Military-ruled Thailand is now a monarchy in search of a monarch as the powers that be – the military junta headed by Prayuth Chan-ocha and Privy Council president and now Regent Prem Tinsulanonda – have not been able to provide certainty despite having had half a decade to prepare for the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Yet in the event, Thais and the world are left wondering: what next? Public discussion is non-existent whether out of respect for the late king or fear of the lese majeste law that the authorities (and individuals) have used so liberally against critics.
A minor mystery also relates to the late king’s widow, Queen Sirikit, who is believed to have been comatose since a stroke quite some time ago. Scant mention has been made of her since the death of her husband last week, probably confirming longstanding rumors about her health. Her condition may well have a bearing on the succession given that it is widely believed she was adamant that Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, her only son, would succeed.
Which leads to the bigger mystery of why the Crown Prince’s formal appointment to the throne has been delayed for at least a year and a 96-year old regent – Prem –appointed to stand in for the 64-year-old prince. That this could be out of respect for the late king sounds plausible enough until placed in the context of well-known doubts among some monarchists (not to mention the broader public) about the prince’s fitness for the throne.
The Crown Prince says he needs time to prepare – as though he had not had decades to do so already. He has long spent more time in Germany than Thailand, whether because he feels safer or more relaxed. The tales of his odd behavior and YouTube videos of his sometimes un-royal antics are sufficiently widely known that any delay in appointing him looks as though alternatives may be under discussion. It certainly adds to the air of uncertainty in Bangkok, particularly if the Kingdom’s subjects have to wait a full year until the mourning period for Bhumibol ends.
Are there alternatives to a prince who once appointed his pet dog Foo Foo an Air Marshal? Of the Crown Prince’s three sisters, only one, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn is a possibility. She is seen as having a serious attitude and being committed to good works. But she is a woman, has shown no indication she would ever marry and thus can provide no heir. The Crown Prince has several offspring from his various liaisons but there are issues about them too – their competence, the status of their various mothers or their youth. The mother of the youngest son, aged 11, is former Princess Srirasmi. She was stripped of her title in 2014 and many of her relatives were accused of corruption and exploiting the royal link.
At the time, the disgrace of Srirasmi seemed possibly linked to Prayuth’s new junta. The prince and his then-consort were suspected of being too close to exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whether for funds or out of political calculation. The royalists saw Thaksin’s popularity as a threat to the monarchy and he thus had to be removed, first by a 2006 coup and then subsequent actions against his proxies, who had the annoying habit of winning so many elections that elections themselves had to be stopped with the junta’s 2014 coup.
In presumed preparation for assuming the throne, the prince seemed to play a larger public role than previously, appearing at official functions and leading the “Bike for Dad” mass cycling event to celebrate King Bhumibol’s 88th birthday last December. Now the hiatus over declaring him king has brought back all the old doubts.
Another question mark surrounds Prem. At 96, the retired general and former prime minister is believed to be fit and clear-headed but at that age predictions of longevity are hazardous. Who is in line to succeed him?
Prem’s influence stems from his close relationship with Bhumibol, itself the result of his years as prime minister from 1980-88, when he resisted two coup attempts and managed a transition to elected multi-party government. There is no self-evident successor in a job now more important than ever.
Yet one name is unavoidable – Prayuth. With a new constitution recently approved which provides a veneer of democracy while leaving the army and other conservative institutions firmly in charge, could he move from being the maker of prime ministers to a real king maker? Could he be the one to groom a young heir from the extended royal family?
Meanwhile, whatever the popularity of the dead king, Thaksin remains popular among his supporters and very much intact if seemingly legislated into oblivion by Prayuth. Using the magic of the monarchy as a lucky charm against Thaksin voters will now slowly lose its power, assuming real voting returns within a reasonable period.
Further out on the range of possibilities are two other scenarios. One is that bereft of Bhumibol, public suspicions of the military and the monarchists could lead to the abandonment of the monarchy – as happened in Nepal not long after the death of the respected King Birendra, who was assassinated in a palace bloodletting and succeeded by an unpopular fool.
Even less likely in the modern era is the actual replacement of one dynasty by another. The Chakri dynasty, of whom King Bhumibol was the ninth monarch, was established by a general who executed a supposedly deranged King Taksin and placed himself on the throne. Ironically, King Taksin is among nine life-size bronze statues of famous kings erected by the military last year in Hua Hin, near the royal family’s seaside residence, to show the peoples’ love for the institution of the monarchy.