The past ten years of political turmoil in Thailand have revolved around several contentious challenges. A growing, politically empowered, and vocal working class in Thailand’s provinces has clashed with traditional Bangkok elites. Shifts in Thailand’s constitutions have led to a two-party system, rather than the old multi-party politics, but the two-party system has struggled to effectively represent the interests of a majority of Thais. The Thai military, once thought to be under civilian control, has reasserted its power throughout the past decade, while other institutions have failed to control the military’s resurgence. Violent street protests have emerged as a weapon to bring down governments, with no consequences for the violent demonstrators, a development that only fosters more violent protests.
But the past decade of crisis also has stemmed from a struggle among Thai elites to control the royal succession, after the passing of King Bhumibhol, who will be eighty-seven on Friday. The king has been on the throne since 1946, making him the longest-reigning monarch (or any head of state) in the world. Bhumibhol today is physically incapacitated – some rumors suggest he has Parkinson’s disease, while others suggest he has had a series of strokes – and rarely appears in public, and it is unclear whether he remains mentally lucid. Although Thailand is technically a constitutional monarchy, like the Netherlands or Great Britain, in reality the palace in Thailand wields enormous political power behind the scenes, and also controls vast amounts of land, stakes in blue-chip Thai companies, and other wealth. Forbes estimates that the Thai monarch is the richest royal in the world, worth some $30 billion.
In a new book A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century, former longtime Reuters journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall effectively summarizes this royal clash. Drawing upon his sources within the palace and leaked diplomatic cables discussing the royal family, Marshall writes that the impetus for a decade-long struggle by Bangkok’s traditional royal elites, who have supported two coups since 2006, is to make sure that traditional royalists, and the military, are running the country when the king dies. In addition, Marshall suggests that traditional elites harbor hopes that, in the succession, they will be able to maneuver the king’s daughter, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, into power as the ruling monarch. By putting the princess into power elites would bypass the heir anointed decades ago by Bhumibhol, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. Marshall suggests that Thaksin, meanwhile, long ago formed an alliance with the crown prince, and if the crown prince becomes king he could rehabilitate Thaksin and allow pro-Thaksin populist parties to dominate politics.
Marshall’s book is a short but provocative and entertaining examination behind the palace curtain, though his use of unnamed sources and the inability to check his claims makes it hard to evaluate his theses. He offers only modest evidence for his theory that royalist elites want to maneuver the princess into power. In addition, he tends to underplay the conflict between the rural working class and Bangkok elites as a driving factor in Thai politics, as compared to the succession struggle. Still, the book’s reportage and analysis are unique.
The fear of the crown prince’s future reign stems from several factors. Elites fear a return of Thaksin in part because Thaksin’s effective politics have left the Democrat Party in shambles. More genuinely democratic elites also have opposed Thaksin because, as prime minister, he worked to undermine the country’s liberal institutions and to concentrate power in his hands. (Of course, tossing out Thaksin and replacing him with a junta is an even worse remedy for strengthening the rule of law.) Beyond the elites, most Thais also have never known another king, and the palace and Thai elites have created such a cult of personality around Bhumibhol that they have fostered an existential sense of panic among Thais about a post-Bhumibhol world. In addition, the crown prince has for decades acquired a reputation as an alleged hothead, womanizer, and poor decision-maker, in contrast to Bhumibhol, who despite flaws has generally been a moderating influence on the kingdom. Among other foibles, the crown prince allegedly used his own planes to blocked the plane of a visiting Japanese prime minister on the tarmac in Bangkok in a fit of pique, threw a lavish birthday party for his pet dog at which his wife appeared topless in a leaked video, and stormed home early from a visit to Japan after he felt subjected to a series of minor protocol slights by Thailand’s most important investor.
Now, in recent weeks, this succession struggle appears to be coming into public view. Of course, Thais are prohibited from publicly talking or writing about the monarchy by the harshest lese majeste laws in the world. But this past week’s news that the military junta has arrested a group of senior policemen linked to the crown prince’s wife, Princess Srirasmi, and the crown prince’s public announcement that his wife’s family may no longer use their royally-given name (a kind of title) have shaken the country. Although all Thai-language and English-language newspapers have reported on the arrests and the crown prince’s order, believed to be the first step toward divorcing his third wife, they have studiously avoided mentioning the link between the policemen and Princess Srirasmi, or even the fact that the family banned from using their royal title is actually Srirasmi’s family. Still, every Thai understands that these events impact Srirasmi and the succession as well.
Further, the dramatic turn of events seems to suggest that the crown prince is not only going to divorce his wife – he allegedly has a fourth wife waiting in Germany – but also abandon his alliance with Thaksin and throw in with the junta and traditional royalists. In my next post, I will examine why these events suggest a shift in royal politics and what this shift will mean for Thai politics in general in the near term.
Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. This post appears courtesy of CFR.org.