Fri, Feb 17, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Thailand’s new king shows his strength

Maha Vajiralongkorn has stressed unity within the divided kingdom and a meeting with the government last month coincided with moves to establish a political reconciliation committee ahead of elections expected next year

By Matthew Tostevin  /  Reuters, BANGKOK

Illustration: Mountain People

From requiring constitutional changes to pushing for unity in the divided kingdom and reshaping the royal household, the new Thai king is putting an assertive stamp on his rule.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn has made it clear to the generals running the kingdom that he will not just sit in the background as a constitutional figurehead since taking the throne in December last year from a father treated by Thais as semi-divine.

That matters in Thailand, where relationships between monarchy, army and politicians have long determined the stability of Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy and the US’ oldest regional ally.

Predictions by some pundits of a troubled royal transition have proven wrong — at least for now.

“His majesty has proven himself to be very adept at managing the junta and the military,” said academic Paul Chambers of the Chiang Mai-based Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs.

None of more than two dozen serving or former officials, military officers, lawmakers, diplomats or analysts that Reuters spoke to for this story saw any immediate threat to that balance of power.

With jail facing anyone found guilty of insulting the monarchy under the kingdom’s lese majeste laws, few Thais comment openly on royal matters.

Asked for a response for this story, a palace official said it did not comment to the media. A government spokesman declined comment.

King Vajiralongkorn started from a very different place to his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died on Oct. 13 last year.

When the teenage Bhumibol took the throne in the late 1940s, the future of the monarchy itself looked in doubt.

Building alliances, he quietly re-established the royal aura and authority — becoming ultimate arbiter during military coups and spells of chaos as Thailand changed from a rural backwater to a middle-income kingdom.

King Vajiralongkorn, 64, has spent years abroad, his private life complicated by three marriages, and he has yet to win the public adoration received by his father, but the king’s background puts him on different terms with the generals: He went through military academies; he saw combat against insurgents in the 1970s; he can fly a fighter jet.

In line with protocol, junta members prostrate themselves before the new king at audiences, as palace photographs show.

“The relationship is at least one of obedience,” Paris-based Sciences Po lecturer and researcher Eugenie Merieau said.

The junta was quick to obey when the palace asked for constitutional changes — the first such request in decades.

Changes relating to royal powers were pushed through within days. So was the ability to make further changes to a new constitution that is in the works.

Behind the palace walls, the royal household is being reshaped. More than 20 appointments and promotions have been made by the new king and published in the Royal Gazette.

They include reshuffling senior members of the household, many of whom had held posts for decades under King Bhumibol, and promoting military officials with ties to the new king.

The head of the influential Privy Council, 96-year-old former Thai prime minister Prem Tinsulanonda, remains in place, but half the other members are new.

The six new appointments have increased representation of those with a background in the army’s Wongthewan faction or King’s Guard, where the king served.

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