The recent reorganization of the Privy Council of Thailand – long held as a key body serving the monarchy in Thailand – may not have been on the radar of outsiders with so many other headlines about Thailand’s wider politics as well as regional developments more generally.
Yet the developments in this respect warrant attention. The king’s decision to evict old members of the Privy Council close to his late father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the stripping of the power from its president, General Prem Tinsulanonda, as well as the appointment of his close confidants as new Privy Councilors, suggests that, more than just a process, this is part of the growing aggrandizement of political power of Thailand’s new King Maha Vajiralongkorn, or King Rama X.
By its nature, the Privy Council is an advisory and implementing body serving the king. At a deeper level, however, it represents a dominant power function in politics, as can be seen since its establishment in 1874 during the reign of King Chulalongkorn. The king set up the Privy Council, whose members were recruited from the Council of State, also founded in the same year, to break the power of Chaophraya Si Suriyawongse. Hence, traditionally, the Privy Council has been assigned a quintessentially political role; the significance of this role had notably increased during the reign of the late King Bhumibol.
Undoubtedly, the Privy Council is an integral part of the monarchy. As King Bhumibol embarked on a lifelong project to transform a near-extinct monarchy to the country’s most powerful institution, the Privy Council’s position was also elevated. As Paul Handley argued in his influential book on the Thai monarchy, “The Privy Council in the modern era is more of a Royal Interests Section, which not only collects information for the King, but also works actively to defend the monarchy and propagate its message.”
With the king’s blessing, the Privy Council has emerged as an authoritative entity, working outside the constitutional framework to compete with other elite groups for administrative and political power. Quite often, it fiercely protected its own interests in the name of safeguarding the monarchy, thereby highlighting the co-dependent nature of the relationship. For instance, the lèse-majesté law has become a weapon to undermine the enemies of the throne and the Privy Council.
It is however important to recognize that the Privy Council is not monolithic. There were factions within the Privy Council that constructed different kinds of relationships with other power nodes outside their own networks.
Successive coups have over the years strengthened the partnership between the Privy Council and the military. The Privy Council played its part in endorsing past coups, including the most recent one in May 2014. Prem, in the aftermath of the coup, openly praised the coup makers for being a force that moved Thailand forward. This underlined the quintessential role of the Privy Council as an engine behind the Thai politics.
The fact that Prem is an ex-general allowed him to establish a direct link with the military. For once, the interest of the Privy Council and the military was aligned in the protection of royal power and prerogative. Prem, in particular, constructed a complex web of relationships as a way to sanctify the royal power above other institutions outside the constitutional framework. In his overt intervention in politics, Prem placed his trusted subordinates in key positions in the bureaucracy and in the army. He had an influence on the defense budget, and dominated national security and foreign policy, and thus the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Privy Council under Prem also had its members seated on boards in major conglomerates including Bangkok Bank, Charoen Phokphand, the Boonrawd group, and the Charoen Siriwatanapakdi business group. For the Privy Council, reaching out to these powerful factions was as crucial as allowing them to reach in, thus consolidating a network of interdependence. The Privy Council’s strong ties with the bureaucracy, the military and businesses effectively circumscribed the power and authority of the government of the day.
When political leaders such as Chatichai Choonhavan, Thaksin Shinawatra, and Yingluck Shinawatra, wanted to break free from this extra-constitutional network, a coup was staged to counter their perceived defiance.
The New King’s Power Play
But that was in the past. A known fact is that Vajiralongkorn dislikes Prem. It is evident through the pages of the U.S. leaked cables which revealed Prem’s disrespectful view of Vajiralongkorn. Instead of removing Prem from the Privy Council presidency, Vajiralongkorn has made him powerless.
For example, Vajiralongkorn refused to sign the military-drafted constitution until changes were made to provisions related to the king’s authority. Vajiralongkorn can now reside in Munich, Germany, for a longer period without having to nominate a regent to oversee the royal affairs on his behalf back home. In other words, Vajiralongkorn no longer needs to rely on Prem when he is away in Munich.
On October 2, Vajiralongkorn added three more Privy Councillors to its team: Amphon Kittiamphon, currently advisor to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha; General Chalermchai Sidhisart, former army chief, and; Air Chief Marshal Chom Rungsawang, former Air Force chief. This latest move can be regarded as Vajiralongkorn’s plot in strengthening his political position by setting up a new trusted team to replace the old one—the team that has its links with the current military strongmen.
Recently, another law was enacted in regard to the ownership of the rich Crown Property Bureau. The legal change meant that crown property assets reverted to the ownership of the king with the bureau’s investments now being held in Vajiralongkorn’s name. The exact size of the Crown Property Bureau is not public knowledge, but Forbes magazine valued the bureau’s holdings in real estate and other investments at more than $30 billion in 2012.
Clearly, Vajiralongkorn has been consolidating his power, both politically and financially, with or without the help of the Privy Council. As a result, what we might be seeing is arguably the fact that this is the first time since 1932 where a new Thai king holds more formal power than his predecessors.
Before his father’s death, many predicted that Vajiralongkorn, perceived as having lacked moral authority, could become a weak king. He is quickly proving them wrong.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.