Thailand is currently experiencing an uneasy peace but this might not last if Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha delays his promised general election again as pressure mounts for his junta to relinquish power.
However, the greatest threat to the ruling generals might come from within the establishment and the new king, who appears to be moving his allies into key military jobs.
It has been assumed in the past that Prayuth would be displaced by a wave of red-shirt support backed by the populist movement of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
But a challenge is also coming from even murkier circles surrounding the king.
Prayuth has run Thailand since seizing power in the May 2014 coup and done much to pacify the prolonged political crisis that began in 2006.
This week the ratings agency Moody’s gave Thailand a positive rating and praised the government for easing political tensions while building the economy through heavy infrastructural investment.
In 2016 Prayuth successfully negotiated the instability caused by the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and enabled his far less popular son, Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, to be installed on the throne.
An anonymous Thai media source told the Asean Economist: “Initial impressions that the newly crowned king would be satisfied to retire to Germany and leave a military-business elite to rule the country look increasingly naïve.
“All indications are that the 66-year-old monarch has brushed aside his poor public image and is mustering vast resources of crown wealth, business and military loyalty to lead Thailand into a new era of royalism that could outstrip the power his father enjoyed.”
Sources from within Thailand will always have to remain anonymous when discussing the monarchy or risk 15 years in jail under the harsh lese-majeste laws.
Mid-year promotions in April pointed to the declining influence of the 21st Infantry Regiment, sometimes called the Queen’s Guard, and the wider Second Infantry Division, known as the Eastern Tigers. The division covers the regions east of Bangkok to the Cambodian border and plotted the 2014 coup led by Prayuth and fellow generals, defence minister Prawit Wongsuwan and home affairs minister Anupong Paojinda.
But officers from the King’s Guard in the First Infantry Division of the First Army Region around Bangkok have been promoted into the top jobs. Major General Narongphan Jitkaewthae, Major General Songwit Noonpakdee and Colonel Chatree Kittikachorn are among the names to watch.
The King’s Guard’s General Apirat Kongsompong is poised to become army chief in September’s military promotions. Apirat is the son of former general Sunthorn Kongsompong, who led the 1991 coup, which resulted in the 1992 massacre.
With uniforms replicating the British Army’s Grenadier Guards, complete with bearskin hats that are less appropriate for the tropics, the King’s Guard is associated with crushing pro-democracy movements in 1973 and 1976.
Vajiralongkorn served in the King’s Guard from the 1970s, including in counterinsurgency operations, until the early 1990s and it seems he is keen to see his old unit prosper.
The military suffers from being deeply factionalised with constant competition between different regiments. Gregory Vincent Raymond, an Australian observer, wrote in Thai Military Power: A Culture of Strategic Accommodation, that many divides within the officer corps had “reinforced tendencies toward political involvement because it creates a cycle of winners and losers … [and] promotes its own members and dumps non-members from key positions”.
The Thai-based media source said the king appears to be moving to stifle democratic reforms. The source said: “The first big indication was the overnight disappearance of the democracy plaque on Royal Avenue, which is widely seen to be at orders of the new king, for whom the military covered up. The plaque was replaced with a message extolling royal virtues.
“The symbolic democratic obstacle to royal rule was removed, paving the way for a different vision of Thailand. Or rather, the return of the old one, ever present beneath the veneer of democracy,” the source added.
For more than 80 years the dinner-plate-sized brass plaque in front of Bangkok’s Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall was worn down by the traffic.
It marked the events of June 1932 when a revolution overthrew 700 years of absolute monarchy and a constitutional structure, requiring political representation, was introduced.
Four years later, the first prime minister, Phraya Phahol, unveiled the plaque where he first announced the end of the absolute monarchy.
It read: “Here on 24 June 1932 at dawn, the People’s Party proclaimed a constitution for the country’s advancement.”
But it disappeared in April 2017, replaced with a plaque reading: “To love and respect the Buddhist trinity, one’s own state, one’s own family, and to have a heart faithful to your monarch, will bring prosperity to the country.”
The plaque was removed ahead of the ceremony where Vajiralongkorn gave his royal approval to a new constitution drafted by the junta.
The police said all 11 CCTV cameras in the area had been removed days before the plaque was taken and activists who expressed their disapproval have been silenced and one protester prosecuted.
Last month, the annual ceremony at the spot to mark the 1932 uprising was cancelled.
The source continued: “Business elites’ concern that the new direction might hit Thailand in the pocket were assuaged with the ascent of Donald Trump and his dismantling of the world trade order. EU trade now stands as only major potential pitfall on the path to royalist rule.”
The next looming event is the much-delayed general election in February. This might go some way to resolve who wins the power tussle between the new king, the generals controlling the prime minister’s office and the populists from the Shinawatra clan. Another delay will point to power being consolidated by the new king.
The plaque in 2009, before it disappeared in April. Picture credit: Flickr