Thailand, once known as the Land of Smiles, is a country today seemingly trapped in a perpetual nightmare, headed by a half-mad king determined to return the country to the era before Pradjadhipok, or Rama VII, the seventh king of the House of Chakri and the last absolute monarch of the country after the military ended his power in 1932. Nobody appears willing to stop him.
“He is taking back everything that belonged to his great-grandfather, he has changed the constitution to give himself more power, he is taking over,” said a well-connected Thai business source who asked not to be identified further for fear of his safety. “It is very clear to me that we will go along with this habit, this behavior, this approach. We will not have elections, not even for five or six years. We will stick with this regime.”
For years before he ascended to the throne on Dec. 1, 2016, Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavanrangkun was raising alarms in Bangkok with his erratic behavior. The prince, now 64, is said to be regarded with loathing by many within royal circles for his associations with Chinese gangsters, his womanizing and his apparent refusal to adhere to royal rules, according to official US cables leaked in 2011 by the Wikileaks organization, verbatim copies of which were carried in Asia Sentinel. He has repeatedly scandalized the nation despite the military’s desperate attempts to use the world’s most restrictive lèse-majesté laws to keep a public lid on his behavior.
Since becoming king, he has largely lived up to his ominous promise, moving immediately to attempt to consolidate his reign as an absolute ruler. He began by refusing to ascend to the kingship after his deeply respected father Bhumibol Adulyadej died on Oct. 13, 2016 despite a tradition that the new king must immediately take the throne. Several top officials associated with him have died under mysterious circumstances, and he is said to maintain a private jail in his personal palace where those who meet with his disapproval are confined.
“He has neutered the National Council for Peace and Order [the junta],” said a western source with informants among the royalty. “All palace officials are now under his control and no longer have civil service status or protections. The army has acquiesced. The middle class is happy with the situation. They just want the economy to improve.”
Immediately after delaying his ascendancy, Vajiralongkorn demanded changes in the already-rigged constitution proposed by the military to allow him to leave the country without having to appoint a regent, giving him continuous control from his home near Munich, Germany, where he spends most of his time. The biggest signal, however, was the theft of a plaque embedded in Bangkok’s Royal Plaza in 1936, commemorating the 1932 coup that ended the absolute monarchy.
“At this place, at dawn on June 24, 1932, we the People’s Party have given birth to the constitution for the progress of the nation,” is a translation of the words engraved on the 12-inch bronze disc. Although unobtrusive, it was revered as a symbol of democratic sentiment. It is widely believed to have been dug out and destroyed by orders from the king.
To a considerable extent, the army has nobody to blame but themselves. Following the 1932 coup, as government followed government, writing a new constitution on an average of every four years – 20 of them, it is actually the army that has run the country, gradually tightening the lèse-majesté (insults to the dignity of the royal family) laws to the point where, 10 days ago, Police Lt General Thitirat Nongharnpitak decreed that anybody who even viewed pictures of the new king on social media, accompanied by his equally skimpily clad fourth wife, wearing a scanty crop top and that covered little of a mass of apparently fake tattoos, would be arrested. That has in effect made the new king a godlike figure whose actions cannot be challenged – at least to the police and army.
Others aren’t so intimidated. There has been a rash of burnings of the king’s portrait in the northeast of the country, which has little love for the Bangkok elites.
“For decades, the Thai Army has used the excuse of upholding the monarchy to justify their actions and deeds that have included feathering their own nests, suppressing people’s rights, and conducting multiple coups to hold on to power and retard progress towards democracy,” a western source said. “So now Prime Minister Prayuth [Chan-ocha] is hardly in a position to meaningfully oppose Rama 10’s power grab that takes the situation back to the pre-1932 coup era, when palace officials had no protection and were subject to the king’s every whim, or in the case of this latest monarch, every cruelty.”
So far, the source said, “most of the new king’s abuses have been inflicted upon his own entourage, but the fear is what happens after Rama IX’s funeral in October, when the memory of his father is laid to rest and the last restraints on his power are released? Will he start inflicting abuses against perceived opponents or dissenters in the wider populace? Will he launch a campaign against those who he views as having slighted him in the past, since it is well known that he has a list of such people? The people want a laid back, well-meaning monarch like his father, but the fear is that they will get something right out of Game of Thrones. And in such a scenario, the Army looks like it is willing to play the facilitator to that cruelty.”
Rama X has been trying to restore royal absolutism, said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an exiled former diplomat whom the Thai government has sought to bring back to the country and punish. He is now an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies and one of the military’s most trenchant critics. “But this is set to fail. He doesn’t have the necessary capital to rebuild royal absolutism. First, he lacks charisma, divinity and moral authority, something Bhumibol long enjoyed. He might be supported by the military but this is just a superficial working relationship.”
Behind the scenes, Pavin said in an email, the military has long been skeptical about the new king, which is why it had to stage the 2014 coup to ensure a smooth transition.
“The Thai military is known to be flexible,” Pavin wrote. “When it knows that the monarchy will be going down the drain, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this relationship (between the military and monarchy) cut. People surrounding him (the king) are working under stress. They fear him. Fear will never guarantee stability. So I guess no matter how much Rama X has tried to bring back the glorious days of the monarchy, he will fail.”
The well-connected Thai businessman was more sanguine. “Life still goes on, he said. “I still love the Constitution, my king. That is my observation. It appears now that nobody has anything really to say.”