No silver lining as Thailand loses a beloved king – and a major force for stability
Joshua Kurlantzick says with an unpopular crown prince waiting in line, it won’t be easy for the nation to find its way out of the clouds shrouding its future
Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s death was long anticipated, but it still came as a profound shock to Thailand. Most Thais have never known any other king. 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 Britain’s Queen Elizabeth. The king represented stability during a period of repeated coups and wars in Indochina, and the US and other foreign powers embraced him.
In the absence of strong governance institutions, Bhumibol was often called in to manage political disputes, most notably in 1992, when the military fired on tens of thousands of protesters. The king summoned the junta leader and the protest leader to his palace, 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.
But, as working-class Thais 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 lèse-majesté, Bhumibol increasingly drew criticism – on social media and occasionally even in public – after endorsing the 2006 coup.
After Bhumibol’s death, Thailand’s military junta has said that the king’s heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, won’t immediately assume the throne, because he needs time to mourn. In the meantime, the monarchy will be managed by a regent, long-time Bhumibol ally and former Thai premier Prem Tinsulanonda.
There could be several reasons why Vajiralongkorn is not immediately assuming the crown. For starters, he may realise he is nowhere near as popular as his father and needs time to build public goodwill. Alternatively, the junta may have forced the crown prince’s decision, because it fears his playboy reputation and reported friendship with former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thailand is scheduled to hold a national election next year. Many Thais hoped the vote would put the kingdom back on a path towards stability. But, given the current uncertainty, and the prospect of an unpopular crown prince eventually reigning, stability seems unlikely any time soon.
Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. Copyright: Project Syndicate