After political and economic instability saw unprecedented demands for reform of the country’s monarchy, Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn is seeking to burnish his image in what is shaping up as another year of tension.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha oversees an economy with tourism decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic, factories shedding workers and exporters slammed. Farmers have struggled under the worst drought in four decades in a country where GDP contracted an estimated 6.6 percent last year.
While some recovery is forecast for this year, it is set to be relatively anemic for an economy that has been sluggish for years.
Illustration: Mountain People
A new wave of COVID-19 infections has seen an extension of a state of emergency until the end of next month.
Meanwhile, the country’s biggest opposition party plans to pursue a no-confidence vote against the Thai government for its alleged “mismanagement” of the country, including the COVID-19 response.
Looming over everything is the months of rallies where protesters have openly criticized the monarchy, Thailand’s most powerful institution.
Right now the streets are relatively quiet — with small protests over the weekend — but student leaders have vowed to return until their demands are addressed: Less royal power, a more democratic constitution and the resignation of Prayuth, a former army chief who staged a coup in 2014.
Vajiralongkorn has boosted his presence in Thailand since the unrest broke out. In October last year, he returned from Germany, where he had spent much of his reign.
The king and his entourage have since attended religious ceremonies, handed out diplomas to graduates, greeted kneeling supporters clad in yellow shirts and even swept the floor at one of his charity projects.
While Vajiralongkorn automatically inherited vast power and wealth when he in 2016 ascended the throne, many Thais also subscribe to a concept of informal authority — what Buddhists term “barami,” or virtue — that must be earned rather than bequeathed.
Over the course of his 70-year reign, late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej accumulated and demonstrated his barami.
“The moral authority and informal power of King Bhumibol was not transferable,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “There is not the same kind of ability to summon the different sides to put an end to conflict. In fact, the opposite is happening — the monarchy has become a party in the conflict. This is something that is very alarming.”
During one appearance in early November last year, Vajiralongkorn called Thailand “the land of compromise” in a rare public comment to foreign reporters.
The Thai Bureau of the Royal Household did not respond to a request for comment, and subsequent calls to the bureau went unanswered.
Unlike past tumult — Thailand has had about a dozen coups in the past century — the protesters are not seeking power for themselves: They want the Thai military and monarchy to become more accountable to the country’s 70 million citizens.
The political and economical stakes are high: Even before the unrest, Thailand’s wealth gap had widened, while poverty was on the rise. A 2019 study by the Bank of Thailand found that about 36 percent of the country’s corporate equity is concentrated in the hands of just 500 people.
The government has so far avoided a bloody crackdown like those during some past demonstrations, although at least a dozen protest leaders face charges of insulting the monarchy, which carry prison terms of up to 15 years.
A Thai court on Tuesday sentenced a former civil servant who was arrested in 2015 to 43-and-a-half years in prison for sharing clips on social media of an online talk show that allegedly defamed the monarchy, which human rights group Amnesty International called the harshest conviction under the statute to date.
On Wednesday, the government filed a royal defamation charge against former Thai prime ministerial candidate Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, one of its most high-profile critics, after he questioned the involvement of a company with links to the monarchy in the nation’s vaccine production.
The Prayuth administration is enforcing laws and has not focused on using one particular statute to target protesters, government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said when asked about the use of the lese majeste law.
Sulak Sivaraksa, a Buddhist activist who has studied the monarchy for decades, said that Vajiralongkorn already has moral authority among royalists and is attempting to burnish his image with the rest of society.
The king is “very shy” compared with his father, even though he similarly carries out charitable activities, Sulak, 87, said.
“A lot of people criticize the king because he spent too much time abroad and too little time within the kingdom — I think he realizes that now,” he said. “People used to be afraid of him, you know, but now he walks around and talks to people, allowing people to photograph him and his royal family, and having a good chat with them. I think that earned him a very good reputation.”
Traditionally, the level of esteem of a Thai monarch has depended on adherence to 10 virtues of kingship, including generosity, self-sacrifice, honesty and integrity.
During his lifetime, Bhumibol was careful to appear in step with ordinary Thais even as he oversaw a fortune worth an estimated US$40 billion.
He often met with Aboriginal Thai’s and farmers, sponsoring programs aimed at cutting opium production and bringing irrigation development to far-off regions.
Bhumibol preached a lifestyle of moderation befitting his semi-divine status and spiritual role within Buddhism, the religion of more than 90 percent of Thais.
In the last four decades of his life, Bhumibol traveled outside Thailand only once to preside over the opening of a bridge crossing into neighboring Laos.
At the apex of his power in 1992, Bhumibol intervened — despite limited legal authority — to end deadly clashes between the military and protesters, Paul Handley wrote in his 2006 book The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej.
“King Bhumibol had accrued the authority to summon the country’s most powerful men to his feet and, with a few deliberately spoken words, expel them from politics,” Handley wrote.
Married four times, his son’s personal life has for years been the subject of gossip.
In July 2019, he designated an official royal consort for the first time in almost half a century, three months after he announced his fourth wife, Suthida Bajrasudhabimalalakshana, as queen. Shortly afterward, he stripped the consort of her titles, only to reinstate them again last year.
Since taking the throne, Vajiralongkorn has spent most of his time out of the country while taking command of some Royal Thai Army units and gaining greater control of the Thai Crown Property Bureau’s assets worth tens of billions of US dollars through legal changes he approved.
He also intervened in politics, rebuking a popular former leader who is in exile, but still holds sway over the main opposition party.
While the previous king’s interventions brought stability, they also often validated the military’s role in politics, said Michael Montesano, coordinator of the Thailand studies programs at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
“The variant of stability that King Bhumibol’s moral authority allowed him to enforce is part of what’s led Thailand to this dead end, and part of what’s created the order that these young people find so unacceptable,” he said.
Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, a 22-year-old student and protest leader, said that Vajiralongkorn must do more to attain the barami of his father.
“If they want people to love them and have popularity, they have to work and let people see what they are doing for them,” she said. “If the monarchy could do its job and gain respect that way, I will respect it.”
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