As the pompous Coronation Day celebrations in Thailand climaxed yesterday, I was reminded of an old Thai prophecy that says the present Chakri dynasty would only last for nine generations—King Bhumibol Adulyadej is the ninth Chakri monarch—and that a tenth one would be disastrous. Given the current political context in Thailand, this prediction has become nine times more believable today.
King Bhumibol is without a doubt the most notable Southeast Asian monarch since King Chulalongkorn the Great, who modernized Siam and kept it free from colonial control. Ascending to the then largely irrelevant throne by accident in 1946, he saved it from extinction and, through his charisma and political acumen, revived it to become one of the few politically relevant monarchies in modern times. Skillful in dispensing patronage and influence, he became powerful to the point that he could make national leaders come on their knees, literally, when summoned.
But the populist Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra proved to be a formidable alternative power pole. Using the same patronage-based politics that the monarchy had used, Thaksin built a strong base that made the Palace quite insecure. His premiership was characterized by dictatorial tendencies and alleged corruption, but he delivered on his promises to the rural poor, who came to adore him as much as they adore His Majesty. In 2006, however, he was ousted in a royally-sanctioned coup that many believe was instigated by the President of the King’s Privy Council, General Prem Tinsunalonda.
We are all familiar with what followed the 2006 coup: a long, bitter and violent battle between the royalist Yellows and Thaksinite Reds that almost succeeded in tearing Thailand to pieces. It is clear now that the Yellows enjoy the support not only of the Bangkok elite but also, at the very least, of Queen Sirikit. But the Reds control the ballot, which is why Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, and his minions, were overwhelmingly elected in a landslide victory that stunned the royalist elite last year.
Of course, the royalist forces know better than to challenge the people’s overwhelming mandate. Prime Minister Yingluck knows, too, that it pays to be pragmatic. This is why there seems to be an arrangement of sorts between the Prime Minister and the royalist forces, led by General Prem and the formidable army chief, General Prayuth Chanocha: The royalist order remains and Thaksin doesn’t return, and the army won’t launch a coup.
But time is on Thaksin’s side. The royalist establishment’s political capital rests solely on the overwhelming adulation the King enjoys. But such adulation is not even universal in the first place, and it is directed exclusively to the person of King Bhumibol and not to the institution of the monarchy in the second place. Even the Palace knows this, which is why, in an obvious manifestation of insecurity, the royalists are currently cracking down on critics of the monarchy through the enforcement of draconian lese majeste laws.
But while this crackdown might instill fear among the ordinary Thais, it may also elicit resentment and therefore backfire. My guess is that the crackdown is being tolerated now out of respect to the revered King Bhumibol, but there would surely be public backlash should it continue under a new king.
Thailand’s king-in-waiting, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, is not as well-loved as King Bhumibol. His eccentricities and lavish playboy lifestyle—the impounding of his private jet in Munich caused a minor diplomatic ruckus with Germany—are a stark contrast to the Buddhist values that his father adheres to. He has also shown how clumsy he can be in terms of dispensing power when he meddled with the appointment of the chief of police during Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajiva’s watch. That episode allegedly led one of the King’s courtiers to condescendingly tell him that “we don’t do things like this.”
More than that, the Crown Prince is reportedly close to Thaksin, who has recently been lavishing him with praises. Rumor has it that should he ascend to the throne, he may pardon the exiled leader and appoint him to rule in his name. This is a recurring source of anxiety for many aristocrats in the royal court, some of whom are apparently lobbying for the King to bypass the Prince and designate the more charismatic and virtuous Princess Sirindhorn as heir instead.
There is a sense of deep uncertainty in Bangkok, especially among the royalist elite, on what would happen in a post-Bhumibol era. As for Thaksin, he knows what would happen: The monarchy and the royalists would be diminished politically. There would be a power vacuum, which he would almost certainly attempt to fill. The result could either be the end of the royalist order, or, should the royalists and the army resist the surge of the Reds and the Thaksinites, greater political instability.
No wonder the Thais really mean it when they chant, “Long live the King!”