Thailand's silent fears of a king's departure

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 October, 2009, 12:00am

The sudden plunges in the Thai stock exchange this week amid rumours over the health of King Bhumibol Adulyadej point, in part at least, to the unspoken fears stalking the minds of many Thais.

Markets and foreign investors have long adjusted to Thailand's prolonged political crisis yet the plunge - including an 8 per cent fall in one session - is a reminder that many fear tensions could dramatically worsen if they are not solved before the king dies.

The phrase 'civil war' was once unthinkable just a few years ago in a nation considered a democratic success story; now it frequently pops up as Thai political insiders consider worst-case scenarios involving the rural masses wanting their votes to count and an urban establishment fearing the man they once voted into power, Thaksin Shinawatra.

To understand the depth of the tension, consider the factors driving the establishment elites opposed to Thaksin, now a fugitive from justice. Their worst fear is a royal transition with Thaksin in, or near, power.

Speaking privately, members of these elites refuse to accept Thaksin's insistence that he is not anti-monarchy. They view him as a corrupt dictator bent on ruling for decades and determined to reshape a once proudly free nation in his own image.

'It is all about Thaksin and getting him as far as possible from power before the king dies,' one senior member of the ruling Democrat Party told me in the tense months before the bloodless military coup that ended Thaksin's five-year rule in September 2006. It was a sentiment that has resonated in political, military and old-money circles since.

On paper at least, a royal transition is straightforward. As outlined by Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva during his visit to Hong Kong in May, the country's constitution provides a framework that would allow parliament to approve a designated successor, in this case, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn.

But the intangible at the heart of the uncertainty is moral authority. Royal insiders and scholars have explained that the considerable authority accorded King Bhumibol after his 63-year reign is his alone and cannot be transferred.

A constitutional monarch, the king reigns but cannot rule, sitting above the sometimes venal political arena. His authority has allowed him to make occasional interventions during times of political crisis.

The new monarch must forge that 'reserve power'. And Thaksin, his enemies fear, could exploit any perceived weakness, while his millions of rural supporters will demand their voices be heard at the ballot box.

In a rare move, Abhisit, a critic of Thaksin's excesses, acknowledged the uncertainty while in Hong Kong.

'When you have a leader for more than six decades, and one who has built up so much reverence and respect from the people, there is always going to be anxiety,' he said. 'I have no illusions that whenever it happens it will be a very difficult time because we are very attached to his majesty, but we have to prove our maturity as a society and to the rest of the world that we can deal with these changes.'

While many long-term foreign investors and property owners have factored in Thai uncertainty, the market's jitters this week show that maturity is far from confirmed.

'We believe that, over the coming weeks, panic will give way to sober evaluation of the real risks,' a Credit Suisse analysis noted yesterday. 'Although Thailand is an inherently risky place, it is no riskier today than it was two days ago.'

For those risks to ease long-term, it will undoubtedly require stronger independent institutions, transparency and, most importantly, a sense of compromise and power sharing to end the 'winner takes all' mentality that pervades the political arena.

And given the way the stakes are perceived in various quarters, there is little sign of that happening any time soon.