After king’s passing, Thai military likely to keep calling the shots – for now

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The passing of Thailand’s king earlier this week may postpone any transition back to democracy for a while, leaving the military to call the shots for some time to come, experts said.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest ruling monarch, passed away earlier this week, and the nation mourned the loss of a king who ruled for seven decades and was revered by much of the population.

While there is much at stake in a monarchical transition, so far it has gone smoothly, with the military announcing earlier this week that the king’s son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, will succeed his father. While analysts and Thais have long been nervous about a messy transition that could destabilize the country,  such a scenario now seems unlikely — at least in the short term — with the military firmly in power today, Robert Dayley, author of the book Southeast Asia in the New International Era, told Borderless News Online.

However, it has been reported that the military government might postpone the general election an additional year. After a lengthy delay already — it was scheduled for late 2017 — elections may now be postponed to 2018.

“This can’t be welcome news for Thais eager to return to elected and accountable government,” Dayley said.

But whether that means people will hit the street in protest remains unknown. The military has declared a one-year period of mourning, which means any protests could be seen as disrespect to the king’s memory and to the royal family. And with an uptick in prosecutions and jailings of those viewed as insulting the king or royal family, no one wants that kind of trouble.

It remains to be seen if the new king will approach the messy world of Thai politics differently than his father. King Bhumipol strongly supported a traditionalist view of Thai authority and power. Although he often mouthed praise for constitutional democracy and on occasion intervened on its behalf, his actions mostly favored continued elite rule and control of the system by royally-appointed “good men,” as opposed to popularly elected leadership, Dayley said.

It appears now that mutual loyalty between the crown prince and the military has been cultivated and may continue to be reciprocated for some time to come.  Indeed, only a surprising course of events involving a radical shift by the new king could change that direction, Dayley said.

“If anything, it simply means more power to the military and elites to which now he seems beholden for assuring a safe succession,” Dayley said of the crown prince.

“Thais with hope for a more democratic and accountable government will have to continue to wait,” he added.

Indeed, Thailand’s military government may well want to put off elections for as long as possible, experts have long surmised. Thailand has had a longstanding power struggle between rural and urban, with the military siding with Bangkok’s urban elite. But the ruling junta knows that Bangkok’s political elites would lose a free election, as most of the country’s population resides in rural areas.

For its part, the Thai military may well be breathing a sigh of relief, as ensuring a smooth royal power transition after the king’s passing was a major reason for the May 2014 coup.  While there are other reasons Thailand’s military brass seized power, being in power to manage the monarchical succession was perhaps highest on their list, Dayley said.

While the junta and its allies (including the monarchy) were distressed by the populist policies and electoral power of the Thaksin family, which had formerly held power, it was the fear of pro-Thaksin government being in power at the time of the King’s death that worried them most. At the time of the past two coups in 2006 and 2014, it was known that the crown prince enjoyed ties with Thaksin that could potentially threaten vested elite interests, including the military’s interests, Dayley said.

The military, incapable of removing Thaksin’s electoral influence with the first coup, calculated that it needed to launch another. A purpose of the 2014 coup was to seize control over all governing institutions and ensure that the designated heir, and the queen’s preferred heir, indeed became king. And that when he did it coincided with strong mutual relations with the military, Dayley said.

Meanwhile, the crown price just announced that his official coronation will be delayed for a year, although the military junta has told Thais not to worry, and that he will indeed become the new king. But it  remains to be seen whether this will turn out to be a significant development.

While the king does not directly govern Thailand, the royal family is seen as a unifying institution at times of political uncertainty.

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