The 2006 coup put Thailand’s monarchy in the political spotlight as never before.
It was planned and executed by figures close to the monarchy, and many commentators argue that its real aim was to secure the primacy of the monarchy in the face of Thaksin Shinawatra’s electoral popularity.
Additional attempts at shoring up the monarchy against the danger of electoral politics have been evident since the coup. The dramatic increase in the budget and powers of the Royal Thai Army, the legal dissolution of two of Thaksin’s parties, the five-year ban from politics for their leading politicians, and the drafting of a new constitution which curtails the powers of elected governments all point in this direction.
With the king’s advanced age and poor health, much speculation now surrounds the succession. The first issue is who should succeed the King. According to the constitution, the succession will take place according to the 1924 Palatine Law, enacted when Thailand was still an absolute monarchy. The Palatine Law rules that the monarch’s eldest son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, succeeds to the throne.
Yet it is no secret that the crown prince is deeply unpopular, with opposition extending to the highest levels of the Thai establishment. The Wikileaks cables reveal that key figures close to the palace, including Privy Council Chairman General Prem Tinasulanonda, fellow Councillor Siddhi Savetsila and palace favourite and former prime minister Anand Panyarachun view the crown prince as unfit to inherit the throne.
The concern is that if the succession were unsuccessful it could threaten the survival of the monarchy itself.
What is less well widely known is that the constitution in fact does allow for a different succession scenario. The King may unilaterally amend the Palatine Law himself, or, should he choose not to name an heir and the throne become vacant, the Privy Council (the royally appointed advisory body) can choose the successor, and ‘for this purpose the name of a princess may be submitted’. That the royalist drafters of the 2007 post-coup constitution retained these provisions strongly suggests they wished to keep open the possibility of someone other than the crown prince succeeding to the throne. All this points to the possibility of a succession struggle between Vajiralongkorn and his younger sister, Sirindhorn, who is considered close to her father and is known to have significant support in the military.
Yet there is a much more important issue at stake than the personality of the successor to the throne. The essential problem of the Thai monarchy today is its backward and deeply undemocratic nature. Symbolic of this backwardness are the feudal protocols that require commoners to prostrate themselves on the ground in the presence of members of the royal family and to refer to themselves as ‘under the dust on the sole of the royal foot’. If the monarchy is to play a role in Thailand after the current king’s passing, fundamental reform of the monarchy’s powers and culture will be necessary.
Thai academics and activists are already discussing proposals for such reforms, although so far politicians are yet to take up the cause publicly. Potential changes include reforming Article 112 of the Criminal Code — the lèse-majesté law — which forbids criticism of the king, queen, the heir to the throne and the regent, with a maximum penalty of 15 years in jail. It is the harshest such law in the world, with hundreds of people currently in jail or awaiting prosecution because of it.
Other proposals include reforming or abolishing the powerful Privy Council, whose members are chosen by the king and which is rumoured to control senior military and judicial appointments. The council’s chairman is believed to have masterminded the September 2006 coup, and another privy councillor, General Surayud Chulanont, was installed afterwards as prime minister.
Also in the spotlight is the incessant and often ludicrous propaganda promoting the monarchy and members of the royal family; non-existent government oversight of the Crown Property Bureau whose assets, according to Forbes magazine, make the Thai king the wealthiest monarch in the world; and the lack of accountability for the thousands of Royal Projects whose activities are a staple of royalist propaganda, but whose finances and real achievements are effectively protected from scrutiny by the lèse-majesté law.
The disastrous floods of late 2011 have forced a pause in the ongoing cold war between the forces arrayed behind the monarchy and those supportive of Thaksin, the Pheu Thai government led by his sister, Yingluk Shinawatra, and electoral politics more broadly. It is likely, however, that political hostilities will resume as soon as the floodwaters recede. The stakes involved in this struggle are massive. Vested interests in the military, the judiciary, senior levels of the bureaucracy and certain business groups depend on the monarchy and will fight to preserve its leverage over Thailand’s political system. On the opposing side, deep and widespread resentment against the monarchy exists among those who view it as complicit in the killings of red shirt protestors in the violence of April-May 2010. They are unlikely to tolerate another coup, and with uncertainty surrounding the succession, the monarchy’s future looks precarious indeed.
Patrick Jory is Senior Lecturer in Southeast Asian History at the University of Queensland.This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Where is Thailand headed?‘.