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Does the imminent ascension to the throne of Thailand’s playboy prince Vajiralongkorn make it more or less likely the military junta will loosen its grip on power? By Hamish McDonald.

The military ponders the Thai royal succession

Thai Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn at a ceremony in Bangkok, earlier this year.
Credit: EPA European Pressphoto Agency b.v. / Alamy

To switch on Thai television is to enter a dream world. Anchormen and women wear matching outfits in soft pastel colours and speak from pastel-shaded desks with backdrops in soft tones.

News bulletins feature groups of citizens, uniformed civil servants and schoolchildren attending the external offices of royal palaces, placing urns of yellow flowers before a portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, bowing and curtseying in unison.

Mid-evening programs show footage of King Bhumibol in his younger days, earnestly inspecting up-country development schemes, a camera slung around his neck, and Queen Sirikit, in the prime of her young and middle-aged beauty, handing out awards to villagers.

If this seems funereal, it is. The nation is on a kind of deathwatch for its king of the past seven decades. King Bhumibol, 88, who has not been seen in public since December, is now understood to have slipped beyond consciousness. Queen Sirikit is also out of sight and ailing.

The pastel shades are colour-coded to the day of the week on which a royal was born: yellow for the king, pale blue for the queen, yellow for Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, mauve for his sister Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. Some TV stations recently added monograms from their initials to a corner of their screens.

Long anticipated, the royal succession is drawing near. It is a linked story to the surface drama of Thai politics, which last Sunday had Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha win approval in a referendum for a new constitution. This first popular vote since he seized power at the head of the military in May 2014 has gained him some legitimacy − despite a low 55 per cent turnout, a ban on campaigning that kept many voters in the dark about what was at stake, and his declaration that voting “no” would not change anything anyway.

As well as diminishing the power of future elected governments, the new constitution is intended to keep the Royal Thai Army in a position to manage the succession.

The Thai public can hardly discuss this aspect, for fear of breaching the lese-majeste law, under which 59 people have been jailed since the coup. But the looming succession hangs over all political dialogue. “There is that implicit understanding that possibly the military regime is not going to leave until there is a proper succession of the throne,” senior journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk, of the Khaosod news portal, told me.

“Even though I am trying to do my best to speak about this to you, I am bound by the law,” he added. “And this is a tragedy, because a country going through a transitional period, a major change, and yet unable to deliberate openly and make sense out of it – it’s tragic and I don’t think it’s helpful for the future of Thailand.”

Diplomats able to access army thinking say that indeed Prayuth is not going to loosen his grip, at least until Vajiralongkorn is enthroned and the military can be sure he is not going to rock the affairs of state. Their worries have just deepened on this score.

Prayuth’s junta has worked hard to orchestrate a better image for Vajiralongkorn, long seen as a hard-partying playboy whose charm sometimes turns to intense and even violent anger at subordinates who disappoint. This is in stark contrast to the stern, ascetic, hard-working and withdrawn King Bhumibol. Princess Sirindhorn is more like her father, but speculation she may be his nominated successor has all but vanished.

In December 2014, the crown prince divorced his third wife, Srirasmi Suwadee, who was rusticated and seven of her family arrested, including a police general accused of amassing wealth from smuggling and illegal gambling. Several senior police and army officers fled the country amid this clean-up. Three other officers are said to have committed suicide in custody, including a major-general who was the prince’s chief bodyguard, while a once-favourite soothsayer and fixer known as Mor Yong died of “renal failure” in the cells.

In August last year, a Lycra-clad Vajiralongkorn led a mass “Bike for Mom” ride through Bangkok in honour of Queen Sirikit’s birthday, and did a similar “Ride for Dad” to celebrate King Bhumibol’s birthday in December.

Then last month, when officials were gearing up for Vajiralongkorn’s own 64th birthday on July 28 amid rumours the king might abdicate, a bombshell struck. German tabloid Bild published photos showing the crown prince greeting the crew of a royal flight fetching him from Munich, wearing a skimpy vest over a torso sporting panels of stick-on yakuza-style tattoos.

