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Thailand: Bhumibol’s Complicated Legacy

King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s legacy is that of a monarchy perceived as having strongly contributed to maintaining social and political stability over the past few decades.

Reverence for the late King will be on full display in the next few days, to transfer some of his goodwill to the monarchy as an institution. However, the monarchal networks that had guaranteed stability are in decline and while this will not manifest immediately, serious political changes may be on the horizon.

The late King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand was cremated on Thursday, 26 October, in ceremonies that emphasize his near-divine status after seven decades on the throne. The monarchy has mainly ceremonial power, but genuine popular affection allowed him to strategically intervene in some of the country’s worst political crises, with a carefully-crafted image that he would only mediate with the welfare of Thais in mind. This gave Bhumibol’s actions and messages overriding political and social import. For foreign investors, it fostered the concept of a stabilizing influence in Thai politics and society that was noticeably absent in its regional peers.

Bhumibol’s real legacy is, however, more complicated. The monarchy was part of an informal network that over the decades comprised the king and his inner circle, influential military leaders, segments of the Bangkok elites, parts of the bureaucracy and conservative politicians. Although it did not have a defined membership or stated objective, its common denominator on the part of the members was – and still is – to protect the Bangkok and elite-centric political and social status quo. Starting in the 1980s, its core became Bhumibol and Prem Tinsulanonda, a retired general who became prime minister and then privy council president. Officers associated with an army faction identified with Queen Sirikit called the Eastern Tigers, which traces its roots to the 21st Infantry Regiment have also been prominent over the past two decades.

This network capitalized on the political and social strength of the monarchy as Bhumibol reached his peak in the 1980s and 1990s to coordinate key personnel appointments in the judiciary and bureaucracy, increase the prestige of the military, and protect the wealth of the Crown Property Bureau (CPB). While this may have helped sustain the image of stability, it also may have generated resentment against an entrenched elite that resulted in violence in the 1990s and, several times over the past decade.

A slow decline and the military’s reaction

Starting in the early 2000s, however, monarchal power waned because of the rise of populist and popular former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra; the persistently high public disapproval for his nominal successor, then Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, and; the gradual decline in the health of both Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit. For the royalists, Thaksin was a special threat because of his unprecedented popularity and, in what may have been one of the triggers for the 2006 coup, attempts to co-opt the Crown Prince and insert allies into the military and police force. As Bhumibol’s visible role faded, the military further reinforced its role as the protector of all things related to the monarchy and the succession, and defined its goal in this regard as the elimination of Thaksin’s influence on Thai politics.

Vajiralongkorn is unlikely to personally attain the level of respect or reverence accorded his father. He has also shown an interest only in protecting his corner of the monarchy, and avoiding the wider role of his father. Thus, the elaborate pageantry of the funeral (and the coronation by the end of the year) also has the likely goal of transferring some of Bhumibol’s goodwill to the monarchy as an institution, not necessarily Vajiralongkorn, and the military as its protector. This allows the remnants of the long-standing network to maintain their influence even without the king for the next few years or even with an uncooperative new king. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and the military will therefore continue to power or influence beyond the elections. Also, while Queen Sirikit has been sidelined by stroke, she still has political clout and her image will be maintained, if not reinforced as the remaining representative of the revered king.

Old networks fade

However, Bhumibol’s reach with Thais was an exceptional case and the popularity of the monarchy is not assured even with the post-succession preparations. There have been rumors over the past two decades that should the new king fritter away his or the monarchy’s goodwill quickly, then he may be replaced by either his minor son (with a regent to steady the transition) or his much more loved sister Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.

At the same time, the existing network that has had the 97-year old Prem at its hub (and his unique ability to straddle the military and the monarchy) is also likely to fade away and none of the existing members of the council has his reach or influence. Without its strongest connection to the monarchy and preserve its cohesion and prevent the institution from fracturing, the military leadership will become more diverse and not simply associated with a limited number of factions. Thus, the networks that have defined and driven Thai politics over the past half century face substantial changes over the next decade. It is not beyond them to reinvent and resuscitate the monarchal network, but without Bhumibol, the process will be much more difficult and complicated compared to the rise of the late king in the 1960s and the 1970s. In the best-case scenarios, the change is gradual and compromises to reshape the political system happen mainly in the background. The worst case scenarios involve political confrontations between political elites that spill out into wider social unrest.

Investors may be slightly reassured that the worst case scenarios are only still on the horizon, and that the most likely short-term outcomes involve the absence of any immediate change. Bureaucrats have enough power and are aligned with the existing vested interests in Thailand that economic policy is unlikely to shift significantly. The generals recognize the populist power of Thaksin and are focused primarily on blocking his political allies from winning in the next elections, which includes preventing the mass-based Red Shirt movement, formally known as the UDD, from mobilizing. This, together with the constitutional changes that prejudice larger parties at the ballot box, ensure that weak coalition governments are more likely in the next few elections than any time in the last two decades. Therefore, the greater risk is not from instability, but in economic stasis, where the government is unable implement policies that improve the country’s competitiveness to upgrade its economy.