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Thailand: The slight detour in the succession is not a cause for concern, for now

October 5, 2017
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Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn decided to defer his proclamation as King for an unspecified period. For now, this is a benign development because the delay is not seen as going beyond this October.

Should his proclamation not take place by the end of this month, then speculation could increase of a still unsettled succession and, worse, of a visibly weak or unstable monarchy under the future king.

On 13 October, as parliament was preparing to officially proclaim him as the country’s next monarch, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn said that he was not yet ready to become King Rama X because he needed time to mourn his father’s passing. He did not provide a timetable and there has been little in the way of formal clarification from the government on a specific date, although the prime minister has hinted that it could take place later this October. In the meantime, the 96-year old President of the Privy Council, retired general and former Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda, will act as regent and fulfil all the powers of the monarch.

A later coronation has precedent, and value …

Under the Palace Law of Succession, the Crown Prince still needs to be proclaimed as King by the National Assembly even though he is the designated heir. The process starts with the Council of Ministers (Cabinet) informing the Speaker, who convenes the assembly, which then subsequently invites the Crown Prince and then proclaims him as King. The National Legislative Assembly did convene on Thursday, 13 October, for this purpose, which indicates that Cabinet had made the proper transmittal, but the proceedings were stopped upon the Crown Prince’s request.

This is where the process deviates from the immediate precedent. Historically, the proclamation has closely followed the King’s death, even though the official coronation can be delayed for several years. Bhumibol was, for instance, proclaimed on the day of his brother’s death, Ananda, on 9 June 1946, although his coronation only took place in 1950 on his return from living in Switzerland. Ananda was previously crowned in 1938, three years after King Prajadhipok abdicated in 1935.

Even without any problem around Vajiralongkorn’s succession, there is an incentive for the monarchy to draw out the mourning period for the king. Much of the public reverence for Bhumibol was personal to him, on the carefully cultivated perception that his acts were always with the Thais’ best interest in mind.

Therefore, by using the next 12 months to focus all of Thai society on Bhumibol’s revered and well-loved status, the mourning period and what will very likely be an elaborate funeral and cremation service can not only be a source of national pride but a means by which to transfer some of this goodwill to the monarchy as an institution, its perceived protector, the military, and possibly even the Crown Prince. All three could in turn benefit in varying degrees from the increased political and social clout that this goodwill provides.

… but a delayed proclamation not as much

The focus is, therefore, on the proclamation delay, which is the more unusual, but not yet a source of wide concern. There have always been three main questions about Vajiralongkorn: (a) whether he will in fact be allowed to succeed; (b) how secure his status will be once he assumes the throne and; (c) how stable the balance of power is in the networks that revolve around the monarchy, and which leverage or benefit from its influence and political clout. All three questions are important because the monarchy’s power in politics and society will be significantly influenced by public perceptions of its internal cohesion around the King.

Last week’s announcement of Vajiralongkorn as the anointed heir generated significant relief regarding the first question, and his accession to the Crown is not in doubt. The latter two questions will persist for the foreseeble future regardless of events. However, should the delay in his proclamation extend for more than a month from the King’s death, then perceptions of risk around these two variables could rise on the belief that the powerful networks around the throne may still be very much fractured regarding his ascent, and that they are unable to resolve key issues that could later lead to more visible infighting that eventually threatens his term. One rumor already being fuelled by the delay is that Royal Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, the more popular royal, is possibly being maneuvered into a role that gives her a path to being the monarch should Vajiralongkorn prove to be untenable as King.

It is already assumed that he will not be as popular as his father and this will eventually diminish the institution’s strength, and possibly lead to problems further down the road. Any further worsening of perceptions regarding cohesion in the monarchy now – which is the threat from a significantly delayed proclamation – could further the view that the institution’s decline is accelerating more than expected, with negative effects on stability.