Thailand Faces Uncertain Future Under Erratic Pretender
Lurch to take over?
King’s death opens country to so-far covered up deep divisions
With the Oct. 13 death of Thailand’s 88-year-old monarch Bhumibol Adulyadej, the country enters unknown territory, with his heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, widely recognized as an erratic and out of control womanizer.
And given the growing use of social media, the Thai public largely knows the sordid tales despite the overwhelming efforts of the ruling junta that took power in 2014 to control reports of his behavior. His reputation and conduct makes it questionable whether the monarchy can survive in the long run, given the many sources of uncontrolled information about the monarchy, its overwhelming wealth and it political stance.
The prince has mostly lived in Germany with his third wife, a former Thai airlines flight attendant, after having abruptly tossed out his second wife, Princess Srirasmi, a former cocktail hostess, and eliminated several top members of the national police who were her relatives or allies. He has persecuted Srirasmi’s entire family, having several of them arrested.
Vajiralongkorn has shown little aptitude for being king, having repeatedly scandalized the nation despite efforts to keep a public lid on his behavior. Top sources in both the government and royalty have grown deeply worried about his behavior, and by a series of unexplained deaths in the military and police of people connected to his retinue
A video shot several years ago of a garden birthday party for his late poodle Foo Foo, in which his then wife was almost naked, have circulated widely. At one point, he made Foo Foo an air chief marshal and the dog used to wander the tops of tables at state dinners, eating off the plates of outraged diplomats. When Foo Foo died, the dog received a state funeral.
The Thai junta, led by former Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, has sought to suppress growing public alienation from the monarchy through the draconian use of the country’s lese-majeste laws, with the slightest inference of sarcasm for the royal family resulting in long prison terms up to 15 years. Despite such efforts, even the dying king, who spent years in the hospital as he faded, has lost considerable respect from the general population, according to businessmen in Thailand. That lack of reverence is likely to be masked during the intensive mourning in the wake of the king’s death.
That leaves the junta with few options as a flagging economy discourages international investment and fun-loving Thais chafe under puritanical rules that don’t appear to apply to the generals themselves. A period of intense mourning is expected to follow, for perhaps a year or longer, during which the generals will use elaborate and extensive Buddhist ceremonies to keep the deep sorrow going as long as possible in the attempt to consolidate their reign. They are expected to use royalist sentiment sometimes verging on violence to quell dissent.
There is considerable resistance to Vajiralongkorn behind the scenes from allies of the late king including the 95-year-old Prem Tinunsalonda, the head of the Privy Council, the king’s council of advisors. But there is little or no chance that he won’t be crowned as Rama X, the tenth king in the current line, despite the fact that he has told Prayuth that he doesn’t wish to be named king during his own period of mourning.
It seems certain that there will considerable turmoil behind the curtain, as has happened in past interregnums. The prince’s mother, who at one point was suggested as a regent until one of Vajiralongkorn’s sons could be named, has been nearly comatose for months.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the wings waits Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist prime minister who was ousted by military coup in 2006, but whose influence inside the country remains considerable, particularly in the northeastern region of the country, where his social programs including health plans, small loans and others won him permanent popularity. Surrogates established several popular governments after the 2006 coup, including the democratically elected Pheu Thai government headed by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck that Prayuth drove from power.
The junta’s welcome has continued to wear thin, but there is little chance it will be driven from power any time soon. Despite the junta’s claim that it was taking power to combat corruption as well as civil unrest, there is considerable evidence that Thai generals and police officials are enriching themselves at a record pace.
On Aug. 7, the junta won 62 percent of the vote in a rigged constitutional referendum that it couldn’t lose.
According to the results, 15.56 million of 40 million-odd eligible voters ratified a constitution that in effect ensures that Thaksin never returns to power. It ensures that the generals who perpetrated the 2014 coup cannot be prosecuted and in effect legally authorizes the military to remove any elected government without having to mount a coup. A separate measure, approved by 58 percent of voters, allows the Senate – which is dominated by the military – to participate in the selection of the prime minister.
“I have to question whatever made the military think, with this kind of repression, that they could possibly believe the results would be accepted as legitimate,” a Thai source told Asia Sentinel. “They blocked all discussion of the draft, they intimidated opposition leaders, they flogged the country with propaganda, they didn’t allow opinion polls that might have shown the true feeling in the country. It shows how completely they are living in their own world.”
In the past, juntas have been driven from power by outraged public sentiment. If that were to happen, it won’t happen right away. The mourning period for Bhumibol will see to that. It should also keep Vajiralongkorn on the throne, although he said Thursday night he does not yet wish to be named the next king, as he continues to grieve for the death of his father.
The population remains sharply divided, with the so-called Yellow Shirts representing the pro-royal factions and the Red Shirts, who are allied with Thaksin. For a country widely believed to be irrevocably unified behind the dead king, the divisions are deep and irreconcilable. With a pretender to the throne who many believe is unfit to wear the crown, the prognosis is not encouraging. Thai Airways issued a picture last night showing the king sitting on a cloud. He is finally out of the fray that occupied so many of his later years.