Friday, October 16, 2009

Thailand Mulls Royal Succession

Thailand is in its unique way preparing for the most profound transition in the kingdom's recent history. The Royal Household Bureau has in a series of statements indicated that Bhumibol is on the mend after suffering from symptoms of pneumonia that have for nearly a month hospitalized and hid from public view the widely revered monarch. Despite those royal assurances, the Thai stock exchange has fallen sharply in recent days on market fears that Bhumibol's condition may in fact be deteriorating.

The uncertainty has brought lingering questions about the royal succession to the fore and raised higher the country's already substantial political risk premium. Bhumibol has over the past year signaled that his heir apparent son, 57-year-old Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, should be crowned the 10th king of the reigning Chakri dynasty, which dates to the late 18th century and continues to play a strong symbolic and legal leadership role in Thai society.

Recent royal signals have dampened earlier speculation among diplomats and analysts that Bhumibol would opt instead for his popular second-born daughter, Princess Chakri Sirindhorn, to inherit the throne. Other speculation that a regency - led first by Queen Sirikit and perhaps later by Sirindhorn - that bypassed Vajiralongkorn and reigned while his four-year-old son, Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, came of age has also been widely discounted - though not entirely discarded.

A period of national mourning, which will undoubtedly bring the kingdom to an introspective halt and according to some estimates could last ceremonially for as long as 999 days, an astrologically auspicious number for the dynasty's ninth monarch, will likely mark the transition from Bhumibol to Vajiralongkorn. According to provisions in the 2007 constitution, the head of the royal advisory Privy Council shall serve as regent pending the formal proclamation of the name of the next monarch.

How royal authority is vested and exercised during the period of mourning and between the proclamation, parliamentary approval for and actual crowning of the next king will be pivotal to future stability. It's not clear to some diplomats monitoring the situation that there is a coherent plan in place to manage the inevitable power vacuum that will open with Bhumibol's passing. Bhumibol is held by many Thais as semi-divine and has served as an overarching source of moral authority throughout his 63-year reign. Queen Sirikit is expected to play a pivotal role in assuring continuity and managing the palace's day-to-day affairs during the transition. The Privy Council, currently headed by 89-year-old former prime minister and army commander Prem Tinsulanonda and likely to be followed by former prime minister and army commander Surayud Chulanont, is also expected to take on heightened responsibility for royal affairs during the succession process. Some monitoring the situation believe the Privy Council could announce a multi-year mourning period to help ease the transition.

Some analysts see a potential risk to that case scenario in light of the recent politicization of the Privy Council and its top ranking members. The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), a protest group aligned with exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, has during recent street rallies challenged the royal advisory body’s role and authority.

In particular, UDD leaders earlier this year accused both Prem and Surayud of behind-the-scenes orchestration of the 2006 military coup that toppled Thaksin - charges both royal advisors have denied. Some royalists who spoke to Asia Times Online expressed fears that the UDD could during the succession process ramp up its protests and criticism of the Privy Council's role in a bid to complicate the royal succession.

It is notable that despite widespread concerns over Bhumibol's health, the UDD will go ahead with a planned protest over the weekend to pressure for progress on a petition it submitted requesting a royal pardon for Thaksin, who fled into exile weeks before he was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison on criminal corruption charges in 2008.

Limited Protection

Privy councilors are not currently protected by the strict lese majeste laws that ban any public criticism of royal family members, who by Thai law are above politics. A motion raised to have those laws extended to cover Privy Councilors was abruptly dropped for unclear reasons in 2007. Bhumibol said famously during a nationally televised birthday address in 2006 that he was not above criticism, but it's unclear to many observers if other royal family members share the same sentiment.

Government officials said that by mid-year they had blocked over 8,000 Internet sites that they deemed in violation of lese majeste laws. Those who have been identified by authorities have been handled harshly. In April, oil engineer Suwicha Takor was sentenced to 20 years in prison for disseminating material over the Internet considered offensive to the crown. Suwicha's sentence was commuted to 10 years after he pleaded guilty.

