Uncertainty reigns over Thailand’s political and royal power

Author: Nicholas Farrelly, New Mandala, ANU

In Thailand the number ‘nine’ is usually considered the most auspicious. It is associated with the reigning monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the ninth king of the Chakri dynasty. Spoken in Thai, it also sounds like a word for ‘progress’ (kaew). 9, 99, 999, et cetera, are regarded with special reverence: luck and good fortune are denominated in 9s.

So the year 2009 was, for that simple reason, greeted with a modest degree of optimism by many Thais. Of course, in their Buddhist calendar, it is merely 2552. Indeed, it has, in the final reckoning, proven an inauspicious time.

Readers of East Asia Forum will know that Thailand’s recent history has been coloured by the rolling battle to determine who controls the machinery of national political power. Audacious protests, wild accusations and volatile provocations have seen Thailand’s main political factions, the Reds and the Yellows, become firmly entrenched. Their collective brinksmanship is matched only by their uncompromising efforts to stake out exclusive claims to democratic legitimacy. Their battles have, for the first time in a generation, inspired some to begin speculating on the prospect of a Thai ‘civil war’.

Unsurprisingly, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who came to power without an election in December 2008, has had a tough year. It was defined by a sluggish economy and tarnished, forever, by the ignominy of April’s aborted East Asia Summit. Since those heady days – when an open rebellion of the ‘Red Shirts’ momentarily threatened to topple the government – Abhisit has sought to buttress his sagging political fortunes. There have been few policy achievements and it remains likely that in any future election, his Democrat Party will once again be rousingly rejected by the Thai people.

In 2009, it was, instead, the political party affiliated with deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra that has remained most popular. How well it would actually fare in a snap election is difficult to accurately gauge, but it seems likely that a proxy prime ministerial candidate, with full endorsement from Thaksin, would be brought to power. This is one reason that elections are unlikely to be called while the Abhisit government can cling to its shaky mandate. The shadowy forces that have supported Abhisit’s rise to power will not, we assume, entertain the prospect of a democratically-elected government sympathetic to Thaksin and his ambitions.

Further tensions and anxieties have been generated by speculation on the health of 82 year old King Bhumibol. In October there was a whirlwind of media interest in rumours that the king’s health was rapidly failing. This discussion was, it turns out, premature, but in response, the palace has opted to discontinue updates on his health. Some Thais allegedly involved in spreading the health-related rumours have been charged with threatening national security.

In 2009 the most important stories for Thailand’s future have generally been reported at the margins of public consciousness, and only rarely in Thailand’s strictly monitored media. These stories focus on the palace, its intrigues, and the preparations for transition once King Bhumibol is gone. The draconian and perpetually ambiguous lese majeste provisions continue to threaten those who attempt to illuminate these murky issues.

It is telling that the king’s recent perfunctory public appearances have done nothing to calm anxious Thais. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn is, finally, stepping out of his father’s long shadow and is apparently poised to inherit the throne. In 2009 the consensus that he will succeed the king has only strengthened. Nonetheless there is some lingering anticipation that a long period of mourning, perhaps as long as 999 auspicious days, could be used to install a regency. This prospect, like all such royal matters, cannot be discussed openly in the kingdom.

That there is so little public discussion of the palace’s position in the unfolding political drama is arguably perilous for Thailand. It is also striking that stern interpretation of the lese majeste law, and the many other restrictions on public commentary, serve to further undermine royal esteem. Gentle satirical jabs have been followed by radical punches and flamboyant kicks against the royal institution, and all it represents. The growing numbers of critical Thai voices are informed by the view that the palace network is continuing to meddle, undemocratically and inappropriately, in political affairs.

The difficulty for Thailand is that 2010 and the years ahead promise to be even more difficult. The outpouring of grief that will come with the king’s passing will probably be followed by a period of intense jockeying and place-shifting. One sign of the potential for unrest comes from former Prime Minister Thaksin’s efforts to revive his political fortunes. These efforts took a curious turn in November 2009 when he endorsed, in glowing terms, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn’s prospects as a future king. Ironically, Thaksin earned himself a lese majeste accusation for this display of public loyalty.

With this episode in mind, some of the many contradictions, inconsistencies and hypocrisies of Thailand’s current political configuration may not remain hidden from view for long. These are fodder for the critics of the Abhisit government and the palace network, and their respective claims to democratic legitimacy. 2010 may well be the year when the battle for political and royal power is forced out of the shadows and into public consciousness, once and for all.

This is part of the special feature: 2009 in review and the year ahead.

Nicholas Farrelly is a Southeast Asia specialist in the ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific. He is the co-founder of New Mandala and regularly writes on Thai and Burmese affairs.