• Behind-the-scenes power struggles over the future of the monarchy will continue even after the succession process is settled.
• A weak monarch will magnify the military’s historical role as Thailand’s ultimate arbiter of power.
• Rifts in the military would exacerbate the immense uncertainty around Thailand’s delicate political transition.
Thailand’s royal succession is not going according to the junta’s plan. When revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej died Oct. 13 after 70 years on the throne, he left behind a power vacuum that could shake the country to its core. Almost immediately after the king’s death became public, the leader of the Thai junta, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, announced that Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, whom the late king named as his heir in 1972, would take the throne. Despite the crown prince’s unpopularity and scandalous reputation, his appointment came as a relief, ostensibly settling the contentious issue of royal succession after years of uncertainty helped to fuel the country’s cyclical political unrest. But a few hours later, Prayuth stunned observers by revealing that the crown prince had allegedly requested time to mourn before taking the throne. In the meantime, the chief of Thailand’s Privy Council, 96-year-old retired Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda, will serve as regent pro tempore — perhaps for as long as a year.
Though it is not uncommon for a coronation ceremony to be delayed or for a regent to carry out royal duties in the absence of the Thai king, the crown prince’s dubious decision to defer accession is unprecedented. The delay has renewed long-held fears of a contested royal succession, which could prove deeply destabilizing for Thailand. The most pressing question — who will assume the throne — will probably be resolved in the coming months, as Prayuth suggested last Tuesday Oct. 18. But the more important details of succession — what degree of power the next monarch will wield, and to the benefit or detriment of which factions in Thai society — will take much longer to crystallize. The interregnum will shed light on the junta’s ability to fill the void as Thailand enters a phase of immense political uncertainty and transition.
Why succession matters
To understand how an empty or weakened throne could destabilize Thailand, one must first understand the role the monarchy plays in the country’s political landscape. The Thai crown has relatively little power or ability to act independently. Instead, it derives influence primarily from the goodwill it has cultivated among other parts of Thai society — the public, the military, the bureaucracy, the business world, and the political class — and from its carefully managed reputation for neutrality and altruism. More than a single man or dynasty, the monarchy is a network of interests in symbiosis with the desires of other elements of Thai society. At the center is the Privy Council, which acts as the voice of the monarchy and serves as an informal politburo, using its members’ existing political networks and influence to help the monarch maneuver.
In Thailand’s intricate political system, the monarchy functions primarily as a counterbalance. By lending legitimacy to new governments, whether civilian or military, it ensures that those who want power seek its approval — or at least try to avoid incurring its disapproval. It wields power sparingly and often indirectly, intervening only when it is clear that all sides will consent to it. To be openly opposed would put its centrality at risk. This approach affords it the clout to function as a unifying court of last resort that Thailand’s various factions can turn to in times of crisis.
But the empty throne indicates the system that revolves around the crown is in flux. This will make it difficult for the monarchy to resume its historical role and balance the business, political and military factions already trying to curry favor with the next monarch. In the meantime, the junta will try to bear the burden of restoring Thailand’s political balance and guiding the country forward.
The junta’s goals
Since taking power in the 2014 coup, the junta’s main goal has been to remold the Thai political system to prevent populist politicians such as former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from amassing power and upending the country’s long-established order. Its new constitution, which was approved in a referendum in August and requires royal endorsement, is designed to “manage democracy” by reducing the power of elected governments and making it easier for the military and judiciary to intervene in times of unrest. In theory, this system, similar to one military-backed governments established in the 1980s, would allow for more stable long-term policymaking, shielded from the political paralysis that Thailand so often experiences.
But despite the superficial stability it has imposed in the past two years, the junta has done little to mend the deep rifts that divide Thailand. Under Thaksin, the rural masses became emboldened to challenge the establishment that had long dominated the country’s political system. Given the current political climate — and that Thai governments routinely ignore or altogether discard their predecessors’ constitutions — it remains to be seen how the junta’s vision will fare after the next general elections, currently scheduled for late 2017. Amid this uncertainty, the junta can ill afford a disorderly royal succession, which could set off power struggles in other spheres and create an opening for the self-exiled Thaksin to stage yet another comeback.
