December is the holy month for Thailand. The much-revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej turns 87 on Dec. 5.
The king has been on the throne since 1946 and now becomes the world’s longest reigning monarch. In the past seven decades, Bhumibol had been able to transform the once-unpopular monarchy into Thailand’s most powerful political institution.
Throughout the country, tourists find it perplexing to witness a colossal human wave clad in yellow. Yellow is the color of the Monday on which the king was born. Thus the yellow shirt was made a royal symbol.
The military government of Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has ordered civil servants and urged all Thais to wear yellow shirts for the entire month.
Unmistakably the Prayuth regime has exploited the monarchy to legitimize itself following the coup of May 22.
Beneath the celebration of the king’s birthday, however, lies a great sense of anxiety among the traditional elites. They have long invested in the strengthening of the monarchy to achieve their own political benefits. The king has sit atop Thailand’s political structure. Underpinning his influential status has been the “network monarchy,” which has operated outside the parliamentary framework. Yet, it has been powerful and authoritative in defining Thai politics.
In the few weeks leading up to the king’s birthday, a dramatic shift in power has occurred within the walls of the palace. Several high-ranking police officers directly related to Princess Srirasmi, the royal consort of Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the only heir apparent to the throne, have been discredited by a widening graft probe involving alleged extortion and oil smuggling, among other crimes.
Srirasmi’s uncle, former Central Investigation Bureau chief Pongpat Chayapan, was charged with graft and lèse-majesté.
Lèse-majesté, or the crime of injury to royalty, is defined by Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, which states that defamatory, insulting or threatening comments about the king, queen or regent are punishable by three to 15 years in prison.
Meanwhile, her three brothers, Natthapol, Sitthisak and Narong, were similarly accused of defaming the monarchy.
Shortly after the sensational arrests of Srirasmi’s relatives, Vajiralongkorn requested that the government to strip his wife’s family of their royally bestowed name, Akharaphongpreecha. The BBC reported that the move was widely expected to be a first step to divorce and that he was already known to be estranged from his wife, although they continued to attend official functions together.
Srirasmi is the third wife of Vajiralongkorn. After two unsuccessful marriages and as the father of six children, Vajiralongkorn said in 2001, at the eve of his wedding with Srirasmi, “I am now 50 years old and think I should have a complete family.”
Since then Srirasmi had been an important part of the reinvention of Vajiralongkorn’s image. Together they produced one child, Prince Dipangkorn, who, up to this point and according to the Succession Law, is the third in line for the throne.
A happy family was portrayed, but the image was short-lived.
Analysts see the latest move by the crown prince as a part of “house cleaning” in preparation for an otherwise complicated royal transition. He is keen to elevate his new wife, rumored to have recently given birth to a baby boy, to the position of an official royal consort and, eventually, queen of Thailand.
Royal elites have never accepted Srirasmi as a member of their family because of her undignified past. The change of the queen-in-waiting thus signifies a kind of deal into which the crown prince has entered with influential figures in the palace.
Why does the personal life of Vajiralongkorn matter so much to the future of Thailand?
Given the fact that the monarchy has remained a fundamental pillar of Thai politics, the power rearrangement within the royal family will dictate the shape of the country.
For a long while, Vajiralongkorn has forged a close alliance with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra whom the royal elites have loathed for his competitive model of politics, which threatened the royal prerogatives.
The military and the influential Privy Council were fond of Vajiralongkorn. A U.S. Embassy cable dated Jan. 25, made available by WikiLeaks, recorded American Ambassador John Eric’s observation of palace politics in his discussion with Privy Council President Gen. Prem Tinsulanond, together with former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun and Privy Councillor ACM Siddhi Savetsila. Eric said that all three had made quite negative comments about Vajiralongkorn. While asserting that the crown prince would become king, both Siddhi and Anand implied the country said they’d be better off if other arrangements could be made.
Siddhi expressed preference for Princess Sirindhorn, Vajiralongkorn’s more popular sister.
Having been alienated by the royal elites, Vajiralongkorn found a common stance in Thaksin and realized the power of popular support from Thaksin’s political bases.
But the coup that overthrew Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck, compelled Vajiralongkorn to rethink his strategy, particularly at this critical royal transition. Vajiralongkorn still needs to rely on support from the military to ensure his enthronement. Signs of reconciliation have appeared in the past few months.
The crown prince agreed to preside over the opening of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) at the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall on Aug. 7, an act deemed to legitimize Prayuth’s military government.
On that occasion, Vajiralongkorn urged members of the NLA to expedite the constitutional drafting process and to work honestly so as to purt Thailand back on the track of stability. So far, Vajiralongkorn has never publicly condemned the coup.
The reconciliation with the royal elites reflects the seriousness of Vajiralongkorn in entering the succession process by assigning himself as the sole contender to the throne as well as by accepting the new political order sketched by the military.
While attention is paid to the king’s health during his birthday jubilation, the real focus is on Vajiralongkorn and how his shift of alliances could impact on Thai politics in the post-Bhumibol era.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.