King Bhumibol and Thailand’s political landscape after him

On a visit to Thailand last year, I found one thing common to the fascinating variety in landscapes — the portrait of the Thai monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. His smiling face looked at you from virtually everywhere; shops filled with tourist-baiting memoirs, restaurants serving the most delicious Thai food, and from the dashboards of cabs. The love for their ruler was evident, among the people, who spoke of him with love and adulation. It didn’t seem surprising that the world’s longest serving monarch had been called the most-loved, too.

Le roi est mort, vive le roi! Different use of this popular saying when it comes to Thailand. Image Source: BBC

King Bhumibol passed away recently, at the age of 88, bringing to an end one of the most talked-about reigns, mostly for the right reasons. In a nation that has seen frequent coups and a see-saw power shift between the military junta and civilian governments, the King was always the “people’s king” and was constantly lauded for his agricultural and industrial development initiatives. Further, he also diffused tensions in the various coups that dotted his long reign.

With King Bhumibol’s passing away, his son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn is set to ascend the throne. However, he has delayed his coronation, and has said that he will take up the mantle after a period of mourning. It can be said that Thailand is currently in a state of political transition and uncertainty. In 2014, the military junta seized power once again by removing then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Since then, there have been major political developments, the most important of which has been the referendum that approved the new constitution for the country, earlier in August. Leading up to the referendum, campaigning against the new draft constitution was banned, and many major Thai political parties rejected the draft. Critics also said that the new constitution gave many sweeping powers to the military. However, supporters of the new draft claimed that it would bring back stability to the country’s governance.

Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the current Prime Minister, has promised elections in 2017. However, critics have said that the junta, or the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), will still maintain an iron grip on proceedings, pointing to a provision in the new constitution that will allow the NCPO to appoint the Senate, with 250 members. This could effectively mean the possibility of an unelected, military-backed Prime Minister being appointed, in the case of a deadlock and gives the junta an enshrined presence in the country’s politics, by virtue of the senate or the upper house. Thus, analysts have called it a “guided democracy” that will come into force, even after the elections are held.

It is important to note that the military has seized power in Thailand with a nod from the palace and the monarch, and this is where the demise of King Bhumibol is a setback. King Bhumibol had always favoured an understanding between the military and the palace, as is interpreted from the various times the military seized power with the palace’s tacit approval. However, the King had focused on reaching out to the people and people-centric measures, no matter what the political situation, an approach that endeared him to the Thai population. With his passing, and with his successor reportedly not being regarded with the same adulation, one wonders where this leaves the Thai people.

Then, there is also the issue of the Islamic insurgency, in the country’s restive south. The Thai authorities have consistently been quick in denying the conflict, saying that “Thailand doesn’t have conflicts regarding religion, ethnicity, territory or minority groups.” However, in a situation where the violence is reported to have killed over 6,000 people in the past 12 years, the implications are hard to ignore. Thai authorities have routinely blamed such violence, the most recent of which killed four people and injured 35 in August, on ‘domestic political opponents’ and have implied that they were not acts of terrorism. The insurgency in the south is linked to the Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front fighting for the independence of Malay-Muslims in the south of the country. However, the group does not claim responsibility for such attacks. Analysts have also repeatedly called for the insurgency to be recognised as a political problem.

With the elections ahead next year, and the Crown Prince having delayed his coronation, Thailand’s politics are at an interesting stage to watch. The people of Thailand have lost a ruler who had placed their well-being at the forefront of his decisions and approach, and only time will tell if the Crown Prince carries forward his father’s legacy.

Zahaan Khan

Zahaan Khan

Mirza Mohammed Ali Khan (Zahaan) is a senior journalist with a leading Indian national daily. His areas of interest are India's foreign policy and Asian geopolitical relations. He tweets at @ZahaanAliKhan
Zahaan Khan

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