Wed, Oct 19, 2016 - Page 9 News List

Thailand’s new uncertainty

The death of the beloved Thai king has left the country in political ambiguity and with an unpopular crown prince who needs to win the public’s heart before ascending to the throne

By Joshua Kurlantzick

Illustration: Mountain People

Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s death was long anticipated, but it still came as a profound shock to Thailand. When it was announced, vast crowds gathered in towns and cities to weep and pay homage to their monarch, who had reigned for seven decades.

Thailand’s stock market has fluctuated and the country has entered a period of uncertainty. Most Thais have never known any other king, and Bhumibol inspired great devotion during a time of enormous political and economic change. During his reign, Thailand was transformed from a poor country into Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy.

Bhumibol was Thailand’s most influential political figure, despite technically being a constitutional monarch like the UK’s Queen Elizabeth II. Absolute monarchy formally ended in 1932 and what remained of it was endangered by 1950, when Bhumibol was formally enthroned. However, he worked tirelessly to restore the influence of the palace.

During Bhumibol’s reign, royalists, in alliance with the military, rebuilt the monarchy’s image. The king represented stability during a period of repeated coups and wars in Indochina, and the US and other foreign powers embraced him. He exercised vast economic influence, with the Thai Crown Property Bureau — reportedly worth more than US$30 billion — controlling some of Thailand’s most valuable real estate and other assets. And yet he created a reputation for supporting and protecting the poor.

In the absence of strong governance institutions, Bhumibol was often called in to manage domestic political disputes, most notably in 1992, when the military fired on tens of thousands of protesters who had gathered in Bangkok.

The king summoned the Thai junta leader and the leader of the protest to his palace in the center of the city, and on live television both men prostrated themselves before him while he demanded an end to the bloodshed.

The junta pulled back, a civilian government was installed, and by the 2000s Thailand seemed to be building a solid and stable democracy. The king was touted as a force for democratic change.

However, as working-class Thais, who had tolerated military and technocratic rule for decades, came to embrace the kingdom’s new democratic politics, they voted for populist parties that would shift political power away from the royal, military and political elites. Soon enough, Thailand’s elites struck back, and the country’s politics descended into a cycle of palace-endorsed coups, elected governments and violent street protests.

Despite the threat of stiff jail sentences for lese majeste, Bhumibol increasingly drew criticism — on social media and occasionally even in public — after endorsing the 2006 coup.

Adding to the uncertainty after Bhumibol’s death, Thailand’s military junta has said that the king’s heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, will not immediately assume the throne, because he needs time to mourn. In the meantime, the monarchy is to be managed by a regent, long-time Bhumibol ally and former Thai prime minister Prem Tinsulanonda.

Prem is a divisive figure. Although he oversaw a period of rapid economic growth as prime minister, many poor Thais dislike him, favoring populist parties linked to former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose sister was also prime minister until she was ousted in a 2014 coup.

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