A divisive succession beckons, writes Richard Cockett, as Thais mourn the beloved monarch who reigned over them for seven decades
The fact that Thailand has declared a whole year of mourning following the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej on October 13 tells its own story. To say that he was ‘revered’ by his people understates it; he was worshipped, to a degree that many outside Thailand often found hard to comprehend.
For many Thais he was a near-divine figure; they would gladly prostrate themselves at his feet, or stop whatever they were doing to sing along to his own personal anthem. His sheer longevity – 70 years on the throne – had further increased his stature. Banners and posters throughout the country portrayed the monarch’s multitude of achievements and his copious gifts to the nation.
Little wonder, then, that Thais are not only feeling bereft and disorientated, but also fearful for the future. For all of King Bhumibol’s unchanging, reassuring presence at the top, over the last decade or so the increasingly frail monarch has ruled over an increasingly divided country. Furthermore, the adoration of the monarchy, enforced by the strictest lèse-majesté laws in the world, has in itself contributed to this mounting instability. Extraordinarily, even with so long to prepare for this moment, it is now evident that the succession is far from certain either, which will only add to this sense of uncertainty, even crisis.
What are the sources of these divisions and instability? Consider for a start the enormous economic and social changes that the country has experienced during King Bhumibol’s reign. At the end of the Second World War Thailand, the only South-East Asian country not to be conquered and colonised by Europeans, was a sleepy, largely feudal, agrarian country. Since then the population has grown from about 17 million to almost 70 million, the Asian Tiger’s economy has grown almost fortyfold and its capital, Bangkok, has become one of the most sophisticated in Asia, its giant malls dedicated to high consumerism. The country’s best companies are among the few in the region to have expanded abroad to create global brands. Thailand professes to be deeply Buddhist, but is also deeply capitalist, often in tooth and claw.
Yet the country’s political élite, clustered around the institution of the monarchy, has never accommodated itself to the consequences of these dramatic economic changes, the rise of new commercial classes and fortunes, and thus new political forces. For much of King Bhumibol’s seven decades on the throne, conventional politics has been in turmoil. He lived through 26 prime ministers, 19 constitutions and 15 coup attempts, nine of them successful.
Indeed, since 2006 Thailand has been in a state of almost permanent political crisis. That year, the billionaire prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, was overthrown in a military coup. First elected in 2001, he was the very embodiment of brash Thai capitalism. He also pioneered a new form of political populism that sought to challenge the old conservative order by giving more social benefits and political power to Thailand’s rural poor, especially in the north and east. His devoted supporters in Thailand’s colour-coded politics were known as the ‘red shirts’.
The army, however, which regards itself as the guarantor of the constitutional monarchy and the integrity of the state, viewed Thaksin and the red shirts as a dangerous threat to the established order – their order – centred on the capital, and so orchestrated his removal. The Red Shirts subsequently won several more popular mandates, but every time their governments have been either struck down in the courts or removed in coups.
The latest casualty was Thaksin’s younger sister, Yingluck. She won a landslide general election, quite legitimately, in 2011 but was then removed in a putsch in 2014. The leader of that coup, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, remains the country’s Prime Minister. Election promises have come and gone; the junta continues to rule Thailand with an iron hand. While neighbouring Burma has been rapidly democratising over the last five years, Thailand has been regressing almost as fast.
The coup-makers might not have been very democratic, but there is no doubt that they have enjoyed some popular support, even if not in Thaksin’s heartlands around Chiang Mai in the north. The generals have been able to fill the streets of Bangkok and other cities with their own fanatical supporters – the ‘yellow shirts’ – and have also been adept at exploiting the veneration of the monarchy to legitimise their actions. Claiming, on the basis of no clear evidence, that the red shirts want to smash the monarchy, they have used a very broad interpretation of the lèse-majesté laws not only to deter any criticism of the royal family, but to close down any legitimate debate on Thailand’s political and constitutional future. This has ossified the country’s political development.
Thailand’s huge divisions, by geography, class and religion, could, for instance, be addressed by unwinding its extremely centralised administration and devolving some power to the regions. This perfectly sensible idea, however, might imply disrespect for the unitary nature of the monarchy, and so is seldom even discussed.
One of the reasons for the coup in 2014 was so that the army, rather than the Shinawatras and the Red Shirts, would manage the royal succession – thus ensuring that the death of King Bhumibol would not prefigure any wider or more significant political rupture. The crown prince, Vajiralongkorn, was supposed to succeed his father, but some of the generals have regarded him as being too friendly towards Thaksin Shinawatra. This might explain the latest development: to great surprise, it was announced only days after the king’s death that the crown prince had asked for a year of mourning, and so the head of the Privy Council, the 96-year-old Prem Tinsulanonda, had taken over as regent instead. Such an arrangement is unprecedented in Thai history.
This adds uncertainty to the volatility that lies just below the surface of a nation in mourning. Has the crown prince’s accession to the throne been held up, or blocked, by an old guard who worry that he might be a reformer, or even a Thaksinite? The crown prince is a playboy who has lived in Germany in recent years, beyond the suffocating embrace of the Thai court, so he might not be as biddable as his father. Vajiralongkorn’s jet-set lifestyle has made him relatively unpopular among ordinary Thais, which might help the generals if they want to draft in his much more popular sister.
Whatever the case – and very little substantial ever leaks out of the Thai royal court – the omens are not good. If the regency of General Prem suggests a further entrenchment of the junta, then any semblance of a return to democracy, civil rights and free speech could be further postponed. At some point Thailand could drift into the sort of reflexive authoritarianism from which Burma has just emerged. If the crown prince does take over eventually, it is clear, however, that this will create more divisions.
Fortunately, through all this Thailand’s economy seems to purr on regardless. The country is stranded in the middle-income trap, but so are many nations with far less turbulent politics. The fact is that the economy seems to have survived all the tempests since 2006 remarkably well, buoyed by the millions of tourists who simply ignore the junta and head straight for the beach. The generals have also been very careful to keep Japanese car-makers sweet – Thailand is the automotive hub for the region, turning out about 1.9 million vehicles a year, of which 90 per cent or so are Japanese. As the largest investors in the country, the Japanese attitude towards this prolonged period of mourning, judging whether it will have an adverse influence on business activity, is likely to be crucial to the future health of the economy.
As Thailand grieves, it will take time for the contours of the new political landscape to emerge. Unfortunately, on the present evidence, the reforms that the country so badly needs do not appear likely, whether the crown prince takes over or not. The junta’s harsh authoritarianism will remain, as will the colour-coded politics. However well the economy continues to stand up, it’s a bad way to start a new reign, whoever eventually succeeds King Bhumibol.
Dr Richard Cockett was South-East Asia correspondent for The Economist from 2010 to 2014, based in Singapore. He is the author of several books on history and foreign affairs, including Blood, Dreams and Gold; The changing face of Burma. He is now a London-based staff writer for The Economist