Thailand’s Coup and the Threat of the King’s Death

This is excerpted from a much longer article discussing the implication of the Royal succession which can be found here

The Thai Army’s claim that it is politically neutral, is seeking to find a peaceful solution to the country’s crisis and that it genuinely wishes to broker reconciliation between different political factions is simply fraudulent.

In retrospect, from November 2013 to May 2014, it was evident that the military had cooperated closely with antigovernment protesters to make the country ungovernable in order to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra, and her government.

At the time, there were relentless anti-government demonstrations, accompanied by the occupation of state offices, the blockage of roads and highways and the disruption of general elections on Feb. 2.

The demonstrators held Bangkok hostage, defying arrest warrants and resorting to violence against some “red shirt” activists who support the Yingluck government. As antigovernment “yellow-shirt” protestors roamed the streets in defiance of the law, the military was waiting for the appropriate moment to directly intervene in civilian politics. It was clear that the chaotic situation served to legitimize the coup.

In addition, while politicians from the ruling Pheu Thai Party were summoned or even in some cases arrested after the coup, no members of the antigovernment faction led by Suthep were detained. In fact, they were allowed to continue their political activities. For example, the Suthep faction organized several post-coup parties to celebrate what was deemed a political triumph – but one that ended in a military coup.

Maj. Gen. Amnuay Nimmano, the acting deputy commander of the Bangkok Metropolitan Police, even attended a birthday party for Suthep on July 5, despite political gatherings being prohibited by the military. This reaffirmed the existence of a plot drawn up by the military and antigovernment protesters to remove Yingluck from power.

In retrospect, I was among many analysts who were initially convinced that the time was not ripe for the military to stage another coup. This was simply because the previous coup of 2006 offered various valuable lessons for the Army. That coup gave birth to the pro-Thaksin red-shirt movement with their strong anti-coup agenda. I was convinced that the military would not want to become entangled in another complicated situation. For one thing, the brutal crackdowns on the red shirts at the hands of the Army in Bangkok’s Rachaprasong district in 2010 have not been resolved, and no soldiers have been brought to justice. With this still in play, it should have kept the Army out of politics for a while.

It is important to note that the Thai Army has never worked alone in staging a coup; it has often received instructions from the Royal Palace. However, it seemed that the monarchy was not in a position currently to influence internal politics the way it once did. Partly, this is because King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86, is in ill health, in addition to his many years of self-politicization. When there were no instructions from the palace, not making a move was usually seen as the best move for the military.

There were other political weapons that could have been used to undermine political opponents, rendering the blunt instrument of a military coup unnecessary or even counterproductive. Here, the role of the Thai courts and independent state agencies is crucial.

Months prior to the coup, these institutions apparently launched coordinated attacks against the Yingluck government, with the Constitutional Court ordering her to step down over the bizarre case of her transferring Thawin Plainsri from his post as secretary-general of the National Security Council, and then there was the Anticorruption Commission’s ardent investigation into the state rice-pledging scheme.

Topping this off, following the dissolution of parliament in December, the election commission initially obstructed the government’s plan to hold a new election. Meanwhile, the highly politicized Human Rights Commission, led by Amara Pongsapich, was rather quiet when the Suthep-led protesters threatened the electoral rights of fellow Thais by blocking polling stations and even harassing voters.

On the contrary, Amara rushed to condemn the government whenever possible, for example, by warning Yingluck not to “touch” antigovernment protesters. All this convinced me that a coup would have been redundant. Meanwhile, the Yingluck government seemed passive, with the prime minister agreeing to step down at the behest of the Constitutional Court. Obviously, there seemed to be no incentives for the coup. But how wrong I was.

Taking into consideration the context, in many ways, the coup came as a surprise. Its abrupt nature could well indicate some changes within the walls of the Royal Palace in Bangkok. Yet without solid evidence, any discussion on what could have happened among key figures of the Royal Family would only be speculation.

Instead, the 2014 coup was a Royal coup. But it is a Royal coup in a slightly different political context, compared with the one in September 2006. Back then, the military and Royal Palace worked together to try and permanently remove Thaksin, who was first elected prime minister in 2001, from Thailand’s political scene. Thaksin had emerged as a looming threat to the political domination, economic wealth and social status of the country’s old establishment.

Thaksin’s effective populist policies were successful in winning the hearts and minds of Thailand’s remote regions, thus competing with the long years of Royal projects that underpinned the relationship between the King and his subjects.

The 2014 coup was staged to manage the imminent royal succession. Therefore, it was a royal coup with the urgent task of taking back political control of Thailand. “It’s like a musical chairs game,” said Ernest Bower, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “When the music stops – when the king dies – whoever has power gets to organize the next steps.”

