WASHINGTON - Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s death was long anticipated, but it still came as a profound shock to Thailand. When it was announced, vast crowds gathered in towns and cities to weep and pay homage to their monarch, who had reigned for seven decades.
Thailand’s stock market has fluctuated, and the country has entered a period of uncertainty. Most Thais have never known any other king, and Bhumibol inspired great devotion during a time of enormous political and economic change. 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 II. Absolute monarchy formally ended in 1932, and what remained of it was endangered by 1950, when Bhumibol was formally enthroned. But he worked tirelessly to restore the influence of the palace.
During his reign, royalists, in alliance with the military, rebuilt the monarchy’s image. The king represented stability during a period of repeated coups and wars in Indochina, and the United States and other foreign powers embraced him. He exercised vast economic influence, with the Crown Property Bureau — reportedly worth more than $30 billion — controlling some of Thailand’s most valuable real estate and other assets. And yet he created a reputation for supporting and protecting the poor.
In the absence of strong governance institutions, Bhumibol was often called in to manage domestic political disputes, most notably in 1992, when the military fired on tens of thousands of protesters who had gathered in Bangkok. The king summoned the Thai junta leader and the leader of the protest to his palace in the center of the city, 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. The king was touted as a force for democratic change.
But as working-class Thais, who had tolerated military and technocratic rule for decades, 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 lese majeste, Bhumibol increasingly drew criticism — on social media and occasionally even in public — after endorsing the 2006 coup.
Adding to the uncertainty after Bhumibol’s death, Thailand’s current military junta has said that the king’s heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, will not immediately assume the throne, because he needs time to mourn. In the meantime, the monarchy will be managed by a regent, longtime Bhumibol ally and former Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda.
Prem is a divisive figure. Although he oversaw a period of rapid economic growth as prime minister, many poor Thais dislike him, favoring populist parties linked to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose sister was also prime minister until she was ousted in a 2014 coup. Many Thais consider Prem an archenemy of Thaksin, whose own government was toppled by the military in 2006. To them, Prem represents elites who would deny Thais outside the capital a voice in determining the country’s future. Moreover, at age 96, Prem may lack the stamina to manage the crown’s transition.
There could be several reasons why Vajiralongkorn is not immediately assuming the crown. For starters, he may realize that he is nowhere near as popular as his father and needs time to build public goodwill. Alternatively, the junta (and Prem and other Bhumibol advisers) may have forced the crown prince’s decision, because they fear his playboy reputation and reported friendship with Thaksin. Yet another explanation is that the junta is stalling so that it can maneuver Vajiralongkorn’s sister, the beloved Princess Sirindhorn, into power instead, even though there is no constitutional basis in Thailand for a woman to reign.
Bhumibol’s death further destabilizes an already unstable region. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is mired in a corruption scandal, while former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad recently founded a new political party that may ally itself with longtime opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s party, despite Mahathir having once purged Ibrahim from the government. Until national elections, Malaysian politics will likely get messier and potentially more repressive.
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte, in power since June, has sent shock waves across Southeast Asia by denouncing the U.S., inching closer to China and calling for the end to American-Philippine joint military exercises. Moreover, Duterte has launched a drug war that has brought on a wave of extrajudicial killings.
All Southeast Asian countries must balance their ties between China and the U.S. But Duterte’s threat to realign the Philippines is sending up red flags in other countries involved in territorial disputes against China in the South China Sea, including Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. Moreover, Duterte’s wild public statements have unsettled the Philippine economy, leading other Southeast Asian countries to worry about spillover effects.
Thailand is scheduled to hold a national election next year, having approved a new constitution in August. Many Thais hoped that the upcoming vote would put the kingdom back on a path toward stability after more than a decade of political turmoil. But, given the uncertainty implied by Bhumibol’s death, and the prospect of an unpopular crown prince eventually reigning, stability seems unlikely any time soon.
Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. © Project Syndicate, 2016