Twilight of the king
After the ailing monarch goes, what next?
TO THE casual observer the country is calm and orderly. And reverential: adorning a sweet-seller’s stall in a buzzing market in Bangkok, Thailand’s capital, are a dozen laminated pictures of the 88-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej who, on the throne since 1946, is the world’s longest-reigning monarch, indeed the only king most Thais have ever known. During his reign Thailand has become one of the richest big countries in South-East Asia, a manufacturing hub and a magnet for tourists. Bhumibol’s picture is everywhere, including in millions of homes. As for the ailing king himself, who lies in a hospital just opposite the sweet-seller’s stall—he has not been seen for months. The palace rarely breaks its silence. But in June and again this month doctors said they had drained fluid from his brain.
Whether it comes in weeks or years, the king’s passing will be more than a milestone. His death may set loose centrifugal forces that a coup in 2014 sought to contain, but seems destined in the long run only to aggravate. Below the surface, Thailand is deeply fractured. And so the army-enforced calm accompanying the king’s twilight is fragile. Not least of the problems is that his successor, the crown prince, Maha Vajiralongkorn, is deeply unpopular. After Bhumibol’s death the country, a crucial ally of America’s in South-East Asia, risks descending further into civil strife and economic dislocation, as an elite around the palace resists popular calls for a greater say in politics and a more equitable sharing of wealth. At that point, all bets about Thailand’s stability and prosperity may be off.
When the junta ousted the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra two years ago, it was the second army-backed coup in a decade, and the most recent of several during the king’s reign. This time the army appears to be digging in. The junta, under the self-declared prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, has forbidden politics and censored the press. Even criticism of an illiberal draft constitution that the generals hope to ram through in a popular referendum on August 7th is banned. Critics of the junta, including journalists, activists and a few politicians, have been hauled in for “attitude adjustment” sessions.
Notably, the junta has made draconian use of Thailand’s law on lèse-majesté, which provides for long prison terms for anyone deemed to have spoken ill of the king, queen or heir-apparent. Facing growing anti-establishment sentiment in the provinces among people who feel that an urban alliance has conspired to disenfranchise them, the authorities have presided over a big rise in the law’s use over the past decade, with imprisonments rising sharply after the 2014 coup (see chart).
More than 50 people spent some time in jail in June for lèse-majesté; they included Thais accused of defaming the royals in a student play, scribbling on toilet walls and speaking unguardedly in a taxi. Military courts have handed out staggering sentences: last year two Thais convicted of posting anti-monarchy messages on Facebook received jail terms of 28 and 30 years. Any Thai may report an instance of lèse-majesté, and the authorities invariably act, scared that going soft on suspects might itself be a crime. Hardliners argue that even criticising the law or the long sentences is an offence. (Though the king himself did so in 2005, complaining that: “If you say that the king cannot be criticised, it suggests that the king is not human.”)
A big part of the generals’ project is to eradicate any lingering influence of Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist politician (and elder brother of Ms Yingluck) now in self-imposed exile, but who has been the biggest factor in politics for most of the past decade and a half. Though the traditional elites abhor him, his parties have won every election they have been allowed to contest since 2001. His movement is loosely associated with the “red-shirt” activists who have sometimes congregated in support of the Shinawatras (and who are themselves opposed by “yellow-clad” royalist protesters, mostly drawn from the middle and upper classes).
A police officer turned tycoon, Mr Thaksin took advantage of a liberal constitution adopted in 1997 in the wake of the Asian financial crisis. He transformed a system of retail, local vote-buying into a machine that spread patronage more broadly. Helping him were billions of dollars earned from his telecoms and media businesses, built on government concessions. His parties draw support especially from Thailand’s neglected north and north-east.
There was much to object to about Mr Thaksin’s time as prime minister between 2001 and his ouster by the generals in 2006. Berlusconi-like, he blurred the line between politics, media and business. And the bloody vigilante justice he dealt to alleged drug-runners and to government opponents in the Muslim and often strife-torn south of the country was appalling. But the generals’ squabble with him is part of a broader tension, which has pitted a Bangkok-centred establishment against poorer Thais, many in the countryside.
For all Mr Thaksin’s flaws, he recognised the plight of the less well-off and shaped a politics that appealed to them. His first government introduced free health care and increased subsidies to rice farmers. That, in 2005, helped him become the first elected Thai prime minister to complete a term in office. Yet the business and political establishment around the royal court pushed back. Bangkok bigwigs, hardly clean themselves, complained about corruption and cronyism. They accused Mr Thaksin of pouring cash into crowd-pleasing schemes to tighten his grip on power. They warned that rural giveaways would bust the budget. But, above all, they worried that he appeared to be setting up a network of patronage and economic power to rival their own. Their royal-sanctioned network was—and remains—huge, and ill-understood. Yet it is the chief obstacle to the modernisation that Thailand needs for long-term stability.
