Thailand’s Erratic King Stretches the Mandate of Heaven

It may be surprising, but it is not due to chance that monarchies have survived best in developed, democratic countries – Japan. Britain, Denmark, Sweden etc. The exceptions to this are mostly small oil enclaves such as Brunei and Abu Dhabi, minor if rich statelets kept in existence by outside power.

Thus in a longer-term perspective the future of the Thai monarchy, now embroiled in an unsightly scandal over a dismissed mistress, might be said to be bound up with the maintenance of a democratic system born with the overthrow of the absolute monarchy in 1932. Since then the monarchy’s survival has depended primarily on its role as a symbol of the nation, a role which requires a degree of popular respect.

That respect reached a high point in the latter years of the late King Bhumibol who, over time, had gone from being a useful symbol for autocratic regimes such as those of Sarit Thanarat and Thanom Kittikachorn to a behind-the-scenes wielder of palace power through cycles of coups and elections. Many had expected the new king to keep a low profile to avoid unfavorable comparison with his father. Initially, he did. But the real Vajiralongkorn is now on full display.

The higher you rise the harder you fall, an adage Vajiralongkorn ought to keep in mind. Not so long ago, Nepal had a widely respected King Birendra who agreed to replace royal absolutism with representative government. But after Birendra’s 2001 assassination by an angry drunken relative, his successor King Gyanedra tried to re-impose personal rule. That backfired and protests led to his forced abdication and the abolition of the monarchy. Thus Nepal followed Egypt, Iran, and Afghanistan, among others, which not long before had become republics.

Such a history will probably not repeat itself in Thailand, at least anytime soon. However, the behavior of King Bhumibol’s successor has, within three years of the revered king’s death, led to much silent disquiet on the part of millions of Thais. Foreign views have shifted from respect for the monarch’s role to laughter, disdain, and concern for the longer-term stability of the country, which has a strong economy but serious class and income divides.

As Crown Prince, Rama X had a long history of unusual behavior, with four marriages and various liaisons which together produced seven acknowledged children. At one time he appointed his pet dog Foo Foo to the rank of Air Chief Marshal and later gave the dog on its demise a full three-day Buddhist funeral. He was also seen in a video cavorting with his then-wife, Srirasmi, who was naked, at a birthday party. Srirasmi had been a cocktail hostess.

Overt criticism of the monarch, a serious offense under lèse-majesté laws, is barely needed. The 67-year-old king’s public actions have been enough. The latest was the sudden dismissal of his mistress Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi, a 34-year-old former army nurse known as Koi, for “disloyalty to Queen Suditha” – herself a former flight attendant. Koi had been appointed to the position of Noble Consort only 83 days earlier.

The official consort, or minor wife, role had not existed since the 1930s. Her elevation to it was a sign of Vajiralongkorn’s desire to reach back to a past where the king could wield power directly and personally. He shocked the public by allowing Koi’s pictures to be displayed across the kingdom of her in military fatigues, shooting weapons, flying a jet preparing to parachute from an aircraft and other feats of derring-do.

The dismissal added to his reputation for erratic behavior and a reminder of the similar treatment handed out to Srirasmi, many of whose relatives were jailed. Sineenat’s demise as consort may possibly also have been a sign of power struggles within the palace. News reports have indicated that a police lieutenant general, Sakolkhet Chantra, and three high-profile women with military backgrounds -- Maj Gen Khun Tharinee Rodson, Khunying Thidarat Thamraksa and Maj Varinporn Kanisornsophon – have also been purged for unknown reasons although there have been references to “evil intentions.”

Infighting among those close to the king can only have been increased by his earlier actions, described in an October 9 Asia Sentinel story. Two are extraordinarily important. First is his personal takeover of the vast assets – land, stakes in major companies etc. – of the US$60 billion Crown Property Bureau. Ability to dispose of this wealth is a powerful weapon for buying support.

Second is the king’s order that two infantry regiments are placed under his direct command has strengthened his position vis-a-vis prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his military cohorts. Having used defense of the monarchy as one excuse for its political interventions, the army now finds itself trapped by this loyalty – at least till some younger officers come along with radical ideas of their own.

The two regiments add to the formidable personal guard that surrounds the king. This suggests that he has concerns for his own security, also reflected in his continuing to spend much time away from Thailand at his mansion near Munich. Yet his actions suggest he seems not to care greatly about what others think. As with US President Donald Trump, an ego-driven desire to break conventions transcends the caution and calculation usually needed in politics.

However embarrassed the Thai elite feel about the spectacle of an erratic king, attempting to force his abdication is fraught with dangers. The lack of an obvious replacement is another problem. His only son with a royal title is Prince Dipangkorn, born to Srirasmi. He is only 14 years old and questions have been raised over his health.

Anti-monarchist sentiment is still weak despite past palace support for the army’s overthrow of democratically-elected elected prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck. But the anti-military sentiments of the pro-Thaksin Red Shirts and their successors have not disappeared. No one can predict if or when they will re-emerge to challenge Prayuth and company. But the more Rama X behaves like King Gyanendra the more questions will be asked about the purpose of the throne.