The royal funeral and cremation ceremony of King Bhumibol this week conclude a year of mourning in Thailand. They also usher in a new era of uncertainty in a country plagued by recurring instability and a polarized political culture.
Thailand’s modern monarchy has been a key source of legitimacy and cohesion. Its revival from an uncertain future after the Second World War was a central achievement of King Bhumibol’s 70-year reign. Through a powerful blend of tradition, divinity and barami (moral charisma), his kingship helped ensure that despite frequent coups, wrenching modernisation and Cold War entanglements, Thailand avoided the sustained mass violence and repression that afflicted most of its neighbours.
Since the role and its creator are essentially indistinguishable, this arrangement has never been tested by royal succession. Two intersecting questions now arise, both with major consequences for Thailand’s stability and governance. First, how will relations between monarchy and military evolve under Bhumibol’s son and successor, King Vajiralongkorn? Second, what are the implications for social stability and the prospects for a return to democracy?
First, what terms of accommodation will emerge between monarchy and military, the other key institution of post-war Thailand? Under the previous reign this relationship did not rest on a clear, formal delineation of powers, but evolved substantially over time and across issues as a result of precedent, implicit negotiation and force of circumstance. King Bhumibol’s public interventions in politics, though decisive, were rare.
But there are already signs that monarchy and military may need time to establish a new understanding. On the evening of his father’s passing the then-Crown Prince declined Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s invitation to be declared king, waiting two months before doing so. Earlier this year he requested that changes be made to the new draft constitution, passed in a referendum in August 2016, before promulgating it. This early assertiveness may presage a period of negotiation over the relative scope and influence of monarchy and military.
Second, how far will monarchical legitimacy continue to play a unifying role in a socially divided society? Over the past decade urban, middle-class ‘yellowshirts’ have sometimes painted their rural, northern ‘redshirt’ opponents as anti-monarchist, a charge the latter deny. Attempts by either side to appropriate the monarchy as a weapon of partisan political conflict could prove destabilizing.
The royal succession intersects with wider questions of social stability in two further ways that will influence the prospects for Thailand’s return to democracy. First, an important, if implicit, goal of the May 2014 coup was to ensure the military presided over the royal succession. The military may now want to prolong its rule until it is confident a stable understanding among elite institutions has been achieved –including on the question of when elections themselves should be held.
But the military may find further reasons to delay a return to democracy whose timeline it has repeatedly postponed. Elections always create uncertainty, and since 2001 have repeatedly been won by opposition forces. The new constitution seeks to square a circle with devices to prevent a freely-chosen government from challenging key interests. But similar attempts in the past to constrain opposition majorities failed.
The final impact of royal succession on social stability comes from below. Over the past year redshirt opposition forces have exercised restraint, even when their former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra fled into exile to avoid imprisonment. But there is a growing view that this restraint will lift once the mourning period is over, and that redshirts will mobilise to demand elections.
In the absence of reliable opinion polls there is no way to gauge their strength. But the military government has made little attempt to overcome Thailand’s political polarization by reaching out to opposition forces or fostering inclusive economic development. Little of the headline 3.5% annual growth projected for 2017 appears to have trickled down to ordinary people. By contrast, since 2014 the net worth of the Forbes Thailand rich list has risen by one-sixth, as has the military budget.
Thailand thus faces a series of interlocking uncertainties: over the evolution of its distinctive form of systemic legitimacy; over the monarchy’s relationship to the military that wields ultimate force; and over the prospects of democracy in a deeply divided society. Managing this complex challenge will require more creative solutions than the ‘winner-takes-all’ approach that often prevails in Thai political culture.
In the best case, a new balance of authority, power and consent will emerge to underpin a reign of stable, inclusive growth that creates a more equal, less divided society. In the worst case, political and social order may fracture, with serious consequences for Thailand’s stability.
Dr Nigel Gould-Davies, Associate Fellow, Asia Programme and Russia and Eurasia Programme.