A Clouded Future Ahead?: An Unpopular King and Constitution in Thailand

by Yifan Su

March 29, 2017

The Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, one of the most revered and longest-reigning monarchs in the world, succeeded the Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn on December 1, 2016. The government has declared a one-year official mourning period for King Bhumibol, which delayed the Prince’s succession. A unifying figure and a near-deity in a country torn by deep division and ruled currently by a military junta, Bhumibol was seen to have held the country together. Lacking Bhumibol’s widespread popularity, devotion, and integrity expected of a monarch, the Prince is seen unsuitable for the throne, as concerns are quietly expressed over his performance of the same role as his father.

Aged 88, Bhumibol has promoted economic development and stabilized the country for 70 years during various periods of political turmoil, ever since he inherited his throne at the age of 18. A deeply spiritual but divided society, Thailand has been built mostly around Bhumibol whose royal and mediating roles that upheld dhamma virtues and the monarchy at the heart of the political system. An important source of its popularity, the sacred aspect of the monarchy was sustained by Bhumibol’s active interest in rural development projects and the Buddhist faith.

Before 1946, Thailand was greatly divided between progressive politicians or military, who preferred a weak monarchy, and members of the royal aristocracy, who were determined to rebuild a strong monarchy system. Throughout his reign, Bhumibol cooperated with and gave legitimacy of royal backing to a series of military-dominated administrations. Despite criticisms and accusations of Bhumibol as a central player in undermining democracy or a pawn used by conservative forces, he enjoyed gushing praise for his personality and achievements as a caring, artistic, religious, and restrained king as well as unwavering support from the military for the monarchy. Thus, after King’s death it will be incredibly difficult to sustain the monarchy, as the restoration of its status was centered on the King.

The Prince’s lavish lifestyle, little interest in public duties, three divorces, and the trail of broken families he left have long caused anxiety in the kingdom and are raising questions about his character as a King. A video clip of the Prince’s third wife especially scandalized a public accustomed to the idea of kingship closely associated with the Buddhist concept of a dhammaraja – a just king acting in accordance with the 10 dhamma virtues including integrity and self-restraint. The military has been trying to forge a similar mutually beneficial alliance with the Prince as it had with his father, where the military draws its legitimacy from the monarch’s blessing. However, efforts by the government to rehabilitate the Prince’s image was overshadowed by the purge of his third wife’s family after the inappropriate footage of her in a pool party.

The Prince’s sister, Prince Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, on the other hand, has such a great reputation in the country that many quietly hope that she might one day succeed their beloved King who was similarly hard-working and devoted to charity. Some speculate that the Prince’s leaked video scandal was spread by his enemies in the Thai establishment to promote the possibility of Sirindhorn’s ascension to the throne in his place. Given the nickname “Phra Thep” – Princess Angel, Sirindhorm is often spotted inspecting rural development projects and was named a “special ambassador for zero hunger” at a United Nations meeting. Though the Constitution has made it possible for a woman to ascend to the throne, any attempt to openly undermine the Prince would be seen as both disobeying the lèse-majesté law and the King’s wishes as Bhumibol named Vajiralongkorn as heir apparent in 1972.

The protection of the monarch and royals is central to Thai society, especially one ruled under military junta who is seen as staunchly royalist. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has stressed the importance of lèse-majesté laws to protect the most senior members of the royal family from insult or threat, “His Majesty is not in a position to respond or explain.” According to Article 112 of Thailand’s criminal code that has been in place since 1908, anyone who defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent will be punished with up to 15 years in prison. Lèse-majesté complaints are always formally investigated by the police and strictly enforced, while the details of the offence and charges are rarely made public.

Critiques about lèse-majesté include wide room for interpretation, severe penalties, and vague definition of insults. Human rights groups criticize the lèse-majesté law as a political weapon to stifle free speech and silence peaceful dissent. Amnesty International condemned a Thai court decision that upheld a 10-year-sentence against a social activist and former magazine editor Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, whose two articles were deemed offensive to the royal family. Some of the most recent arrests for lèse-majesté are made over posts on social media such as an image of the previous King’s dog on or even liking a post deemed as offensive on Facebook.

Stricter restrictions on public discussion of the succession, entertainment, and television have been in place since the King’s death. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has asked for cooperation from the programmes to lower their tone and from the public to maintain decorum throughout the mourning period. Therefore, few people dare to openly complain about the Prince. However, few details of his life emerge in public records or publications from abroad are whispered and passed along furtively, offering a glimpse into the King-to-be as well as the frequent public distaste and bemusement evident in coded comments.

The unpopular Prince’s ascension raises a variety of questions about Thailand’s future that lèse-majesté cannot protect him from. First, the status of the monarchy is in question due to a less-beloved king. A republican movement might gain momentum in recent years and bring the unresolved issue of real estate holdings to light. What is at stake is the control over an estimated $31 billion of royal fortunes, whether the assets are the property of the royal family or of the Thai public. The general economy is already in poor shape, as the performance of the military government has been muddled in the two years since it ousted the government led by a popular party. What’s more, the Prince is likely to dictate political arrangements for years to come through the appointment of his own senior royal advisers, which might end the influence of a number of powerful elderly that served Bhumibol.

The Prince is also expected to endorse a new, military-drafted, and highly controversial constitution. A clear majority of Thai referendum voters recently approved a junta-sponsored draft constitution that included a new voting system. One of the most controversial clauses calls for the 250-seat senate to be fully appointed by the military government, while only half of the upper house seats were appointed before the coup. A wholly-appointed Senate and other unelected bodies will be given a decisive say over Thai politics, while no party holds a majority in the lower house or National Assembly of Thailand. The government insisted such “guided democracy” would not affect the road map to restoring democracy, particularly the upcoming election.

However, there have been strong warnings and doubts from human rights groups, political groups, and public about the undemocratic character of the new constitution that opens a channel for the military government to continue holding power and discard outcomes of the referendum and the general election. Some critics say that allowing the appointed senators to choose the Prime Minister equates “staging a coup without using force”. An academic from Thammasat University, Poonthep Sirinupong says, “it is wrong from the beginning that the draft is junta-sponsored, and it is undemocratic as people did not take part in the drafting process.”

Yifan Su is a Sophomore at the College of William & Mary and is an Intern for the William & Mary Policy Review.