By Gregory B. Poling & Nicole Smolinske —
Yesterday, Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, or Rama IX, died after reigning for 70 years. He was 88 years old and had been in failing health for the past five years, rarely leaving the hospital. King Bhumibol ascended to the throne in 1946 and served as a key source of stability—at times the only one—in Thailand’s tumultuous political arena. He was deeply revered by many Thais, as evidenced by the large crowd of well-wishers who assembled outside of Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok over the last several days.
Q1: What effect will the King’s death have in Thailand?
A1: Thailand now enters a year-long mourning period, and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha has announced that for 30 days there will be no government events held, the flag will be flown at half-staff, and the people should refrain from entertainment activities. During the mourning period, productivity could decrease, and the limit on entertainment activities, as well as fear about potential political instability, might be cause for concern to the tourism industry, which is a major driver of the economy. In response to reports of King Bhumibol’s declining health, the stock market fell by a total of 8 percent over the past week.
King Bhumibol’s death creates a void and will likely force Thais to face the long-standing political fissures within the country. Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn does not command the same reverence as his father, which will make it more difficult for the country to find a new political equilibrium. Prayuth seemed to recognize this yesterday, calling on the public not only to remember the King fondly, but also to protect the nation’s peace and avoid conflicts that could lead to turmoil.
Since Prayuth led a military coup in 2014, Thai politics has been in a holding pattern, waiting for the eventual succession. Now Thailand will have to come face to face with many of the underlying political tensions that have caused cyclical instability and repeated coups for nearly two decades. It is possible that the death of the King will further delay the elections scheduled for 2017, so that the junta can try to ensure stability during the transition back to nominal civilian rule.
Some will likely see Bhumibol’s passing as a weakening of the monarchy itself and, in turn, a weakening of the position of those who draw their legitimacy from it, including the military and Privy Council. How they will combat such perceptions and their waning influence remains unknown. But renewed political upheaval seems possible.
Q2: How will the succession proceed?
A2: Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, the only son of King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit, has officially been heir to the throne since 1972. According to Thailand’s 2007 constitution, when the throne becomes vacant and the King has already appointed an heir, the cabinet is to inform Parliament. The legislature will then acknowledge the appointment and invite the heir to ascend and be proclaimed king. Though the constitution was voided following the 2014 coup, the current interim charter references the old chapter on succession.
Following King Bhumibol’s death, Prime Minister Prayuth quickly addressed the nation and announced that the government would inform Parliament of the choice of Vajiralongkorn as successor. But the Crown Prince has asked for a delay in accepting the throne, saying that he wants time to “mourn his father with the people of Thailand.” It is possible that Vajiralongkorn also wants time to shore up his legitimacy with the people.
The coronation is likely months away.
Q3: Why is there controversy surrounding the succession?
A3: Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn’s claim to the throne is clear and, at least in public, undisputed. Outright criticism of the Crown Prince within Thailand is rare due to heavily enforced lèse majesté laws. But rumors have abounded for years that some in the political elite might try and delay the succession in the hopes of promoting another royal, such as his widely popular sister, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. The rules of succession were changed in the 1997 and 2007 constitutions allowing women to assume the throne. But any such effort could easily backfire on those seeking to bolster the crown’s prestige, as it would directly contradict the wishes of revered King Bhumibol.
In recent years, political elites and the military have tried to bolster the image of the Crown Prince to help encourage a smooth and peaceful transition. Vajiralongkorn has taken a more active role in public duties as his father’s health declined. And though he has spent most of his time residing in Germany, he quickly returned to his father’s bedside when the King’s health took a turn for the worse.
Q4: Who are the other players?
A4: Prem Tinsulanonda is a former junta leader and the president of the Privy Council, and he was long trusted by King Bhumibol. Prem has been seen as a supporter of Princess Sirindhorn and has long been rumored to disapprove of Vajiralongkorn. But he has recently taken steps to signal his acceptance of the Crown Prince’s role, such as appearing at Vajiralongkorn’s “Bike for Mom (Queen Sirikit)” event in August 2015. Despite this, Prem is 96 years old, and his age may be a factor in a lack of support for his ultra-monarchist aims.
Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted as prime minister in 2006 and now lives in exile. The political elites of Bangkok loathe the populist Thaksin and fear his return to power. They blame him for the deep political divide in Thai society. Thaksin won popular support from the “Red Shirts,” rural and middle-class citizens in the northern areas of Thailand and outside the central hub of Bangkok. Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck, was elected prime minister in 2011 but was ousted by the 2014 coup.
Many Thai elites fear the relationship between Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and Thaksin. The two were seen as friendly during Thaksin’s premiership, and while the Crown Prince has since distanced himself from Thaksin, many still fear Vajiralongkorn could issue a royal pardon to allow his return.
Mr. Gregory B. Poling is director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and Fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @GregPoling.
Ms. Nicole Smolinske is a researcher with the Southeast Asia Program. This post appeared as a CSIS Critical Questions here.