BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA – Thailand in 2016 is forever bookmarked as the year in which the country lost its guiding light. King Bhumibol Adulyadej passed away on Oct. 13, having been on the throne for 70 years. While the whole nation has plunged into a restricted mode of mourning, the departure of the king has already raised the level of anxiety among the people over what the next reign will look like.
King Bhumibol was first hospitalized in 2009. Certainly his deteriorating health became a subject of concern not only among the Thai power holders but also domestic businesses and foreign investors. The first half of 2016 was colored by relentless news of Bhumibol’s near death. The king’s illness represented one of the main driving forces behind the coup of 2014. The military wanted to ensure that the royal succession would be handled in ways beneficial to the old elites.
Therefore, early in the year, the military government of Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha was tasked with accomplishing two missions. First, in order to prolong its rule and prevent powerful factions of the Shinawatras from returning to politics, the junta commissioned a committee to complete the constitution, which ironically would serve to reduce the power of future civilian governments.
To further legitimize the constitution, the junta set up a date for the referendum. To many people’s surprise, the constitution was approved by the public in August, further entrenching the position of the military in the country’s highest law. Some Thais, although disagreeing with the content of the constitution, willingly endorsed it in the referendum. They wanted the election to come soon, rather than having to live with the junta for much longer should the constitution be rejected in the referendum.
The other task of the junta was to reaffirm to the public of the assured enthronement of Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the only heir apparent eligible to be crowned. Rumors and gossip swirled around the kingdom of possible sabotage against the crown prince, purportedly spearheaded by Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda, president of the Privy Council. Prem was known not to get along with the crown prince. It was true that some Thais may prefer to see the more popular Princess Maha Chakri Siridhorn crowned the next monarch instead of her controversial brother. That fact made rumors more credible in regards to the possibility that Prem could instigate for Sirindhorn to become enthroned.
Therefore, the Prayuth government was determined to kill all the rumors by quickly announcing that Vajiralongkorn would be the next king, hours after Bhumibol died. Prior to the transition, the junta helped craft certain images of the crown prince in a more acceptable manner as part of preparing the latter to succeed his father. For example, the junta sponsored two big events on behalf of the crown prince: Bike for Mom (August) and Bike for Dad (December), in honor of both their majesties in 2015. Vajiralongkorn led the crowds riding his bicycle through the streets of Bangkok hoping to gain love and loyalty from the people.
Meanwhile, the crown prince himself began to put his trusted men into key positions in the palace, before King Bhumibol passed away, signaling that the succession indeed took place even prior to the end of his father’s reign. He degraded and demoted those working for his father in the past, while introducing new faces to manage important offices, including the Crown Property Bureau. At the same time, his enemies were eliminated through ruthless means. Suriyan “Moh Yong” Sucharitpolwongse, the famed fortuneteller, died mysteriously in prison while being charged with exploiting the name of the crown prince for his own benefits.
From the above context, one may conclude that the military is conveniently working with Vajiralongkorn to make sure that the royal transition would not trample their interests long invested during the reign of King Bhumibol. But his newfound partnership may not contribute positively toward the future of democracy in Thailand.
In early December, Vajiralongkorn was officially pronounced as King Rama X, succeeding his father. The era of Bhumibol formally came to an end. But this also brings about uncertainties that accompany the new reign under Vajiralongkorn. While it is too soon to predict what the Vajiralongkorn reign will look like, his views and perceptions of royal and political affairs may guarantee complications in the years ahead.
His friendship with the military will surely obstruct the pace of democratization in Thailand. Up to this point, there is no indication that Vajiralongkorn is interested in promoting democracy. On the contrary, he continues to rely on the draconian lese majeste law to silence those criticizing his personality and lifestyle. The increased use of this law under his reign will affect the human rights situation in Thailand.
Last week, the BBC published a no-holds-barred article detailing the life of Thailand’s new king. The article frankly described the controversial life of King Vajiralongkorn. A Thai activist-student, Chatupat Boonpatharaksa, shared the BBC article on his Facebook page and was arrested by Thai authorities with the charge of lese majeste. Although he was later set free on bail, the arrest reminded society that the new king cannot be criticized and that the monarchy continues to live under the shell of the draconian law.
It seems that the new king may not be willing to reform the royal institution and instead rely on the state to silence his critics. If this trend continues, the royal institution will be put at risk, as the public increasingly demands a more responsible and accountable monarch.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center of Southeast Asian Studies. He is currently a visiting fellow at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.