Forget the junta: does King Vajiralongkorn hold all the cards in Thai politics?
- The monarch’s veto of his sister’s bid to become prime minister is a sign of who holds the cards in Thai politics
- But it is unclear whether he is using them to influence the ruling junta – or stacking his deck against them
Never since the end of absolute monarchic rule in 1932 had members of the ruling Chakri dynasty fashioned themselves as politicians.
For good reason, too.
In the decades since that shift, politics in the kingdom had barrelled from stand-off to stand-off, with the military staging 19 coups, 12 of which were successful. Of the Southeast Asian country’s 29 prime ministers in that period, 12 had been from the military.
Bhumibol Adulyadej, the revered father of Vajiralongkorn and Ubolratana, was seen to be – and was revered as being – completely above the fray. The narrative nurtured over the decades was that he was a neutral arbiter among a multitude of competing forces – capitalist, military, the urban landowning elite and rural masses among them.
That reputation helped the late king, who reigned for 70 years until his death in 2016, transform the once-precarious institution of the monarchy into its current semi-divine status. But for observers of the Thai royal palace, the events of February 8 – in particular Vajiralongkorn’s actions – suggest this convention may be due for a major disruption.
It was the king who offered the biggest shocker that day, described by one local commentator as the biggest moment in Thai politics since 1932.
Waiting a full 14 hours to pass after Ubolratana stunned the nation by announcing her candidacy for the March 24 polls, throwing her lot in with the rural-backed Shinawatra political bloc, the king struck back with a rare royal command late in the night, chastising the move as “inappropriate” and against royal norms.
And under the constitution – even under current junta rule – Vajiralongkorn need not have stepped in as he did because institutions such as the election commission and the constitutional court were likely to have ruled on Ubolratana’s candidacy anyway. The election commission did just that on February 11, three days after she announced her campaign. It rejected the princess’s bid, using the same rationale as the king.
Political analysts studying the role of the Thai monarchy in politics – a sensitive topic owing to the official stance that the king is strictly above such earthly matters – say Vajiralongkorn’s actions require scrutiny. Bhumibol had made major political interventions himself, including the dramatic arbitration in 1992 of a bloody feud between rival political blocs in which the two warring leaders – both former generals – were made to prostrate before him as he admonished them.
But James Buchanan, a Thai politics researcher at City University of Hong Kong, said the interventions by father and son differed greatly.
“His father’s intervention decisively ended a crisis, and drew on ancient concepts of power and kingship to do so,” Buchanan said. In contrast, in Vajiralongkorn’s case, the circumstances that will follow his royal decree remain unclear.
Eugenie Merieau, one of these handful of academics, wrote in a widely circulated New York Times commentary that the “extraordinary developments” of February 8 showed that above all, Thailand under Vajiralongkorn was a “military dictatorship under royal command”.
She suggested no matter who won the impending polls, “military tutelage of civilian politics, but under royal command” would be more entrenched than ever.
Most commentators have given that aspect of the episode a wide berth to avoid falling foul of the kingdom’s strict rules against insulting the monarchy.
Prominent local academic Thitinan Pongsudhirak suggested international media was off the mark for suggesting the king had issued a veto in the first place.
“The royal command reads like a reminder and a reflection more than an instruction,” the Chulalongkorn University professor wrote in a February 11 commentary.
“There was no direct order of what has to be done but an indication of what cannot take place,” he wrote in the pro-establishment Bangkok Post.
That assertion ran contrary to the views of Thai monarchy researchers operating outside Thailand, and away from the kingdom’s tough lèse-majesté rules.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a prominent exiled academic and junta critic, told This Week in Asia the events of February 8 followed a long process of “consolidating power” that Vajiralongkorn had undertaken since he ascended to the crown in December 2016.
One theory is that he is seeking to arm himself against the junta led by current Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha as the generals seek to entrench their place at the apex of power in the kingdom.
Vajiralongkorn has hardly been secretive about his plans to stamp his own influence.
When the Prayuth administration presented the monarch with a new constitution – approved by a 2016 referendum – Vajiralongkorn asked for changes. While such a request is well within the king’s rights, his father hardly used that privilege.
The key change Vajiralongkorn asked for was to do away with the need to appoint a regent when he is abroad. The 66-year-old spends much of his time in Munich, Germany.
He has also reshuffled senior members of the royal household, and appointed new members to the powerful Privy Council.
The royal court’s long-term power broker, 98-year-old Prem Tinsulanonda, an appointee of the late Bhumibol, remains the body’s president.
Another major move that has helped Vajiralongkorn’s strengthening hand is the appointment last year of staunch royalist Apirat Kongsompong as army chief.
Apirat is part of the faction in the military called the King’s Guard, or “Wongthewan”, that is seen as distinctly loyal to the royal court.
The military’s other major bloc, the Eastern Tigers or the “Burapapayak”, is behind the coups that toppled the Shinawatra clan in 2014, and an administration led by the same family earlier in 2006.
Vajiralongkorn in early January appointed Apirat to the Crown Property Bureau, which has holdings of over US$30 billion, according to one estimate.
Apirat’s appointment follows Vajiralongkorn’s 2017 decision to give himself full control of the bureau.
All these moves have the junta “acting like a mouse against a lion”, the Thai political insider, who declined to be named, told This Week in Asia.
“I don’t buy the theory the king is so strong,” Supalak Ganjanakhundee, chief editor of Thailand’s The Nation newspaper, said in an interview published Thursday.
“I understand that he is trying to build the influence of his faction in the military, but the Eastern Tigers may currently have more [clout],” he told the New Mandala portal. “His power is not – well, he could not have consolidated his power already. It will take time to have everything under his control,” Supalak said.
“Now we live in a situation where the monarchy and the military are in tension over who will control who. It will take a few years for a clear picture to emerge.”
And if Vajiralongkorn did come out on top in such a scenario, would the Thai nation still hold together? Not all observers are pessimistic.
“I suppose this ‘system of military tutelage under royal command’ can be benevolent, sort of, but the military needs to be sat down in its barracks and the monarchy needs to be part of a democratic solution,” said David Streckfuss, a Bangkok-based independent political analyst.
“Under this system, democracy would strengthen, thrive and progress. The monarchy would lose some of its power, but that would be made up by the new kind of prestige it would gain.”
And such views do not appear anomalous.
“I think the king has set a positive boundary between the military and the civilian. How far he will intervene in the workings of government remains to be seen and should not be prejudged.”
James Buchanan, the City University of Hong Kong researcher, echoed the near-unanimous view among Thai palace watchers that a large dose of circumspection is needed in analysing the events of February 8.
“With so much remaining unclear about the recent chain of events, some alternative scenarios are plausible,” Buchanan said.
“Was Vajiralongkorn persuaded or coerced to go back on a deal he made with the [Shinawatras]? If so, by whom? Are other elites in Thailand involved in a power struggle with the new monarch? Have the king’s [power consolidation moves] been part of that struggle?” ■