A new king looks unlikely to herald the return to democracy that many Thai people are waiting for, Paul Sanderson writes.
Democracy delayed is democracy denied, and many in Thailand are wondering how much more denial they will have to endure. The year had barely begun when hints came from junta-appointed legislators that there would be no election in 2017, a pattern that has become familiar in the almost three years since Prayuth Chan-ocha promised his coup would simply act as a circuit breaker and civilian administration would return by the end of 2014.
Prayuth was never in a hurry to relinquish power, and the democratic mirage of last August’s constitutional referendum ensured a role for the military for years if not decades to come. But for all of his inertia, one factor the general powers-that-be failed to take into account was the new king. After Bhumibol Adulyadej died, on 13 October 2016, the government followed Taylor Swift’s example and left a blank space in which to write the official name of Rama X, Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun. The interregnum following Bhumibol’s death, which lasted weeks despite the royal proclamation being backdated so it never officially happened, did nothing to help the process.
After the vote, the constitution was supposed to be presented for royal endorsement by 9 November. It was 10 January before Vajiralongkorn made it known he would not approve it until certain passages were amended, specifically one which allowed him to appoint a regent to act in his place while overseas and, more vaguely, “three to four issues that need fixing to ensure his royal powers”, according to the ever-unreliable Prayuth.
Days later reassurances surfaced that the “requested” changes would be fixed, the public had nothing to worry about and a second referendum certainly wasn’t needed for such changes. At the same time, it was reported that it would take months to make the alterations.
For such a social-media savvy society, the government functions like it is still the 19th Century. As the Bangkok Post described the process, “[A]rtisans from the Bureau of Royal Scribes and Royal Decorations under the Secretariat of the Cabinet [have been instructed] to produce a handwritten version of the draft constitution which will take the form of an accordion-style parchment. … They are required to craft in their most eloquent handwriting every single word of the draft charter, which contains 105 pages, to produce 279 sections on the Samud Thai – a long, narrow, folding book made up of paper sheets bound together which is traditionally used to inscribe important documents.” Given they have burned through 20 charters in 80 years, this is no doubt a steady job.
There are a few ways to read the king’s rejection of the draft, none of them especially encouraging. Reuters called the intervention “rare”, which flies in the face of the fact that it is one of his first acts since taking the throne and assumes Bhumibol and those close to him never intervened – Rama IX was a lot more subtle and tactical. For all we know, this is the start of how Vajiralongkorn intends to rule, much more overtly and directly than his father.
The other obvious point to make is that Vajiralongkorn rejected the passages that concerned him and he seemingly had no concern for the ability or otherwise of the Thai people to choose their government and their destiny. The Economist points out the rejection is “both a snub to the junta and a worry for democrats, some of whom had dared hope the new king might be happy to take a back seat in public life”. Instead, we have the worst of both worlds.
Just as the impending death of the king was the unspoken justification for the coup, Bhumibol’s funeral and Vajiralongkorn’s coronation are being used to delay any election. Prayuth and his cohorts are hoping the unusual circumstances can justify the extra time, but patience will run out. The clearest indication of how delicate the balance is comes not from the treatment of dissidents like Pai Dao Din or Ja New or even human rights lawyers doing their job, but from the reaction of ostensible allies. Suthep Thaugsuban’s immediate and flat rejection of Prayuth’s latest push for reconciliation, so long as unity is in line with military thinking, is a right hook just when he least expected it. The brazen hypocrisy of a man who mounted an insurrection saying he would not accept an amnesty for serious political criminals should disqualify Suthep from being taken seriously, but he is hardly unique in an arena where double standards are the only standards. That Suthep has spoken so bluntly shows the alliance is uneasy.
Prayuth has problems from above and below, although it would be easier to sympathise with his many complaints had he not seized the position for himself. Barely a month from now he will have been in office longer than the woman he ousted, so by the time he gets around to holding elections, he will be among the country’s longest-serving modern prime ministers. The constitution is designed to ensure Prayuth or someone very much like him will have either a key role in government or veto power over elected members of parliament.
Hovering over all this, however, is the uncertainty over how active the king will be. All signs so far point to democracy again being delayed, and the Thai people yet again being denied.
This article is published in collaboration with New Mandala, the premier website for analysis on Southeast Asia’s politics and society.