Getting rid of Thaksin and his proxies remains a priority, but more importantly, the coup makers wanted to ensure that the next monarch would benefit their own position in the country’s power structure. It is an open secret that key members of the “network monarchy,” which is driven by the old establishment, have expressed disapproval of the heir apparent, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn.

A series of cables turned up in Wikileaks in 2010 detailing discussions between Gen. Prem Tinsulanond, head of the Privy Council; Anand Panyarachun, a former prime minister; and Siddhi Savetsila, a Privy councilor, with John Eric, who was US ambassador to Thailand 2007-2010. The contents revealed that these palace representatives perceived the Crown Prince as unsuitable to be the next monarch.

With his complicated personal life and lack of popularity and moral authority among the Thai public, the palace’s inner circles feel the Crown Prince is not a good choice. But more importantly, what the traditional elite fear most is the possibility that the Crown Prince forged some kind of political alliance with Thaksin, a claim that had been reported in the press a decade ago.

This could prove to have been the underlying cause of the 2014 coup. The military may seek to hold onto power until after the royal succession. Thailand’s military ruler and prime minister, General Prayuth, has a reputation as a staunch monarchist and has ruled that violations of the controversial lèse-majesté law – a sweeping ban against anything deemed as offending the monarchy – will be heard in military, rather than civilian, courts.

Of course, one may never know the real relationship between the Crown Prince and Thaksin. Yet, the unknown itself stirred up enough anxiety on the part of the palace and its network for it to ensure that during the royal transition, they must be in charge of the parliament and that the military will be on their side.

The elite also needed to guarantee that Thaksin and his proxies were not able to make decisions that could affect the royal succession in ways that would serve Thaksin’s own interests.

It is premature to assume that the network monarchy might already have an alternate candidate in mind to be the next monarch. But according to the Succession Law, it is clear and undeniable that the Crown Prince will ascend to the throne. He was given the title in 1972 – a quintessential step that prepares the king-in-waiting for the throne. There is a misperception that Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, his younger sister, was elevated to Crown Princess. It is not true.

Much of the talk about other candidates reflects wishful thinking, or a lonely hope, by members of the traditional elite who may dream about replacing Vajiralongkorn with Sirindhorn.

The looming transition and its political impacts

The point of this essay is not to discuss possible candidates to become Thailand’s next monarch. Rather, it is about discussing the reasons why the royal succession has become so important for Thailand in reshaping the contour of its politics, and how the crisis has deepened on the eve of the royal transition.

First, one must come to terms with the fact that the monarchy has an immense role in politics, and that King Bhumibol has been an active political actor. The King sits at the apex of the Thai political structure, and since the early days of the Cold War, has worked closely with the military to build a new political landscape.

As Australian professor Andrew Walker argues: “Thailand’s democratic failure is the most striking legacy of his [Bhumibol’s] long reign. For decades, antidemocratic forces in Thailand have been able to use the image of the King to undermine the credibility of elected politicians. A long series of military coups have been staged in the name of the King, in order to supposedly protect the country from the depredations of corrupt politicians.

“The King has never used his pre-eminent stature to challenge the use of military force to overthrow an elected government, but has consistently permitted antidemocratic acts to be staged in his name. Since Prayuth’s seizure of power, there has not been one word from the palace about the importance of protecting Thailand's democratic system. Thailand’s overinvestment in the monarchy as a symbol of national unity means that institutions which can constructively manage conflict have never been able to flourish.”

Sadly, it is unlikely the monarchy will be willing to negotiate with democracy anytime soon.

The next significant conundrum concerns the coup’s impact on Thailand’s political and societal landscape. The fact that the monarchy has become politicized over the decades, while openly taking sides amid the political divide, will also accelerate its decline.

At the same time, there have been mounting lèse-majesté cases since the 2006 coup. The more royal defenders use the law as a weapon, the more this will hurt the monarchy, and overusing it could inevitably bring an end to the institution. Currently, there is a move by the junta to silence, not just critics of the coup, but also those critical of the monarchy. Writers and academics have been hunted, not just because they have spoken out against the coup, but also because they were seen as a threat to the monarchy.

Despite this pessimistic view of the current political crisis, the eventual Royal succession could benefit Thai democracy in the long run. Any conflict inside the palace would be a lose-lose situation for the current Chakri Dynasty. Conflict between contenders for the throne would likely bring instability to the monarchy, and possibly enable democracy to find a way to blossom.

Second, the Army itself will be affected by the coup. This is Thailand’s 19th coup since it abolished the absolute monarchy in 1932. The latest putsch will surely further deepen military involvement in Thai politics. The military has long lost its professionalism. In many ways, the coup paved the way for the military to perpetuate its role in politics. Once entering politics it is difficult to withdraw. This time, like during many past coups, the military used its so-called mission to defend the monarch to justify its intervention.

