The shadow of succession

Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn during last year’s cycling campaign to bolster support for the heir to the throne. Source: Wikimedia

Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej marked 70 years on the throne last week amid anxiety over his health and ongoing political troubles.

Celebrations included a morning religious ceremony presided over by 770 monks, which was deemed an auspicious number.

The festivities like this unsettle Thais over the succession, as most citizens have known no other monarch. The king received heart treatment and has been confined to hospital for more than a year.

The 88-year-old king has shown signs of improvement following surgery for narrowing of the arteries, according to the palace.

The world’s longest-reigning monarch was last seen in public on January 11, when he visited his Bangkok palace.

His heartbeat, breathing and blood pressure were normal, the palace announced, adding that an electrocardiogram showed an increased supply of blood to the heart.

And his son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, has not achieved the same level of devotion that the king has secured. Muffled rumours of scandal and controversy have dogged his role in public life.

Rather like military commanders have ideally tried to launch attacks where two divisions or corps meet, so the inevitable handover of the throne to Vajiralongkorn would present the perfect opportunity for Thailand’s most successful political family, the Shinawatras, to move for reform.

The death or abdication of the UK’s Queen Elizabeth will doubtless bring significant changes to Britain and the Commonwealth.

Detested by the establishment and the military, ousted prime ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, remain hugely popular in Thailand’s largely rural north and east.

Yingluck, who was booted out of power by the military in May 2014, is touring her northern heartland with a “fighting with smiles” tour, carrying a message of defiance to the downtrodden who benefited under rice subsidies and other populist policies. The tour is ostensibly to celebrate reaching five million Facebook followers because all political campaigning is banned ahead of the August 7 referendum on the military’s new constitution. But Yingluck is clearly trying to shore up her support base, partly by addressing crowds in their regional dialect, amid a repressive political environment.

“I have been banned from politics for five years. All I can do is help the people in the ways I can, like this tour to promote the culture and travel,” she said.

Meanwhile, there is little doubt about the affection held for the king by most of his subjects.

“He is a father to the land. The relationship between Thais and the king is deep, more than one can actually begin to explain,” Colonel Winthai Suvaree, a spokesman for the junta, which appears to be in no hurry to give power back to politicians until the succession process is completed.

The looming succession hangs behind so much of the tension in Thailand’s political scene and the military is clearly determined to be in control of the government when the dreaded event occurs.

In 1946, at 18, Bhumibol inherited a throne that had barely survived the upheaval of the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, marking the lowest point for the royals.

The national narrative says the king earned the adoration of his subjects through work in public health and rural development. A formidable public relations machine has clearly helped him.

The armed forces have organised 19 coups or attempts to topple governments since 1932, often claiming to be acting in defence of the monarchy. And lese majeste, Thailand’s increasingly dictatorial royal insult law, prevents criticism of the king and is currently being more frequently enforced than ever.

Those familiar with Thai newspapers will be familiar with stories that make little sense unless one can decipher the cryptic references to the king and other powerbrokers.

The authorities will now go after ambassadors who are deemed too critical of the regime and an activist’s mother was recently jailed for failing to reprimand someone making comments what were deemed to be anti-establishment in a private Facebook conversation.

The cleaning lady, Patnaree Chankij, 40, faces up to 15 years in jail after writing “Ja” (“I see” or “OK”) on a Facebook message.

The mother of three was charged last month as a means to put pressure on her son, Sirawith Seritiwat, who has led protests against military rule. It was not made clear if he was the other party in the Facebook conversation.

Dissent is being crushed ahead of the August 7 referendum on the military-drafted constitution that observers say will extend the generals’ influence at the expense of Thaksin’s populist parties that have won every legitimate 21st-century election.

If voters reject the constitution, the general election pencilled in for next year could be delayed. It is unlikely that the military will relinquish power until the king’s son, now 63, is installed on the throne and further delays in democratic elections will surprise no one.

Educational laws under the junta have emphasised loyalty and love for the monarchy and the king’s picture is displayed in every classroom in a system where learning is largely by rote.

The national anthem is played in public every morning and evening with people expected to stand to attention. Images of the king’s earlier rural visits are shown when the anthem is played in cinemas before films.

“He travelled up and down the country and met the people and he heard and fixed our problems and that is why we love him,” said Yaovapha Thaitae, who sells noodle dishes in Bangkok.

Paul Chambers of the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai said: “The Thai king’s image is ubiquitous. That is also true of leaders in Brunei and North Korea. Perhaps Thailand differs from those cases because the cult of personality leader in those countries rules directly.”

While Thais have been prepared to accept an opaque system of government for the last 70 years under their beloved king, it is unlikely that the current regime will survive the arrival of a new head of state.