As I noted last week, Thailand has been consumed by recent news that Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn appears to be on the verge of divorcing his third wife, Srirasmi, and erasing all remnants of her and her family from his life and from the royal palace. Of course, no Thai media are openly reporting this news, since saying almost anything at all about the crown prince or any other leading member of the royal family (or even about royal events that allegedly took place hundreds of years ago) can get one slapped with harsh lèse-majesté charges. Still, the Thai media have reported on the decisions taken by the crown prince, while delicately dancing around the implications of these decisions or how they affect the royal succession and Thai politics in general.
In addition, Thais have been talking in private, and even quietly on social media, about the arrests of many of Princess Srirasmi’s family members, who were high-ranking police officers, and of the crown prince’s recent decision to revoke the royal name given to all the of princess’s family members. The crown prince allegedly has a fourth wife waiting in Germany and has had a son with her. That son, rather than his son with Princess Srirasmi, would then be put in line to be Vajiralongkorn’s heir.
This is not the first time the crown prince has gotten rid of a wife, and disowned her whole family to boot, but this time the crown prince’s actions are far more consequential. The crown prince could inherit the throne at any time, given the state of King Bhumibhol’s health. With King Bhumibhol not well enough even to appear at his own 87th birthday celebration last Friday, the crown prince appears to be taking these actions in order to bolster his reputation among Thailand’s royalist elites and the Thai military before a royal succession takes place. The crown prince essentially seems to be sending a message that he will distance himself from his third wife’s allegedly corrupt relatives in the police, and will settle down with his fourth wife and raise his heir.
This is a message that needs to be sent. After years of allegedly insulting Bangkok elites and leaders of other countries, and flitting from woman to woman, the crown prince needs to assure both elites and the Thai public that he can bring stability and continuity to the palace, which is a critical mediating institution in Thai politics. After all, Thailand lacks other strong institutions besides the palace, such as an impartial judiciary, that could step in and resolve political conflicts.
In addition, the crown prince needs to assure the military – which is, after all, in charge of a country currently under martial law and unlikely to hold elections before 2016 – that as king Vajiralongkorn will preserve the military/palace alliance that has thrived for decades under King Bhumibhol. Although King Bhumibhol has at times served as a stabilizing force in chaotic Thai politics, whenever he has had to make a real choice between the military/conservative elites and electoral democracy, he has sided with military conservatism. Over time, the king – theoretically a constitutional monarch and a man who came to the throne over sixty years ago at a time when Thais were seriously debating abolishing the monarchy altogether – amassed significant power of his own, through his longevity and his popularity with the public. However, he never forgot that he originally owed his elevation to the throne and his power to the armed forces. The king has always stacked his Privy Council, the king’s group of advisors, with former generals.
By allowing, or even overseeing, a purge of senior police, the crown prince is sending a signal that he is willing to take the side of the army against the police if disputes ever again arise between these two powerful Thai institutions. This signal is of critical importance – the police, in the past decade, had emerged as a serious rival for political power to the army. In addition, since the coup in May 2014, the crown prince has not tried to position his allies in the armed forces to take prominent positions in the current government. Until recently, the crown prince mostly laid low after the May 2014 coup, another signal to the military he would not threaten their vast financial and political powers.
What does the crown prince want in return for these actions? Presumably, in return senior military leaders would not attempt to delegitimize the prince and potentially elevate his sister to the throne instead after the king’s passing. The idea of Vajiralongkorn being skipped over if the succession happened under the military regime is a possibility suggested by some palace watchers such as Andrew MacGregor Marshall, author of the recently published book A Kingdom Divided: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century.
Does the crown prince’s disavowal of Princess Srirasmi and apparent detachment from the police bode ill for Thaksin Shinawatra, long the most powerful politician in Thailand and, for years, reputed to be a close ally of Vajiralongkorn? After all, one of the other main reasons why Thailand’s elite has feared the royal succession is that it was long believed that a King Vajiralongkorn would welcome Thaksin back from exile and possibly help Thaksin’s political party dominate electoral politics. Although some analysts have suggested that the crown prince is breaking with Thaksin, I do not think it is so clear. Thaksin remains the most popular politician in the country, his party remains the most popular, and even the completely rigged national reform commission set up by the military regime believes that, eventually, Thailand should have a prime minister directly elected by the public. When Thailand eventually returns to elections, Thaksin’s party almost surely will win again, no matter how the military tries to rig the political system to reduce Thaksin’s power. That popularity alone will ensure Thaksin’s relevance, and the crown prince surely knows this. In addition, Thaksin also has built personal links to several of the key military men in the coup government, who could eventually take seats on the crown prince’s Privy Council.
Overall, I think, an eventual accommodation will be reached in which Thailand will return to elections, Thaksin’s party will likely control Parliament, the crown prince will become king, and both Thaksin and Vajiralongkorn will allow the military to retain its out-sized budget, influence over state companies, and power over aspects of the political system. In addition, Vajiralongkorn will help maintain the palace’s aura by behaving, raising his heir, and continuing to suggest that the military enjoys a special status bestowed by the crown.
Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. This post appears courtesy of CFR.org.