The unspoken but crucial role of the royal family in Thailand's current crisis
The current crisis in Thailand has a good deal to do with those who support Thailand's crown prince and those who want the princess to ascend to the throne. But you won't read about that in Thailand.
There is no doubt that the current political crisis in Thailand reflects competition over elite access to the spoils of office, high levels of official corruption and a class division between the country’s urban and rural poor and the urban middle and upper classes. But what is not discussed, even though it has been at the centre of “yellow shirt” calls for political change, is the future role of Thailand’s monarchy.
This subject has not been raised as to do so is commit lese majeste — offence against royal dignity — which is a crime regularly punished by imprisonment. In 2012, a former commodities trader who said online that Thailand’s now 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s ill health was responsible for a decline in the sharemarket was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. Foreigners have also been jailed in Thailand for lese majeste.
While Bhumibol is widely respected in Thai society, in some quarters even revered, his immediate successor to the throne, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, is said to be less well accepted. The Economist reported in 2010, soon after Bhumibol was hospitalised, that Vajiralongkorn was “already widely loathed and feared”, not least by Thailand’s traditional elites.
Few in Thailand are comfortable with the idea of Vajiralongkorn becoming king. But among the country’s oligarchs, the prince’s various indulgences rankle. The prince is widely known as a playboy who prefers the delights of Europe to his own country, who makes “artistic” movies and whose pet poodle Fu Fu is formally ranked as an Air Chief Marshall, sometimes wearing a military uniform. He had also shown a clear dislike of courtly behavior, until recently taking on more ceremonial roles.
By contrast, the prince’s sister and second in line to the throne, Princess Sirindhorn, is widely admired by Thais looking beyond Bhumibol’s reign, in particular among the “yellow shirts”. Yellow shirt leader Suthep Thaugsuban and his protesters are said to be financially supported by those who strongly wish Sirindhorn to succeed her father. In contrast to the royal yellow, some troops on the streets since the declaration of martial law last week have been wearing purple ribbons — the princess’ colour.
Reflecting the division within public Thai politics, Vajiralongkorn is said to be close to ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The prince even has his own praetorian guard, the Royal Guard 904 Corps, largely drawn from soldiers from the north and north-east — home of the red shirts and bastion of the Shinawatra clan.
When the army was slow to provide protection to recently ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra earlier this year, the prince sent how own guard to protect her. Whether or not the prince succeeds to the throne could determine whether Thaksin is granted a pardon and allowed to return to Thailand.
However, while the Shinawatra family appears close to one side in the royal feud, many red shirts, often informed by more revolutionary ideas, want to see an end to the monarchy altogether. It is notable that, within this context, that the only element of the 2007 constitution that was retained following last Thursday’s military coup was that section identifying the king as the head of state.
The question, then, that is not being discussed is what will happen to Thailand’s monarchy once the king eventually dies. The options are that there will be a continuation, or even a strengthening, of the role of the royalty, with very limited democracy, as the yellow shirts want. The alternative is that the monarchy will be further made ceremonial and increasingly irrelevant, or done away with altogether, and Thailand becomes a fully democratic state, as many red shirts want.
The army, now firmly in political control, is unlikely to loosen its grip on power until after the king dies and this question about the fundamental direction of Thai politics is able to be answered.
*The author requested anonymity due to professional relationships in Thailand