Thailand is standing on the cusp of its most decisive event in modern history: the approaching death of King Bhumibol. The struggle for control and power has already started and includes a military coup, a populist billionaire politician in exile and a playboy Crown Prince with a pet poodle named Air Chief Marshal Foo Foo. Within this epic battle of titans, however, the best interest of the Thai people is sadly distant and the likely outcome is a weak playboy king and a strong military rule.
The current situation in Thailand is far from stable. The nation has been under military rule since 2014 when the 12th military coup since the signing of the Thai constitution in 1932 overthrew democratically elected but highly unpopular and potentially corrupt Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of former populist president Thaksin Shinawatra, who is currently in exile but has dominated politics since 2001. Politics is, in general terms, divided between the pro-Thaksin red shirts and anti-Thaksin yellow shirts, and these factions have clashed violently several times. The military currently ruling the country is a strong, independent and politically active force who sees itself as a moral force against corrupt politicians, including Thaksin. King Bhumibol, the world’s longest reigning monarch whom many regard as the only uniting force in Thai politics, is currently 87 years old and sick. Finally, the crown prince, who according to current law and expert prediction will be the next king of Thailand, is an historical ally of Thaksin and regarded by almost all Thais as an immoral playboy and Mafioso; the opposite of the divine status held by King Bhumibol.
Due to the divisive role the King plays in the life and politics of Thailand, his approaching death will leave a substantial power vacuum and eliminate the only political force uniting the Thai people. Bhumibol deliberately influences the lives of the Thai population every day as seen in acts such as standing to the Royal Anthem in the cinema, many Monarchical celebrations, and extensive Royal cronyism. As such, he has built a nationwide support base used to provide legitimacy to political leadership. He has, for example, legitimized the current rule of the military. His power to unite the Thai people and provide moral legitimacy to political leaders stems, as argued by academics drawing on a neo-royalist framework, from his sacredness and widespread popularity. Qualities crown Prince Vajiralongkorn far from possesses.
The Crown Prince has been the center of various scandals that has earned him the reputation of being a playboy and highly irresponsible. His three divorces and rumored frivolous lifestyle forever eliminated the possibility of him to be considered sacred. His limited engagement in Thai affairs and lavish life has furthermore made it highly unlikely that he could enjoy any widespread popularity. His lack of sacred and popular qualities makes it impossible for him to adopt a similar monarchical regime to his father’s, producing a clear disruption of the status quo and the political unity produced by the King.
If King Bhumibol is succeeded by Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, royal expert Somsak Jeamteerasakul states that one of two scenarios is likely to occur. Either, the prince realizes his limited royal potential and engages in a reform process in which the monarchy backs away from the center of power, as stipulated by the constitution. Or, he attempts to continue the legacy of his father, an endeavor in which he will most likely fail and thereby demolishing the monarchy. Although the first option is better than the second, neither is likely to achieve results in the best interest of the Thai people.
Thailand’s political landscape needs to be thoroughly reformed if the country wishes to strengthen democratic inclusion and sustainable development. Corruption needs to be fought, issues rather than cronyism be central in elections, the military be made subservient to the state and the monarchy needs to take a stabilizing and nationally uniting role away from politics. Such widespread improvement will not happen fast, but rather only through gradual steps of empowerment of the Thai populus. Gradual empowerment can, in turn, only occur with a structured reform process, not a sudden shift in power as a result of monarchical collapse.
If Vajiralongkorn takes the logical step not to continue in his father’s footsteps his coronation might seem to be a good thing, since it would provide space for a larger democratization of society. In a divided Thailand under military rule this is however unlikely. Instead of feeling a strengthening of democracy as a result of a weaker monarchy, Thailand is in big danger of seeing a continued strong military. The power vacuum, loss of unity and possible disorder as a result of the death of Bhumibol, followed by a weakening of the monarchy under Vajiralongkorn, could too easily be exploited by the military and used as an excuse to amass further centralization of power.
A similar, but more direct, avenue towards a strengthened military would likely occur if Vajiralongkorn attempted to follow in his father’s footsteps. An unavoidable decline in the popularity of the monarchy subsequently leading to entrenchment of current political divisions and disorder would be exploited by the military to reinforce military rule.
In the hands of Vajiralongkorn the future of the Thai monarchy seems far too likely to be an implicit aid in a deepening of military power and continued instability due to a large power vacuum and a loss of political unity. The near future of Thai politics thereby looks bleak. But, as previously proven, within Thai politics the rule is to expect the absurd and unexpected. So don’t be too surprised if the most unlikely of scenarios happen – the Thais surely won’t be.