The importance of royal patronage to Bangkok’s elites helps explain why reverence for the king is so obsessively enforced. Yet neither that reverence, nor its enforcement, were self-evident necessities to the reformers who, in 1932, replaced a long line of absolutist kings with a constitutional monarchy. Nor were they deemed so in 1946, when the current king ascended the throne as a young, American-born son of a commoner. Soon, however, struggles between civilian and military factions had halted progress towards democracy. Palace advisers and military-led governments sought to shape the Bhumibol reign, and the behaviour of the man himself.
The royal role
Seeking legitimacy—and, as wars raged in Indo-China, a bulwark against communists—generals who had come out on top by the late 1950s sought to turn the monarchy into a nationalist symbol. With army help (and American financial backing), the palace clawed back esteem and wealth.
Elevating the king’s prestige has made it easier for Thailand’s armed forces to paint the politicians they have routinely ousted as petty and ignoble. And it has allowed the palace to become a political actor in its own right. Its power has fluctuated. It remains opaque and the subject of debate. One analysis describes Thailand’s monarchy not as a person, nor even really an institution, but as a network centred on royal advisers in the privy council (appointed by the king) and encompassing royalists whom they can promote through the army, bureaucracy and judiciary. Though interests differ and sometimes conflict, many benefit from the whiff of authority which proximity to the palace endows.
In times of crisis, the palace has occasionally acted as a final arbiter—as in May 1992, when the king was seen to call an end to bloody battles between pro-democracy demonstrators and an army-led government, whose prime minister then stepped down. More often the palace is seen to endorse military takeovers. No coup is considered successful until its leaders are granted some sort of royal audience.
Less obvious but equally important, a near-divine figurehead is convenient for blessing the sometimes dodgy business activities of palace elites and the army. It is desirable, too, for the elites to have a monarch who is a source of patronage and power in his own right. The monarchy bestows honours, for instance, in return for donations to royal charities and good causes. Such things are valuable: indeed, the courts imprison people deemed to have feigned royal links for personal gain.
And though the economy has liberalised considerably since the Asian financial crisis, government concessions, public works and special policy deals still produce vast fortunes for palace-linked businesses. Serhat Ünaldi, the German author of a recent book about the monarchy, notes that some royally connected businesses outperform peers simply because consumers consider them more prestigious.
Follow the money
When the king was healthier, cameras would film him trekking around poor parts of the country, inspecting royally sponsored development projects and meeting subjects. For decades he presided over every public university’s graduation ceremony. But over this foundation grew a thick layer of myth. Courtiers reinstated archaic traditions, such as a requirement that commoners prostrate themselves before royals. Royal pageants with spiritual overtones became more frequent. A royal philosophy was devised, of the “sufficiency economy”. Its vision of development based on harmonious rural life and a deferential hierarchy is fantasy. No matter: the generals who ousted Mr Thaksin in 2006 accused him of flouting the notion of the sufficiency economy—ie, the king’s will.
In the zero-sum calculations of the court, Mr Thaksin’s own network threatened to supplant that of the monarchy. And the stakes were huge. The palace controls billions through its stewardship of the Crown Property Bureau (CPB), a firm that manages the royal family’s properties and investments. Its holdings include chunks of Siam Commercial Bank, one of Thailand’s largest banks; Siam Cement, its biggest industrial conglomerate; and the Kempinski hotel group. It owns swathes of land, including several square miles of Bangkok. Its finances are outside the government budget, and opaque. A study in 2015 guessed that it was worth about $44 billion. That may be an underestimate.
The CPB’s board is appointed by the palace (though by tradition the finance minister holds a seat). It is not required to pay tax, and in principle its income is the king’s to spend. The CPB’s cash pays a big chunk of the monarchy’s household expenses; it is also used for provincial developments that have done much to burnish the palace’s prestige. Some of its business in Bangkok looks charitable, too. All but a sliver of its property there is leased cheaply—and sometimes to palace cronies.
The risk that the succession will disrupt or divert patronage is one reason for jitters in Bangkok. The CPB’s holdings amount to an “insane” amount of money, says a local businessman. “People kill for much less.”
The 63-year-old crown prince, Vajiralongkorn (pictured), is spoilt and demanding, and—to put it mildly—widely loathed. Three times divorced, he spends a lot of time abroad, often in Germany. In 2007 leaked video footage showed him and his then-consort, who was wearing nothing but a G-string and heels, holding a lavish royal party. The only guest appeared to be Foo Foo, his poodle, which before dying in 2015 enjoyed the rank of air chief marshal. One of the prince’s more generous critics calls him “a loose cannon”.
What once especially troubled the elites was a rumoured friendship between the crown prince and Mr Thaksin, who upon his election in 2001 is said to have given Vajiralongkorn a luxury car. The establishment worried that, when crowned, the prince, unpopular at court and among the middle classes, might align himself with Mr Thaksin’s populist movement. That could grant Thaksinites access to the crown’s wealth, and end up locking the old elites out of power. This may have been a key factor behind the army coups against Mr Thaksin and his sister.