In Thailand, the pictures were immediately suppressed, with officials saying they had been Photoshopped. The newspaper insists they are genuine. Another picture, with different tattoo stickers, appeared. Vajiralongkorn did not stay in Bangkok for his birthday, but returned to Munich where he has long spent most of his time, in a villa fronting Lake Starnberg, latterly with his new consort, a former Thai Airways aircrew member who has been given the rank of major-general in the military.

His future subjects have been left to puzzle the message, if one was intended. If the pictures are genuine, was the prince oblivious to the impact of his dress and, if so, did he have no one in his entourage able to give him unwelcome advice? Did the prince approve the taking of the pictures? If so, were they a signal he would be a very different style of monarch to his father?

It has done nothing to lessen worries about what Vajiralongkorn may do once on the throne. As well as wielding immense political influence through his privy council, headed by former coup leader and prime minister Prem Tinsulanonda, 95, the monarch signs off on senior military promotions. With formal military training (at Duntroon), army service and qualification as a jet fighter and helicopter pilot, he could be a much more hands-on commander-in-chief than previous kings. Already he has a regiment of soldiers directly under his command. In addition, the king appoints a majority of the board at the Crown Property Bureau, which has investments estimated at $48 billion. The question for military analysts is whether Prayuth and his clique of officers from the Queen’s Guard regiment are the right people to manage the crown prince. He is said to deride them as likay (comic opera, or fancy-dress) soldiers.

Even more concerning for the traditional military-royalist elite was the past cultivation of Vajiralongkorn by the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the elite’s bogeyman. A police officer turned telecom billionaire, Thaksin created a political party that kept winning absolute majorities in parliament through a populist mixture of welfare benefits and farm subsidies on one hand, and death squads for suspected drug dealers on the other.

The past decade has been a saga of the elite trying to keep the now self-exiled Thaksin and proxies such as his sister Yingluck Shinawatra out of power, through prosecutions for corruption, mass street protests, coups in 2006 and 2014, and constitutional revision.

The constitution approved last Sunday − the 20th since absolute monarchy ended in 1932 − will lead to a 250-member appointed senate sitting atop the elected lower house of 500 members, sitting in joint session to choose a prime minister, who need not be elected. As if that isn’t enough to raise the bar for an elected majority to prevail, the electoral system will be rejigged to make it harder for the existing large parties – Thaksin’s Pheu Thai and the more conservative Democrat Party – to win seats. Courts and anti-corruption agencies have enhanced powers over politicians, while the military’s National Council for Peace and Order retains the right to take over any time in the next five years.

That Thailand has regressed like this, from the liberal order that seemed set in 1997, is partly a legacy of the deification of King Bhumibol over his long reign, accompanied by a narrative of civilian politicians as venal and a denigration of the rule of law as a check on corruption.

Not that the military is more immune to corruption than civilians. When police major-general Paween Pongsirin investigated the bodies of 36 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar found in a jungle camp, he charged numerous Thai officials, including an army lieutenant-general, with people-smuggling. Paween saw his subsequent posting to rebellious southern Thailand as prelude to assassination. Now he’s in Australia seeking asylum.

At Bangkok’s Thammasat University, where royalist vigilantes massacred student activists with impunity in 1976, campaigners against Prayuth’s constitution gathered in a lecture theatre on the Sunday evening to watch the referendum results, a 62 per cent “yes” vote across the country, except in Thaksin’s northern support bases and the Muslim south.

“Although we lost this time this is not the end of the day,” declared New Democracy Movement co-leader Rangsiman Rome, a postgraduate student who recently spent 12 days in jail for handing out “Vote No” leaflets. “It matters that about 40 per cent voted no. It shows there are people who are against the junta, and because of that the NDM will continue fighting to bring it down and make sure Thailand is staying on the democratic path.”

Even before the vote, Chiranuch Premchaiporn, editor of news website Prachatai, was looking to a drawnout political contest. “It may be that we have not come to the turning point in the wheel yet,” she told me. But with 20 constitutions in 84 years − an average shelf life of four years and 73 days − the wheel could soon move again.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 13, 2016 as "Turning the Thai". Subscribe here.

Hamish McDonald
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor.