King’s death leaves Thai leadership vacuum

By Zhou Fangye Source:Global Times Published: 2016/10/16 20:13:39

Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej died at the age of 88 on Thursday. As the longest-reigning monarch in Thailand, his demise may signify the end of Thailand's special democratic system.

Since the 1990s, Thailand has sped up its transformation into a politically diverse and democratic country. But King Bhumibol, also known as Rama IX of the Chakri Dynasty, remained in a high place of political power and in the hearts of his people. He was seen as an important stabilizer and stop valve in Thai politics, whether he was easing tensions when conflicts emerged in the National Assembly, military or in the streets. Thailand is known as a "Teflon economy" - one that is able to maintain tourism and investment boom despite political turmoil. The credit, to a large extent, should be given to the king, who played a significant role in keeping the effects of political turbulence on economic growth to a minimum.

The death of the king brings imbalance to Thailand. Since the coup staged by Prayuth Cha-ocha in 2014, the military and the royal family have been attempting to build a new system to balance Thailand's fluctuant politics. A referendum in August passed a new constitution under which the military's role is cemented as a judge, instead of a player, in Thailand's politics. This way, the military can better safeguard Thailand's political stability in a more detached manner. However, the problem is the military or the royal family, even combined, cannot fill the deceased king's shoes.

King Bhumibol's authority stemmed from three factors. First, as a constitutional monarch, he did not only have certain state powers, but also was a symbol in the hearts and minds of Thailand's citizens. The conventional monarch-subject relationship was somewhat resurrected after military dictator Sarit Thanarat reinstated old practices such as prostrating before royal members in the 1960s. King Bhumibol, in his reign of more than half a century, also established a network - king at the core, Privy Council as the pivot - that covers a wide range of aspects including the military, politics, academics and business.

In most cases, King Bhumibol didn't exert his influence directly, but through his network, which can be highly effective. Lastly, with decades of paying keen attention to poverty alleviation efforts, King Bhumibol earned an elevated reputation among Thai people. While he presented himself as a "peasant king," he was conferred with the title "King Bhumibol the Great" due to his noble personality.

No one or force can take Bhumibol's place in counterbalancing Thai society. His son, Maha Vajiralongkorn, can only assume the role of king in a legal context. He is unlikely to inherit his father's extensive network, because loyalty in the Privy Council and worship from the masses are things to be earned.

During Bhumibol's reign, the lèse majesté law, which shields a king from criticism, has sparked recent controversy. But Bhumibol eased those tensions. If the new king cannot win the people's respect, future campaigns are expected to chip away at the law, which will further weaken the authority of the crown.

No matter how hard the royal family and the military work to rearrange post-Bhumibol's Thailand, the former king's popularity cannot be duplicated. The political feud between pro-Thaksin and anti-Thaksin groups cannot be subdued with ways used in the past or backlash might ensue, causing great social division and political conflict. Without King Bhumibol's "firewall," the Thai economy may face a scorched future.

For Prayuth's interim government, filling the vacuum left by the king's death and bracing for possible power grabs from the pro-Thaksin group will be its main challenges before it hands power back to the people.

The author is an associate research fellow at the National Institute of International Strategy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion


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