Government and governance, National security, Arts, culture & society | Asia, Southeast Asia

19 October 2016

History shows Thailand’s royal successions are followed by political crises. Jeffrey Peters takes a look at what might happen this time around.

Thailand experienced three royal successions before the ascent of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. All three precipitated significant political crises.

When Chulalongkorn took the throne in 1868, he was paired with a second heir apparent, Prince Wichaichan, a ‘reserve’ candidate in case Chulalongkorn died young. By 1875 tensions between Chulalongkorn and Wichaichan, who possessed his own military force, reached breaking point. Chulalongkorn demonstrated his political skill, working with the British Governor of Singapore to engineer a bloodless outcome that gave him undisputed control of the nascent Thai state.

Vajiravudh took the throne in 1910. Shortly after, in 1912, he faced a serious military revolt from young officers in his army and navy wanting better pay and conditions.

Seven years after Prajadhipok succeeded Vajiravudh in 1925, students returning from France, drawing on resentment at nobles monopolising the bureaucracy’s top jobs and Thailand’s straitened economic circumstances, led the 1932 revolution. Prajadhipok was overthrown, marking the end of Thailand’s absolute monarchy.

With Bhumibol’s reign now over Thailand faces another royal succession. How likely is it that this succession will bring political instability? In the seven decades since Bhumibol since became king, the monarchy has become relevant to modern Thai political dynamics in three ways.

Firstly it has accumulated vast ideational and semi-religious significance, including with respect to kwhambenthai or Thainess. In the current era, to be Thai is to love the king. While the specific charges against the populist Shinawatra-affiliated governments have varied since the 2006 coup, it has often been diagnosed that Thaksin’s greatest crime was his 2005 electoral success, because it undermined the status of the monarchy as Thailand’s most popular and important institution.

Secondly the monarchy has acquired and retained undefined ‘reserve powers’ outside any written constitution. While under Bhumibol the monarchy settled into a largely non-executive role, these powers periodically emerged during political crises including coups, attempted coups and significant public protests and turmoil. The monarchy was able to pick winners and losers.

Thirdly, as Duncan McCargo and others have pointed out, the monarchical institution expanded in material ways. It has become far more a network than a single individual, with a significant bureaucracy, investment portfolio and stakeholders distributed throughout the elite of Thai business and government circles.

In broader terms, since Bhumibol’s accession Thailand has grown prosperous but its development has been uneven. Given a head start through the United States’ Cold War investment in Thai infrastructure and education, it is today ASEAN’s second largest economy. It has a significant manufacturing sector alongside a large urbanised and educated middle class.

More on this: What comes next for Thailand after the death of the King?

But some 40 per cent of the country still works in agriculture. Moreover Thailand’s political processes, to an extent reflecting this divide, remain highly contested. While the middle class protests of 1973 and 1992 seemed to signal a strengthening of norms against military intervention, these norms have now shifted to a conditional acceptance of military government. Military rule is accepted by the country’s elite if it is to obstruct the accession of Shinawatra-affiliated populist governments appealing to rural and working class voters.

This is the political backdrop that Bhumibol’s legislated successor Prince Vajiralongkorn now enters. Amongst the uncertainties that the post-coronation situation will present are questions about how the new monarch would act in a political crisis.

How likely is a crisis? And would it be sufficiently serious to bring in the military?

The latest iteration of military government has secured the passing of a new constitution that will act as a set of restrictive policy and electoral “train tracks”, designed to constrain the composition and policy directions of future governments. Given that the next elected government may feel empowered by popular mandate and view the new constitution as illegitimate, it may attempt to deviate from the directions set under the new constitution. Tensions will certainly rise in these circumstances.

However the framers of the new “train track” constitution have built in multiple off-ramps and safeguards. One of these is low thresholds for judicial intervention. Another is impeachment through joint sittings of a Parliament that will include a 250-member appointed Senate. So on paper it looks as if the military government may have done enough to avoid crises escalating to the levels of previous years. Nonetheless until road-tested, we will not know for sure.

If another government with populist support in rural areas is elected, and tensions again rise, perhaps again following the familiar script of conservative forces orchestrating paralysing demonstrations in Bangkok, a military intervention could again result. If this happened, would the monarchy support the intervention? If it did, it would be business as usual, in a Thai-style manner of speaking. If not, Thailand would be in dangerous territory.

The darkest scenario is one in which the military split, with different factions allied with different sections of the monarchy network. In that direction lies Syria. While most observing Thailand would wish for a more liberally-minded military, the potential consequences of a powerful military splitting on ideological or factional lines are very sobering.

If the new electoral system merely generates a succession of weak coalition governments, the question is then, will the middle–class and military return to the norms of the 1990s with regard to military interventions? Or will factionally-driven coups again run rife along the lines of the 1970s and 1980s?

Regardless of the answers to these questions, a good outcome will be the end of relying on smooth royal successions to ensure political stability.

A longer version of this article is published at New Mandala, the premier website for analysis on Southeast Asia’s politics and society. 

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Peters, Jeffrey. 2016. "Royal Transition And Political Stability - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.