King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand passed away in the early afternoon of October 13th. At the time of his death, he was the longest reigning monarch in the world, having ruled for 70 years and 126 days, from June 9th, 1956 to October 13th, 2016. He ascended the throne at the age of 17 after the untimely death of his brother, King Anada Mahidol, and quickly became a revered figure in Thailand. He was the only monarch most Thai have seen in their lifetime; many affectionately refer to him as ‘father’ and even view him as a god-like being. Though the King was in poor health for the last decade, his death has shaken the country to its core.
Now, Thailand faces an internal crisis. King Adulyadej was widely beloved. His son and heir Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, on the other hand, is loathed as a “jet-setting playboy” whom few Thai want as their monarch. But Thailand’s succession laws are rather strict and what little hope there was that Princess Ubol Ratana would claim the throne vanished when Prime Minister Chan-O-Cha officially declared the Crown Prince successor shortly after King Adulyadej’s passing. Prince Vajiralongkorn will have the opportunity and responsibility to shape the future of Thailand early on in his reign, as the King plays an integral part in choosing a new Prime Minister.
Thus it was in the best interest of the Thai military to be firmly entrenched in power by the time King Adulyadej passed and Prince Vajiralongkorn took the throne. Many argue that this was the real motivation behind the 2014 coup d’état, rather than widespread corruption in Prime Minister Shinawatra’s government (though that may have also played a role in the military’s decision to seize power from the elected government).
Over the past two years, the National Council for Peace and Order (the junta established by the military in 2014) has attempted to burnish the Crown Prince’s reputation in order to both solidify themselves in his good graces and avoid a popular uprising following the new King’s coronation.
In addition, the junta made several significant changes to the Thai government when they rose to power, beginning with the dissolution of the government and Senate. Furthermore, they overturned a consequential portion of the previous constitution in favor of an illiberal interim constitution granting the military-appointed NCPO almost unlimited power, with the caveat that they would hold ‘official’ elections in 2017 for the NCPO parliamentary body. King Adulyadej’s death is a perfect excuse to delay elections further, granting the military-appointed parliament a longer term in power.
Thai culture takes mourning extremely seriously. Following the King’s death, there is to be a government-mandated one-year mourning period during which all flags will fly at half mast and a one-month period during which any and all entertainment functions are expected to be subdued, both under threat of imprisonment. It would not be surprising if Prime Minister Chan-O-Cha decreed the elections postponed until after the mourning period ended, or possibly indefinitely.
What does this mean for the future of Thailand? While the government has harshly enforced peace on the streets, the country is decisively split between the establishment, centered around the ruling class, and the disenfranchised who demand democratic freedoms and a political voice. King Adulyadej had been a symbol of unity, keeping the uneasy peace. Without a unifying figure, the country faces turmoil in the coming years. Especially if the military refuses to hold or even simply postpones new elections, the disenfranchised may take to the streets in protest, a scenario sure to end in further unrest and violence. And even if elections are held in a timely manner, with the new King in their pocket, the military junta is likely to maintain most, if not all, of their seized power.
There is little hope for stability in Thailand’s near future. An unloved King and an unelected government does not make for satisfied citizens. While the junta could attempt to work with the people and compromise on democratic freedoms and civil rights, it seems highly unlikely. Their actions over the past two years indicate that they desire absolute ruling power. A true democracy is out of the question. Thailand’s future appears dim, with stricter laws and harsher punishments to counteract any rebellious behavior. It may be the end of Thailand as a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy.
There is some small hope that a democratic Thailand may emerge triumphant. The South Asian nation has found success over the past two decades in its booming manufacturing, agriculture, and tourism sectors, resulting in a rising middle class and GDP. It is a nation of moderate but rapidly increasing influence and international recognition. In order for the country to continue on a path towards success, it must first find its own path toward internal stability.