The Thai political crisis has only deepened following the May 2014 coup. The military claimed it was saving Thailand from slipping into a new round of political violence after months of anti-Yingluck Shinawatra protests. But, in reality it sought to take control over politics in the twilight of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s almost 70-year reign.
For decades, the monarchy and the military have cooperated closely to create a political environment in which governments must be kept weak and vulnerable. Should governments appear challenging or threatening, as Thaksin Shinawatra’s did, they were to be overthrown in a coup.
But the authoritative era of King Bhumibol is coming to an end. His looming departure has elevated anxiety levels among the traditional elites, of which the military is a part. This has driven the military to intervene in politics at this critical period. It aims to manage the royal succession to defend the interests of the old elites. Failing that, should the military be forced to step aside from politics — either by domestic or international pressure — it aims to ensure that the political infrastructure it leaves behind can be used to maintain the military’s political position.
Through this process, the military is sponsoring the drafting of Thailand’s new constitution, which is designed to give extra-parliamentary institutions — such as the Senate and independent organizations — power over future elected governments. The junta-endorsed constitution will stipulate that future prime ministers need not be elected, thus paving the way for an outsider handpicked by the military. So the coup leader and current self-appointed Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha could return to the premiership after the election.
Future members of parliaments can also be independent candidates, purportedly to break up the domination of politics by powerful political parties. A weak and loose coalition government may emerge after next year’s election.
From this point of view, the upcoming election will not solve the political crisis. Indeed, it will drag Thailand back into the vicious circle in which traditional elites have continued to belittle the voice of the majority of the electorate. The military has announced that there would be no referendum on the constitution. It is therefore anticipated that, in the post-election period, a wave of protests against the new political structure could hit the streets of Bangkok again.
Thailand could be stuck in a climate of uncertainty in which the military fiercely protects the status quo. According to the Succession Law, the only heir to the throne, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, must be crowned. Not much loved by the public, nor respected by royal courtiers, Vajiralongkorn may find that the path toward his enthronement is a rocky one.
Using the King
While the military and members of the network monarch have remained ambivalent about the future of Thailand under Vajiralongkorn, they have continued to exploit the ailing King Bhumibol for their own legitimacy. Both King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit moved back to their seaside palace of Hua Hin on May 10, 2015 before being abruptly returned to Sirirjaj hospital in Bangkok after just a few days. The event was celebrated by the military as part of shoring up popular support for the military’s role as the monarchy’s defender. But if the military clings to the King and Queen, it will further prevent Vajiralongkorn from emerging as a credible successor.
Thai people lack memory of a normal royal succession. The last time this took place was almost a century ago, in 1925. Since then, two kings — Prajadhipok and Ananda Mahidol — left their throne in unusual circumstances. While the former abdicated, the latter — King Bhumibol’s elder brother — was shot dead in his bedroom. This lack of recent precedent has heightened public fears about the unpredictable succession, particularly in a new era without the charismatic Bhumibol.
The situation will throw Thailand into jeopardy, with negative implications for the region. For many years, Thailand’s economic success allowed the country to play a major role in Southeast Asia. The country is a hub for key businesses that are inexorably integrated with global supply chains. But political instability, at least since the 2006 coup, has intensified wariness among foreign investors. Some Japanese conglomerates have relocated some of their investments in Thailand to other locations in the region, such as Indonesia and Vietnam. The current coup-makers have desperately striven to restore the confidence of foreign investors in the Thai economy. They have also sought their endorsement of the military regime. Economic stability serves as a key factor behind the Thai junta’s survival.
The international game of politics presents itself as an obstacle and an advantage to the military government. Using its intimate relations with neighboring countries — such as those in ASEAN and China — to counter sanctions from Western governments, the junta has successfully diversified its foreign policy options. In this case, the provision of legitimacy to the Thai junta by Thailand’s neighbors may help prolong the life of the military rule regime. But this will not contribute positively to the Thai political situation in the long run.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun has been a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel. An Associate Professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. This originally appeared on the East Asia Forum, a platform for analysis and research at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University.