Bangkok’s Uneasy Calm Masks Succession Struggle

Although Bangkok survived last weekend without a physical confrontation between competing demonstrators, a grim struggle is still going on behind the scenes for primacy over the succession to seriously ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej, at 87 years of age the world’s longest-ruling monarch.

The battle between the two sides has been characterized as one between the Bangkok Establishment – the royalty, the opposition Democratic Party and the urban middle class – on one side, and the rural poor who have been substantially uplifted through extensive health, community development and other programs put in place by billionaire businessman turned politician Thaksin Shinawatra before he was ousted by a royalist coup in 2006 amid widespread concern over corruption and abuse of power.

The public power struggle is nominally an attempt to use protests and possible court rulings to oust Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck, from her job as Prime Minister. And while that is certainly true, the top elites – royals, bankers, property magnates and others  are said to have a much deeper agenda. They are believed to be aligned with the popular Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn; those backing Thaksin have aligned with the crown prince, Vajiralongkorn, who is regarded as both pliable and widely unpopular. Control of the monarchy means control not only of presumed moral authority but also the Crown Property Bureau, which is worth billions and holds vast amounts of Bangkok real estate.

Banking, political and other sources say privately that the Thai establishment is bitterly determined to keep Thaksin from the reins of royal power even if it plays havoc with the economy, which it seems to be doing. So far the five-plus months of political chaos in Bangkok have peeled several percentage points off gross domestic product, which is expected to come in at around 2 percent growth for 2014, well below recent trends. Also, foreign direct investment is starting to fall. In addition, a massive public spending program to modernize the country’s infrastructure with rail links to the rest of Southeast Asia and China has been blocked by the courts.

Although the squabble over succession is gossiped about widely in Bangkok, nobody wants to comment publicly or write about it for fear of penalties under the country’s draconian lèse-majesté laws, which can bring sentences of 20 years for perceived slights against the royalty.

The courts are seen to be allied with the royalty and traditional elites, sparking widespread concern that Thailand’s Anti-Corruption Commission will hand down a decision soon against Yingluck, effectively ending her political career, jeopardizing her Pheu Thai Party’s hold on power and likely triggering an angry reaction from the Red Shirt backers of the government, who could descend on Bangkok in force.

The courts have already delivered a series of decisions against the government including voiding the February 2 general election called by the prime minister and won by Pheu Thai despite some constituencies being prevented from voting by protesters. In previous rulings, the courts have found Thaksin guilty of corruption (he fled the country to avoid prison) and brought down two previous surrogate governments. The current case against Yingluck on allegations of misuse of the government’s problem-plagued rice subsidy program appears to be moving with undue haste when compared with other obvious examples of corruption that have dragged on or disappeared outright.

Red Shirts have repeatedly accused the courts of double standards. For instance, anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has been charged with murder for his part in ordering the armed forces to use force to oust Red Shirt demonstrators from the city in May 2010, with the result that 90 people died, most of them protesters. He has refused to turn himself in and law enforcement forces haven’t bothered to try to arrest him.

Suthep, critics say, is growing increasingly megalomaniacal although many regard the 64-year-old politician as little more than a thug with a power base in southern Surat Thani Province. He was booted out of the Democratic Party in 2009 for unethical behavior. Wikileaks cables from the US Embassy in Bangkok revealed that many members of his own party have long complained about Suthep’s unethical behavior. Recently, he announced that he would be the sole person to pick the next prime minister and whatever “council” would support the premier once the Thaksin forces have been ousted. His anonymous backers were not pleased with his assertion.

The current situation is expected to remain relatively calm through Songkran, the three-day traditional Thai New Year, April 13-15. Anti-government protesters are largely off the streets and they have allowed civil servants to come back to work. However, Thai language newspapers are increasingly filled with stories of various omens and alignments of the stars predicting violence sometime in April or May.

“The court could strike at any time but last weekend’s gathering of the Red Shirts is surely a sign of rejecting court intervention,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a prominent political analyst and professor at the Kyoto Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Japan. “So I think the court will have to think carefully. The reds already talked about objecting to any ruling of the court. So if the court goes ahead, there could be blood.”

Pavin echoes fears on the part of many in Thailand. Blogger Bangkok Pundit wrote recently that the establishment has no intention of negotiating seriously “and they will want to wait until they remove Yingluck so they have a better hand, but at that point, will those on the other side be willing to negotiate given [that a] previous deal from 2011 has also broken down?”

Bangkok Pundit, along with most serious observers of the crisis, sees little way out. He talks about the need to deal with the “elephant in the room,” a seeming reference to royal succession. “Until that issue is resolved, the best solution is a Band-Aid,” he wrote, “but the situation can then explode at any time.”