Prayuth’s proclamation that Vajiralongkorn would become king was meant to demonstrate the junta’s ability to negotiate power struggles at the highest levels of Thai society and preserve the nation’s calm at a delicate time, as the late king did. Though the much-maligned crown prince will jeopardize the monarchy’s pre-eminence in Thai society in the long term, the junta thought it prudent to back his accession in line with palace law. Doing so emphasizes the enduring importance of tradition in Thailand’s rapidly changing society, while preserving the military’s image as protector of the monarchy, itself the self-styled guardian of Thai heritage and values. The prince will never attain the esteem that the Thai people felt for his father, but that would be a boon for the military, making it easier to keep the new king under its thumb. After all, Thaksin tried to forge an alliance with the prince in the mid-2000s to cement his burgeoning power (though Stratfor sources say Vajiralongkorn later broke with the Shinawatras, in part because of their supporters’ anti-monarchy rhetoric).
A rift in the military?
Evidently, however, the junta is not in full control of the succession process. Palace intrigue in Thailand, where strict lese majeste laws shield the monarchy’s machinations from public view, lends itself to unfounded speculation. Nonetheless, Stratfor sources believe that a camp led by Prem — long thought to be at odds with Vajiralongkorn — is either trying to block the crown prince’s accession outright or, more likely, to check his powers once he takes the throne. So long as the finer points of succession remain unresolved between Prem, Prayuth and Vajiralongkorn, the crown prince’s mourning period will continue.
Prem’s move is likely intended to assuage fears of the damage the capricious prince could do to the monarchy’s prestige and to the interests of powerful stakeholders once he assumes control of the crown’s real estate and business empire. (The monarchy’s business interests, worth an estimated $50 billion, are among its few direct sources of power, which Vajiralongkorn could attempt to use to target his adversaries.) At the same time, it also reflects concern that the growing dominance of the clique that controls the junta is upsetting the balance of power in the military.
Thailand’s military is top-heavy and extremely factional. With relatively few traditional military threats to occupy its attention, it has historically involved itself in wide-ranging business and political endeavors, attempting 19 coups over the past 84 years. As they rise through the ranks to lucrative positions, officers are expected to reward their cliques (usually composed of former classmates from their days as cadets) with promotions. Under Bhumibol’s reign, rival military factions routinely vied for royal endorsement to legitimize their extracurricular pursuits.
A clique known as the Eastern Tigers, led by Prayuth and Defense Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, has gained enormous power over the past decade, sowing resentment among other factions whose paths to seniority have been obstructed. With Vajiralongkorn’s royal endorsement, the Eastern Tigers would be poised to dominate the Thai political landscape for some time. The issue came to a head in August when, against Prawit’s wishes, Prayuth appointed a general from outside the Eastern Tigers as army chief in an apparent bid to secure Prem’s cooperation on the succession front.
In siding with Prem, Prayuth appears to be positioning himself to play a balancing role, much as Prem did during his time as Thailand’s preeminent power broker during the 1980s and 1990s. Giving greater royal powers to another of the late king’s heirs, particularly the widely popular Princess Sirindhorn, could curb the crown prince’s authority and help maintain equilibrium across the establishment. Notwithstanding their differences, all the main military factions continue to be more or less aligned against Thaksin.
Still, Thailand’s halting royal succession process has exposed the limits of the junta’s power and the persistent risk of rifts in the military. In the worst-case scenario, different camps could rally behind rival factions of the monarchy as the junta struggles to fill the void left in Bhumibol’s wake and to control Thailand’s uneasy political transition. A resolution to the immediate question of the late king’s successor will probably emerge in the next few months. But even then, unexpected purges in the military or in firms with ties to the crown, curious legal cases against prominent figures, or unflattering leaks about the crown prince’s behavior will signal that all has not been settled behind the scenes.