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By: John Arterbury, Guest Contributor
As Thailand enters a one-year mourning period following the passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a sense of uncertainty looms over the land of smiles. Formerly the world’s longest-serving monarch, the widely beloved ninth King Rama played a pivotal role in domestic politics despite his technically ceremonial political function. With his passing, divides between the country’s populist Red Shirt movement and the nation’s royalist middle class threaten to upend the relative stability achieved by a strict military junta. The king’s death presents the most profound challenge yet to the junta, and bridging these political divides is an imperative for any governing body in Thailand hoping to maintain stability. Should the incoming crown prince fail to strike a balance with Thai society, or should the military junta unsuccessfully navigate the succession process, the specter of political violence could return to the kingdom.
Part playboy and part eccentric, heir apparent Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn is a contentious figure in Thai politics. He has long been considered suspect in the eyes of royalists and conservative urbanites because of his once-close association with exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is viewed by detractors as a populist strongman. The absence of criticism of the crown prince in Thai media is a function of strict lèse-majesté laws rather than genuine adoration. Vajiralongkorn’s ascent to the throne will challenge a nation still recovering from years of sometimes violent protests that resulted in the 2014 military coup.[i]
The 2014 military coup curtailed the prospects of a left-wing populist government in the vein of the Thaksin dynasty and largely favored urban elites. Although military units associated with Bangkok historically held the most sway in Thai politics, a clique of officers along the Cambodian border, the “Eastern Tigers,” rose to prominence in the 1990s after lining their wallets with money skimmed off the surface of the illicit gem trade. The royalist loyalties of the Eastern Tigers—current ruling junta prime minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha is a product of the ultra-royalist Queen’s Guard unit—have put a damper on the chiefly rural, working-class “Red Shirt” movement. The country’s north and northeast remain Red Shirt strongholds, where many still support Thaksin and his younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra. Yingluck herself was ousted from her position as prime minister by Prayuth and his allies in the 2014 coup amid contentious nationwide protests between Red Shirts and their rival “Yellow Shirts,” mostly royalist, middle-class city dwellers.[ii] Since household wealth generally increased in the impoverished north and northeast during Thaksin’s tenure, many remain committed to honoring his legacy and believe the junta and royalists to be against their interests.[iii] This dichotomy has crystallized into countrywide networks of opposition and patronage.[iv]
It appears the ruling junta has sidestepped some of the constitutional procedures intended to ensure a quick royal succession, creating an ambiguous interlude in which the crown prince has not formally assumed the throne. This could be a gambit by Bangkok elites and their junta allies to game out the succession in their favor by ensuring their grip on power.[v] By elevating the president of the junta’s Privy Council to the position of temporary regent, the junta could theoretically alter the procedure of royal succession to its advantage, even possibly offering up a different heir or heiress. Such posturing could further erode Red Shirts’ faith in the junta and cement the balance of power in favor of urban royalists for years to come.
The ruling junta shows no sign of truly surrendering power to civilian rule in the near future, and Prayuth’s assumption of the typically civilian role of prime minister has upended the established process for Thai juntas.[vi] Prayuth, however, retains ultimate power over the military; his army chief, the somewhat controversial Gen. Udomdej Sitabutr,[vii] plays second fiddle.[viii] Consequently, Thailand lacks a civilian figurehead to serve as an electoral outlet. Governing legitimacy will fall to the deeply royalist junta and the contentious crown prince, and the Thai nation will be at the mercy of whatever imperfect balance they can cobble together.
The gulf between political expectations and reality could prove toxic. Many northern Red Shirts are still haunted by memories of disappearances and trauma during the height of nationwide clashes in 2010.[ix] Vigilante attacks against those accused of defaming the monarchy or not mourning properly following the king’s death are troubling.[x] Bangkok’s stark divide between rich and poor and its vast size relative to other Thai cities ensures that it will serve as a bellwether of potential conflict.[xi] Should the junta fail to manage the transition properly, or should it not arrange some détente with the incoming King Rama X, this violence could be a prelude to something more sinister.
The ruling junta must keep Thaksin’s ghost at bay while addressing Red Shirt concerns if it hopes to remain politically viable in the long run. With the binding salve of King Bhumibol gone, the country is sailing into uncharted waters.
John Arterbury is a second-year SSP student focusing on terrorism and substate violence. He previously worked as a reporter for The Bangkok Post.
[i] Llewellyn McCann, “Political implications of Thailand’s royal succession,” New Mandala, July 23, 2015, accessed October 16, 2015, http://www.newmandala.org/political-implications-of-thailands-royal-succession/.
[ii] Sebastian Strangio, “The strongman of Siam,” Foreign Policy, May 21, 2015, accessed October 16, 2015, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/05/21/the-new-king-of-siam-thailand-prayuth-junta/.
[iii] Edwin de Jong, Luuk Knippenberg, Dusadee Ayuwat, and Buapun Promphakping, “Red-Shirt heartland: Village-level socioeconomic change in northeast Thailand between 1999 and 2008,” Asian Politics and Policy, Vol. 4, No. 2, April 2012, 213-218.
[iv] Naruemon Thabchumpon, “Contending political networks: A study of the ‘Yellow Shirts’ and ‘Red Shirts’ in Thailand’s politics,” Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, April 2016, 93-95.
[v] David Streckfuss, “’Just a formality’: Thailand’s peculiar interregnum,” New Mandala, October 20, 2016, accessed October 20, 2016, http://www.newmandala.org/just-formality-thailands-peculiar-interregnum/.
[vi] Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Andrew R.C. Marshall, “As vote looms, Thailand’s powerful army aims to preserve role,” Reuters, August 4, 2016, accessed October 16, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-thailand-politics-military-idUSKCN10F02E.
[vii] Wassana Nanuam, “Despite pressure, Udomdej says he’s not quitting,” The Bankgok Post, December 1, 2015, accessed October 16, 2016, http://www.bangkokpost.com/learning/learning-news/781501/pressure-mounts-on-udomdej-to-quit.
[viii] Chris Blake, “Roar of Thai army’s Eastern Tigers boosts Prayuth’s power,” Bloomberg, September 30, 2014, accessed October 16, 2016, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-09-30/prayuth-cements-thai-power-as-deputy-takes-army-top-job.
[ix] Jim Taylor, “Remembrance and tragedy: Understanding Thailand’s ‘Red Shirt’ social movement,” Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, Vol. 27, No. 1, April 2012, 120-122.
[x] Sasiwan Mokkhasen, “Rejecting vigilantism, regime ramps up 112 crackdown,” Khaosod English, October 20, 2016, accessed October 20, 2016, http://www.khaosodenglish.com/politics/2016/10/20/rejecting-vigilantism-regime-ramps-112-crackdown/.
[xi] Jack Fong, “Political vulnerabilities of a primate city: The May 2010 Red Shirts uprising in Bangkok, Thailand,” Journal of Asian and African Studies, Vol. 48, No. 3, June 2013, 332-337.
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