UDD activist Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul was given an 18-year prison term on three separate lese majeste charges over remarks she made during a Thaksin-aligned public protest in 2007. There are currently over two dozen lese majeste-related cases awaiting trial in the Thai court system, including a case against Thaksin's former government spokesman and now exiled UDD co-leader Jakrapob Penkair, according to the estimates of some activists.

It's not clear that any of those cases have even tacit royal support due to a provision in the law that allows any Thai citizen to file lese majeste charges. Yet some analysts and diplomats wonder whether the recent trends towards criticism and repression will accelerate in the wake of the succession - and if so what that could mean for Thailand's already wobbly democracy.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has repeatedly invoked the Internal Security Act (ISA) amid UDD protests and if his government is still in power at the time is widely expected to again invoke the act to guard against instability on the succession. The newly adopted ISA gives extraordinary discretionary powers to the military, including the authority to suspend basic civil liberties and censor the media, in the name of upholding security.

The ISA was invoked on April 12, when UDD protests turned into violence and the military restored order under the act through the use of force. It's unclear whether Abhisit or then-First Army Division commander, now Army Chief of Staff, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, was in executive command during the crackdown. That's raised questions about who would actually be in executive command when the succession was eventually announced.

Another case scenario foresees Vajiralongkorn playing a more immediate role after, as expected, his name is forwarded by the Privy Council as the next king. In recent years he has shared time living between Thailand and Germany, where he maintains a residence. Yet people known widely as his close associates have in recent months more actively prepared for the royal transition, according to some Bangkok-based diplomats, officials and a senior ruling Democrat party politician.

They point most notably to the contested appointment of a new police chief where Abhisit has stumped for one candidate, Pateep Tanprasert, and until recently the Prime Minister's Office secretary general, Niphon Phrompan another, Chumpol Manmai, who rose through the ranks during Thaksin's tenure. Niphon is a former boarding school classmate and known close associate to Vajiralongkorn. Without explanation he resigned his government post this month after a second round of voting on the appointment was inconclusive.

One important question surrounding the succession concerns whether Vajiralongkorn, once crowned, would opt to appoint new members to the royal advisory Privy Council, which as currently comprised was appointed by his father and includes several aged
members. The 2007 constitution allows for the removal of privy councilors by "royal command" and state the appointment and removal of royal household officials "depends entirely upon the king's pleasure".

Another concerns his potential stance on the pending UDD petition requesting a royal pardon for Thaksin. Talks between the palace, military and Thaksin's camp, mediated by a former Swedish member of parliament, continue behind the scenes of the country's ongoing political struggle between Thaksin's supporters and detractors.
Vajiralongkorn holds top military ranks in the army, navy and air force and performed active combat duty in fighting communist insurgents during the 1970s. In recent years, however, his position has become more ceremonial and he is not known to have a particular power base inside the army. By Thai law, the king is head of the armed forces.

The Privy Council, on the other hand, has played a behind-the-scenes role in recent military reshuffles that have effectively sidelined perceived Thaksin loyalists and
consolidated the power of army commander General Anupong Paochinda and other soldiers who like him served with distinction in the 21st Regiment Queen's Guard.
Top army loyalty to Queen Sirikit will thus be pivotal to managing the eventual transition and maintaining continuity during the long or short interregnum between Bhumibol and Vajiralongkorn. According to palace insiders, Sirikit has strongly supported her son's eventual rise to the throne and many expect her to remain influential even after he is formally crowned.

Whether the monarchy can maintain its current central role in Thai society after Bhumibol's eventual passing will depend largely on how much of his moral authority is perceived by Thais to have been transferred to his heir. As one diplomat asks what many Thais and other interested observers are pondering as the royal succession draws nearer, "What sort of king will the crown prince be?"
By Shawn W. Crispin Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor.

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