bike for Mum.” Thus, even though the crown prince has yet to be officially declared King following his father’s death, his succession seems secure.
When the crown prince succeeds to the throne, his lack of moral authority will likely weaken the monarchy’s political influence. The succession comes after a decade-long political struggle between the traditional elite based in Bangkok and the pro-Thaksin populists, who derive their support from Thais in the politically disempowered north and northeast areas. While King Bhumibol’s decision to side with the elite in this struggle went unquestioned because of his enormous moral authority in Thailand, the same may not be true of the less popular crown prince, should he choose to intervene in this political struggle. As Tom Ginsburg, professor of law and political science at the University of Chicago, told the Gate, “[the crown prince] will have to be much more cautious and will be much less effective.” He added, “There is likely to be a vacuum in Thai politics.” In light of this, it is reasonable to expect that the tensions between the pro-Thaksin populists and the traditional elite will rise considerably in the coming years.
These new dynamics between the monarchy, the military, and competing factions within Thai society will have broad implications for the political landscape of Thailand. First, the return of democracy, which was due to take place with general elections scheduled for next year, may be delayed, as the current military junta could justify remaining in power for a longer period in order to ensure a stable, complete, and unchallenged succession. This is not inconceivable, given that it has been suggested that the 2014 coup was orchestrated to ensure political stability during the succession. In the long run, uncertainty in Thai politics is likely to increase without King Bhumibol. Ginsburg credited Bhumibol’s influence for reducing “the variance of regime quality” and ensuring that regimes remained either mildly authoritarian or mildly democratic. With the king dead, it is doubtful whether this will continue to be the case. Thailand remains a deeply divided society, and even if the military successfully emasculates its political opponents and consolidates power in the short run, the rising middle class and a large body of rural voters may eventually lose patience with political arrangements that place the old elite and the military firmly at its centre. This can be summed up in a phrase quoted by one of the Thai students, which originated during the popular uprising of 1973 that ended a long period of military rule: “Even in dark times, when guns are used to rule over man, mankind will still be its own master.”
Given these circumstances, the power and influence of the monarchy is likely to diminish if not disappear entirely. Ginsburg speculates that the survival of the monarchy will be an “open question” for the next decade. King Bhumibol himself told the BBC in a 1979 documentary that “it is not for me to say” whether the Thai monarchy should continue to exist. Without the vigorous support of the people, it is unclear what forces in Thai society will maintain the monarchy, and the controversies surrounding the crown prince make it conceivable that the people may one day soon decide that the country no longer needs an unelected royal as the head of state.
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