Monday, October 17, 2016

Thailand: A Succession, Interrupted

At the center of these seemingly incomparable differences, there was one unifying figure, a core that drew these elements together. The world has seen monarchs and heads of state who were popular and revered, but seldom has it seen one who was widely described by international media without irony as "beloved." The late King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand was indeed beloved as anyone who has been to Thailand can attest. The fact that the late king's portraits are hung in every business venue could be dismissed as a practice of necessity, if not for the fact that those portraits are not uniform state-issued photos depicting a regal figure, but photos many picked themselves to reflect their favorite representations of the king. Sometimes the king is depicted in Buddhist monk attire. Sometimes he is seen visiting the people in a suit instead of his royal uniform. Some photos show the king as a loving young father holding his infant child. The late king was revered as a semi-deity in the nation, but it is perhaps his human side that has endeared him most to the people. One of the most popular portraits of him features a drop of sweat on his face, symbolizing his dedication to his role.

In the same message, he also talked candidly about himself, reiterating that as a king, he did not see himself as infallible - a king who could do no wrong in the ordinary sense of the word. He clearly said he was not above criticism. He added that he welcomed critical comments based on fact and objectivity. 

For the Thai media, the King's comments were significant because he supported the media doing their job professionally in informing society. He was an avid newspaper reader, a veteran ham radio operator and an early user of computers. He often used computer graphics to compose his New Year cards and messages for the Thai people. 

At the time, his comments reflected a media environment in which journalists were under stress. Most Thai journalists would agree that his stand on the media has had a positive impact on the media's role and reduced attempted state interventions. As far as I know, no Thai journalists have been charged with lese majeste, as they have simply abstained from reporting or writing about the King's personal life. Of late, there have been reports on his initiatives related to sustainable development and a sufficient economy.
Kavi Chongkittavorn in The Nation

"The king's death adds to uncertainty in Southeast Asia, a region in considerable flux already. This makes the U.S. rebalance to Asia more difficult because the situation in so many countries is that of 'wait and see.' 

"When the pivot started, you had Thailand engaged, a new leader in Malaysia who wanted to engage, you had Aquino coming in the Philippines and very forward-leaning internationally and very open to the U.S.; you had an internationalist president in Indonesia. It was a rather different dynamic."

Adding to the uncertainty after Bhumibol’s death, Thailand’s current military junta has said that the king’s heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, will not immediately assume the throne, because he needs time to mourn. In the meantime, the monarchy will be managed by a regent, longtime Bhumibol ally and former Thai Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda. 

Prem is a divisive figure. Although he oversaw a period of rapid economic growth as Prime Minister, many poor Thais dislike him, favoring populist parties linked to former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose sister was also prime minister until she was ousted in a 2014 coup. Many Thais consider Prem an archenemy of Thaksin, whose own government was toppled by the military in 2006. To them, Prem represents elites who would deny Thais outside the capital a voice in determining the country’s future. Moreover, at age 96, Prem may lack the stamina to manage the crown’s transition. 

There could be several reasons why Vajiralongkorn is not immediately assuming the crown. For starters, he may realize that he is nowhere near as popular as his father and needs time to build public goodwill. Alternatively, the junta (and Prem and other Bhumibol advisers) may have forced the crown prince’s decision, because they fear his playboy reputation and reported friendship with Thaksin. Yet another explanation is that the junta is stalling so that it can maneuver Vajiralongkorn’s sister, the beloved Princess Sirindhorn, into power instead, even though there is no constitutional basis in Thailand for a woman to reign.
Joshua Kurlantzick spells out the Junta's Opportunities (Project Syndicate)

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