Thailand not Quite Prepared for the King's Passing

July 26, 2016Thailandby East Asia Forum

Thailand's monarchy is central to its leadership, and that is creating a mess.

After some months of uncertainty, a representative from Thailand’s Democrats Party last week declared in a televised seminar that the party would not support the proposed draft constitution in the 7 August referendum. This follows an earlier declaration from the pro-Thaksin Puea Thai party that it also opposed the draft.

The announcement represents a rare moment of agreement between the two rival parties, the Democrats and Puea Thai, which have been at loggerheads since the 2006 coup. The Democrats represent the Bangkok establishment and the southern region, while Puea Thai (and its earlier incarnations) represents the rural and urban working classes, particularly from the north and northeast.

Even though the military regime has all but forbidden campaigning against the draft constitution, agreement between the two parties now means that the draft will face an uphill battle to be passed in the referendum.

The draft constitution envisages an appointed Senate, limits on parliamentary authority, enhanced powers for non-elected state agencies and a provision for a non-elected prime minister. It is widely seen as designed to create a constitutional framework that would allow the military and their royalist backers to oversee Thai politics for the foreseeable future, whatever the outcome of elections.

The architect of the current draft is 78-year-old Meechai Ruchupan, a conservative lawyer with long-standing Palace and military connections. Meechai embodies the political thinking of Thailand in the 1980s, when the military and the Palace shared power. At that time General Prem Tinsulanonda, a Palace favourite, was prime minister and Meechai ran the prime minister’s office. Elections never threatened that control until the late 1980s.

Then, as now, the tension was resolved by a coup in 1991. Then, as now, Meechai headed the constitutional drafting committee appointed by the coup-makers. The subsequent political conflict led to the Bloody May incident of 1992, when the military opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators, killing scores. Meechai drafted the amnesty bill that exempted those responsible for the killings from prosecution.

The military regime’s tight control has spawned numerous conspiracy theories. One theory alleges that the current regime was never serious about having the constitution adopted in the first place. Rather, its aim was simply to distract the public from its unpopularity and to prolong its rule for as long as possible, at least until after the royal succession is settled. After all, Article 44 of the provisional constitution grants Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha the power to order a new constitution to be adopted when he chooses.

An earlier draft constitution by another conservative lawyer, Borwornsak Uwanno, was rejected by a military-appointed National Reform Council in September 2015.

The referendum comes at a time when the military’s post-coup popularity among its conservative supporters has been eroded. Prime Minister General Prayut’s public appearances are by turns petulant, foul-mouthed and self-pitying. The regime’s handling of the economy, even in the eyes of its own supporters, has been dreadful.

Its foreign policy, which seems deliberately designed to rebuke the United States by exaggerating Thailand’s warm relations with China and Russia, appears reckless by the high standards of Thailand’s foreign affairs establishment.

Given the evaporation of much of its support even among its conservative backers, its incompetence at managing the country and its lack of foreign friends, the question is why is the military regime still in power more than two years after the coup?

One answer is its skill in repression. This dates back to the lessons it learned in the Cold War years. While repression is undoubtedly ugly, the military has so far managed to regulate it to a level that it does not outrage enough people to spark a mass uprising that might threaten its political position.

However, the other answer is ongoing uncertainty about the future of the monarchy, which is the single reason for the conservative turn in Thai politics over the last decade.

The resolution of Thailand’s 11-year-old political conflict depends on the outcome of the succession following the passing of the 89-year-old King Bhumibol, now in the 70th year of his reign. The Crown Prince is deeply unpopular. Many conservative Thais doubt his ability to manage the affairs of the monarchy at such a crucial moment in Thailand’s history.

Because of the sensitivity in discussing the monarchy there is much speculation over the real state of the king’s health. According to one conspiracy theory among some Red Shirt supporters, the king is already dead. The military regime and its supporters are keeping it a secret, in order to prolong their rule by living off their legitimacy of defending the throne from republicans.

A more widely accepted view is that the king now cannot live without life-support, and no doctor would dare suggest that it be removed. If this were true, he could potentially be kept alive artificially for some time to come.

Because of the monarchy’s centrality to the political system, at present, all sides in Thailand’s political crisis are playing a waiting game. One thing is for certain, though: no matter what the outcome of Thailand’s constitutional referendum on 7 August, no one believes that it will resolve the political crisis.

Thailand’s constitutional referendum is in a royal mess is republished with permission from East Asia Forum

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