For years it was rumoured that palace insiders might interfere with the succession in order to elevate Vajiralongkorn’s more admired sister, Princess Sirindhorn, to the throne (Thailand has never had a reigning queen). But this gossip has recently died down. The junta has shown clear support for Vajiralongkorn, whose reputation it is buffing with a lavish publicity campaign. It has also involved the prince in jolly public events such as two huge charity bike rides. It may have come to some kind of accommodation with him, or simply decided that interfering with the succession will only cause more trouble.
Born unequal still
Some observers now suggest that the succession will prove less disruptive than many had feared. There is even talk that King Bhumibol might abdicate before he dies, in order to help smooth the transition. Certainly, vague worries in Bangkok that “red-shirts” could use the occasion for anti-establishment protests are likely to prove overblown. Might Bangkok’s elites, less worried that a royal transition would threaten their privileges, countenance the shifts needed to heal the country’s rifts, starting with a huge economic divide?
They certainly ought to. More and more Thais are aware of their country’s stark inequalities. Yes, rapid growth has lifted tens of millions from poverty and the curse of subsistence farming. Many from outlying regions have found work in the booming capital or have moved abroad. Yet inequality remains high compared with similarly developed countries. One analysis finds that a tenth of Thailand’s landowners own nearly two-thirds of its titled land. A fifth of rural Thais remain unbanked.
National governments have long overlooked such disparities, committing the bulk of resources to the capital region, even though incomes there are five to seven times higher than in Thailand’s poorer parts. A three-year study reported by the World Bank in 2012 found that three-quarters of all public expenditure was lavished on Bangkok and adjacent provinces, even though the capital region had only 17% of the population of 67m (see map). Spending per head on education was four to five times higher in Bangkok than elsewhere, and on health, 12 times higher. But instead of devising policies to deal with such inequalities, the junta has been cracking down particularly hard on opposition in the rural north and north-east, the largest and poorest regions. One opponent recalls being taken away blindfolded and detained for seven days.
An obstacle to sounder policy is Thailand’s extreme centralisation. Neighbouring Indonesia, after the fall of Suharto, its last dictator, undertook radical decentralisation, which has helped entrench democracy. Yet even during periods of democratic rule, Thailand’s provincial governors have been appointed by the central government rather than elected locally. That means regions lack champions—and the stakes in national politics are raised. Under the army, which sees itself as the guardian of a unitary state, regional autonomy seems unimaginable. Historically, civilian and military governments alike have played down, not celebrated, Thailand’s provincial dialects and patchwork of ethnicities.
It is all storing up trouble for later. Some Thais seem persuaded that eradicating the last lingering influence of Mr Thaksin and his family will help heal social and economic divisions. The establishment intimates that the so-called “good people”—soldiers and selfless bureaucrats—are the only ones who can be trusted to lead the country. Yet such thinking is holding back the development of democratic institutions that might have kept Mr Thaksin in check. The generals have not banished the dissatisfaction caused by the instability and low growth that followed Mr Thaksin’s defenestration. “The junta’s attention is nowhere near where a normal government’s ought to be,” says an analyst familiar with the north-east.
Continuity bordering on stasis looks likely to be the watchword. Portraits of King Bhumibol will not disappear any time soon. Indeed, one Thai observer thinks his veneration will extend long beyond his death and mourning period. Yet the eventual dissipation of Bhumibol’s charisma, and his moral and sacred authority, mean that the palace’s authority seems bound to dwindle. A new generation of royal advisers could come to realise that the monarchy’s survival would be best secured through a more defined kind of constitutionalism. The palace might attempt to speak out more plainly against the most egregious abuses of the lèse-majesté law (rumours have swirled that a large number of pardons may be granted soon).
Unsteady as you go
A palace less tolerant of authoritarianism would be an improvement. But it is only the most optimistic scenario. A grimmer one sees the army using the royal transition as an excuse to impose even greater limits on political activity and free speech—becoming ever more at odds with civilians whose taste for bowing and scraping before the monarchy can only fade. Observers who once thought that the generals’ only priority was to act as an escort to the succession now detect nostalgia for the days when military government was the norm; it looks keen to pull Thailand’s strings for years to come. That would probably mean many more policies designed to smother, rather than solve, Thailand’s problems—such as the suspension of local elections, which are seen to foment discord. All this would doubtless drag out the country’s economic slump.
Things would get only more volatile should the next king choose to pull enthusiastically on all the levers that have passed to the palace under Bhumibol—elevating henchmen and pursuing vendettas, for instance. It is not clear how far eminences who have thrived under Bhumibol’s reign would tolerate a sovereign they consider actively damaging to their interests: were he, for example, to appear overly chummy with factions linked to Mr Thaksin (or, worse, appear to favour his return).
Yet efforts to restrain him would risk angering “red-shirt” activists who in recent years have rallied to defend Mr Thaksin and his sister, and more broadly their own democratic rights. They might perceive another effort by the establishment to stifle change they feel is overdue. All is quiet now. But the elements of post-Bhumibol turmoil in Thailand are all there, should events conspire to arrange them so.
Source: The Economist. Date: July 23, 2016