In Thailand, a King’s Coup?

Thai workers installing a framed photograph of King Maha Vajiralongkorn at a shopping mall last December in Bangkok. Credit Rungroj Yongrit/European Pressphoto Agency
Thai workers installing a framed photograph of King Maha Vajiralongkorn at a shopping mall last December in Bangkok. Credit Rungroj Yongrit/European Pressphoto Agency

King Maha Vajiralongkorn signed into force Thailand’s 20th Constitution on Thursday, three months after surprising the military government by requesting revisions to its proposed charter. The text could not go into effect until the king approved it.

Vajiralongkorn, who acceded to the throne just this past December, may be trying to wrest some power from the junta, which ousted a democratically elected government in a coup in 2014. And the Constitution’s promulgation sets in motion a timetable for the next, long-awaited, election, now tentatively scheduled to take place by late 2018. Yet none of that necessarily bodes well for the prospects of democracy.

The Constitution seems designed to ensure that even if an election does take place, the military will remain in control. Among other things, it allows the senate, which is essentially appointed by the junta, to select the prime minister with the support of just one-quarter of elected members in the House of Representatives.

No wonder the military government seemed both irritated and flustered when in early January Vajiralongkorn, after just a month on the throne, asked to modify the draft charter. The junta promptly announced that the king’s request would affect only a few provisions. “It does not involve people’s rights and freedom at all,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said, apparently trying to downplay its importance. “It is about His Majesty’s authority.”

And so it is — only, given the revisions in question, more power for the monarchy will mean less for the military.

One change allows the king to name a regent to act on his behalf, including when he is traveling outside Thailand. This strips the Privy Council, a royal advisory group known to support the junta, of its traditional authority to act in the king’s place on such occasions.

Another change concerns who has the authority to resolve a constitutional crisis not explicitly addressed by the charter. Under the junta’s draft, it was to be the heads of all three branches of power, convened by the Constitutional Court. Now the king will play final arbiter in a crisis, as was the case, at least in practice, under both the 1997 and the 2007 Constitutions.

These changes — and perhaps more so still the fact that they even were requested — represent a loss of power for Gen. Prayuth and his backers. They also appear to be a departure from the longstanding cooperation between the military and the monarchy. For decades, successive generations of Thai generals have deposed elected governments, rewritten constitutions and passed undemocratic laws — and all of that was then legitimized with a stroke of the royal pen.

But Gen. Prayuth’s government could hardly refuse to accede to Vajiralongkorn’s demands. The Constitution couldn’t come into force if the king didn’t sign it, and the document, having been approved by a popular referendum — however orchestrated that was — may be the junta’s only claim to having anything resembling a mandate from the people.

That Vajiralongkorn even asked for revisions is all the more surprising because as crown prince he was known for a lavish lifestyle abroad and seemed neither interested in nor suited to being as active a king as his late father, King Bhumibol, much less a challenger to the junta.

The military government had also worked hard to win Vajiralongkorn’s favor. In 2014, while he was said to be having an affair, it set the stage for his divorce from his third wife by having her extended family arrested and sending her into internal exile. When there was talk of allowing a princess to succeed Bhumibol, the generals made public appearances with the crown prince, a tacit endorsement that smoothed his path to the throne. The Prayuth government has invoked liberally Thailand’s draconian lèse-majesté laws against critics of the throne — or the military — sending a record number of ordinary citizens to jail for record-long sentences.

So is Vajiralongkorn trying to redefine the monarchy’s relationship with the military, unexpectedly, or is he simply reasserting a few royal prerogatives so he can keep on living as he pleases? Either way, what are the implications for the prospects of democracy in Thailand?

For decades, the palace has almost always aligned itself with the military, generally against politicians and democracy. The military would call the shots, and the palace would sign off. Gen. Prayuth’s government cleared Vajiralongkorn’s way to the throne, and expected him to rubber stamp its Constitution. But he didn’t. He asked to change it, and in seemingly innocuous ways, which may be even more unnerving to the generals. After they assented to his changes, he chose to approve the revised draft, well ahead of the deadline, on Chakri Memorial Day, which commemorates the establishment of the current dynasty 235 years ago.

The timing was no coincidence; it was a message. This monarch is going to be a player, it said. Uncertainty is the rule in Thai politics, but typically it’s been the doing of the generals and their guns. Now it’s the generals who face uncertainty, and from their traditional ally. There’s nothing more alarming for people used to wielding arbitrary power than knowing someone else with even more arbitrary power is looking over their shoulder.

But there’s more. Tying the promulgation of the Constitution to Chakri Day is significant is another way as well: It seems to signal that constitutions are a gift to the people from the monarchy, and that opens wide the question of what this king might do for democracy.

Having spent much of the last decade abroad means that Vajiralongkorn, who is 64, has stayed clear of political entanglements in Thailand. He may not command the same respect as Bhumibol, but his relatively clean slate is another kind of asset: It gives him credibility, perhaps even leverage, with pro-democracy advocates, including supporters of the populist former prime minister Shinawatra Thaksin, commonly known as the red shirts.

Vajiralongkorn does not seem to share the near-hysterical anti-Thaksin sentiment pervasive among the junta and the privileged urbanites who profit from authoritarian rule. This could help him play broker among a wider range of actors, including some that the junta has prevented from engaging in any political activity.

The military government often says that it seeks “reconciliation,” but then lapses into blaming people’s democratic aspirations for Thailand’s instability. Gen. Prayuth is reported to have said earlier this year, “If they are carried away with thoughts about rights, liberties and democracy in every issue, it will lead to anarchy.”

To foster a somewhat more open political atmosphere, Vajiralongkorn could use his (never-challenged) constitutional powers to pardon or reduce the sentences of political prisoners or people who have been jailed for lèse-majesté crimes. After all, the junta’s abusive application of the lèse-majesté laws risks undermining the prestige of the royal family. Vajiralongkorn could speak out against it (as Bhumibol once did) or ask for revisions to the laws themselves — so that, for example, no prosecution could proceed without the palace’s assent.

Vajiralongkorn doesn’t have the kind of standing that his father, the so-called Development King, built over seven decades in power. Then again he may not need to. He could serve his country well enough by simply reasserting traditional royal prerogatives against the generals’ overreach. For what happens to be good for the Thai monarchy today — displaying clemency and greater tolerance toward advocates of democracy — would be good for the Thai people too.

David Streckfuss is the author of Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason and Lèse-Majesté.

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