That explains why the military is keen to exploit the lèse-majesté law to prove its responsibility and duty as the defender of the monarchy, which in turn means the defender of national security. But the longer the military remains in politics, the more it will serve to obstruct democratization.

Already, the military has sought to weaken democratic institutions, aroused by the fear that strong politicians such as Thaksin could return to the political scene. It is therefore expected that the military will redesign the Constitution to be even less democratic. Some analysts already suspect that the junta will adopt Myanmar’s parliamentary model, which reserves 25 percent of its seats for the Army.

Alternatively, the coup leaders could opt for a combination of elected and appointed members of parliament. And if the ultimate objective is to take control of the Royal succession, which could be a few years away, we may see the military further entrench itself in politics.

This is dangerous for Thailand’s long-term prospects. The Army has reportedly begun the process of totally dismantling the red-shirt movement in the country’s North and Northeast provinces. Troops have been sent to these peripheral regions to harass and detain its members. Already, many red-shirt villages have been closed down and core community-level leaders have been detained and released on condition that they don’t get involved in politics again. Some have been forced to befriend the yellow shirts. In early July, there were cases of Thai soldiers forcing a squid vendor to take off her red T-shirt, and a shopkeeper to remove a Pheu Thai sticker on her icebox, citing the need to prevent conflict. The eradication of red shirts could weaken democratic networks in Thailand.

Third, the coup will have implications for key independent state institutions, including the courts. It is clear that during the past decade, these institutions have not really been independent, but instruments of the traditional ruling elite used to undermine its opponents.

In the period leading up to the May coup, there was a formulated attack against democratic institutions to bring down Yingluck. These institutions have been politicized and employed by the country’s leaders to safeguard their interests. But in so doing, they have destabilized the judicial system. In the long run, if the courts cannot guarantee justice for all Thai citizens, it will remain a source of conflict. Violence could be inevitable.

Indeed, the political role of the courts has already instigated a sense of anger and resentment among the red shirts over the persistent injustice and double standards of the judicial system.

Fourth, Thai society will directly taste the sour fruit of the coup. The deep-seated polarization has gone beyond the point of reconciliation. It all began in 2005 when the yellow-shirt People’s Alliance for Democracy began politicizing the monarchy to separate itself from its enemies. A political fault line has been drawn along the monarchy to the extent that those who disagree will immediately be painted as an enemy.

Yet, the rhetoric has continued among the Royal family and Army generals about the need to create a kingdom of unity, reconciliation and, now, a “happy society.” The fact that the military has embarked on cracking down against “one color” while leaving the “other color” untouched is a double standard. The coup has done nothing but widen the rifts within Thai society. Unless all sides come to terms with the country’s political changes and begin to respect democratic rule, Thailand might never have a stable society.

Where will Thailand go from here? It seems that the military is there to stay, assuming that its political interference is linked with the Royal transition. The Army chief has not clearly stated when an election will be held. The short-term prospects for Thailand remain grim. Freedoms will be curbed, the media will be further controlled, and political parties will cease to exist.

Human rights violations will become the new normal. In the long term, Thailand will move backward, perhaps as far back as the 1960s, when authoritarian regimes were considered a political necessity, on the pretext that Thai society needs to be urgently healed and only the military can do the job.

Without a doubt, the royal succession will add another layer of complication to Thai politics. If Vajiralongkorn becomes the next king, the royalists may be unhappy, while his supporters, possibly within the red-shirt camp, may approve. This will prolong the conflict. If the Princess somehow becomes the next monarch, then a bigger problem is waiting for Thailand. A Royal struggle will come to define Thai political life, as the eligible heir apparent will exercise his legitimate right to defend his throne. Thailand could slip into a political coma.

Somewhere along this road, democracy will eventually re-emerge. The question is: when and in what form? It will take time before democracy can be restored, especially after so many years of politics being dominated by the network monarchy. Hopefully a new monarch – no matter who it is – operating in a shifting political environment will realize that the monarchy will have to adapt and become compatible with democracy. Its survival depends on how well it does so.

The Army has been entrenched in politics for several decades, and it will be a challenge for future civilian governments to depoliticize the military. It will not be an easy task, and the Army will not allow it to happen easily, as was evident in the case of Thaksin when he tried to emasculate the military during his premiership. The result was the coup of 2006.

However, one must also bear in mind that while domestic factors, such as the role of the future monarch and possible actions by the red-shirt movement, are important, international factors can also play a role in strengthening Thailand’s battered democracy. Democratization has swept across Southeast Asia, most notably Indonesia but even Myanmar seems set to go in that direction.

Thailand cannot turn its back on such a phenomenon. External pressures will come to partly influence future governments in accepting international norms and practices, and in behaving as responsible members of the international community.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel, wrote this for the Asian Strategic Review, a journal of policy and ideas based in Indonesia.