Every monarchy in a liberalising state eventually goes to battle with a popularly elected executive or legislature over power. The crown usually loses the fight, eventually. Indeed, Bhumibol’s first 11 years were spent jousting with governments and military bosses unwilling to cede back to the throne the powers taken away in the 1932 revolution against the absolute monarchy.
The fight resumed in 1988 when Bhumibol’s hand-picked prime minister of eight years, army boss Prem Tinsulanonda, was forced from office in an election framed around the issue of who picks the country’s executive – the king and a loyal military, or voters. While the king installed Prem to head his privy council, the new Prime Minister, the freewheeling Chatichai Choonhavan, attempted to dismantle the King-Prem power base in the bureaucracy. That ended with the military coup of early 1991, itself reversed in the bloody May 1992 uprising.
The palace spent the 1990s trying to recover what it lost with Chatichai — the image that the king was the source of all good things in the kingdom and that an independent premier was a path to perdition. This effort was somewhat successful, especially after the 1997 economic collapse. Prem even sought a comeback as the king’s designated executive late that year, only to be stymied by the constitution’s rules. With Prem and his cohorts in the Privy Council still working hard to maintain palace influence through the bureaucracy and especially the army, an open clash remained inevitable.
It came in the enormous fortune, ego and surprising foolishness of Thaksin, the telecoms tycoon and self-styled “CEO Prime Minister” elected in 2001 and re-elected in 2005. With no sense of finesse, Thaksin did the palace’s bidding when it suited him and snubbed Prem and the king when their bidding was inconvenient. Meanwhile he competed with the king for the hearts of the people. It wasn’t long before Bhumibol’s supporters branded Thaksin a usurper.
The battle has many fronts – political power, money, business, the constitution, and succession. At each, the palace has shown more than enough inconsistency to allow Thaksin to compete with the king’s reputation for good intentions and superior judgment. Basically, Thaksin has leveraged his knowledge of royal weaknesses and unseemly compromises to stay in the game.
The palace can’t be blamed for Thaksin’s rise. But it can be faulted for playing around in Thaksin’s league while not planning for the day such an opponent would emerge. It failed to insist on well-defined constitutional rules to protect itself, the rule of law, and real examples of honesty and transparency.
Thaksin knows palace weaknesses intimately. Already in the 1990s, the crown prince and other members of the royal family and palace retinue were enjoying the fruits of his “largesse”, never imagining this would compromise them. He knows how the palace has protected those favorites who are guilty of indiscretions and illegalities. And he knows very well how the throne depended on the government to save palace-controlled Siam Commercial Bank after the 1997 crash. He himself had a big role when he took the bankrupt iTV television station off the bank’s hands for far more than the station was worth. He predictably turned it into a medium to promote his own political career.
Thaksin is foolish, of course, to think this knowledge can conquer a king with six decades of experience brushing off impertinent politicians and an equally long time solidifying his popularity with the people. But Thaksin’s ability to exploit palace weaknesses has left the throne with few tools to protect itself, forcing it into an uncomfortable corner. Attempts to use law to oust Thaksin have failed due to a weak constitution and weaker judiciary, things the throne has never before experienced as a problem.
That has left the monarchy, faced with Thaksin’s refusal to disappear from the scene, to fall back on the military, where the prime minister and Prem have vied to keep their own men in power. This came to a head in July when Prem – the king’s top advisor – dusted off his military uniform to level a threat of an army coup against Thaksin’s government. As bad is Thaksin is, this took Thailand back decades, when coups were the accepted method of changing the government.
Prem and Bhumibol will almost surely win this battle. With his allies dropping out from his Thai Rak Thai party, Thaksin could be replaced by either weak surrogates or the hapless Democrats in the elections to come. In whatever case, the government will not be a strong one and the palace will get its way on what it thinks matters.
But that won’t eliminate potent assaults on royal power in the future. Bhumibol’s dependence on the combination of his prestige and lèse majesté laws to protect him is no longer enough. Thaksin’s challenge provoked, for instance, the public discussion of the king’s official powers, something unseen since the 1940s, in books, pamphlets, magazines, newspaper pieces and, of course, on the Internet, where blogs, chat rooms and a smart new website called Midnight University opened up the topic.