Whispers from the Throne

In Thailand's restive politics, it's the royals who have the power to soothe the country -- or destabilize it.


BANGKOK, Thailand — On Sunday, Feb. 2, Thais will vote in a snap general election, the fifth in nine years, after three months of increasingly violent anti-government protests. The opposition Democrat Party, popular among the elite and in the south, has boycotted the election, all but guaranteeing victory for the incumbent Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Pheu Thai party, who are confident of their support in Thailand’s populous and impoverished north.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a 64-year-old rubber tycoon and former Democrat MP, said he won’t end rallies until Thailand is rid of the influence of Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a popular-yet-polarizing billionaire and former prime minister. Thaksin has lived in self-exile in Dubai since 2008 when he was convicted on corruption charges. Protests began in the fall after Yingluck proposed a bill that would have offered amnesty for Thaksin, who many see as ruling the country via his sister.

"What we ask for is reform before elections," says Ekanat Prompan, a protest leader and son-in-law of Suthep. "The reforms are really aimed to prevent … families like the Shinawatras abusing the system so they can’t come back to haunt Thailand again." The Democrats say they want voting suspended for at least a year to end alleged vote-buying and corruption. But efforts to block candidate registrations and advance voting have only escalated tensions with Shinawatra supporters, known as "Red Shirts," who say they are being denied the chance to vote. But while tensions rise on the streets of the capital, the views of the royal family — which will eventually decide which side will govern Thailand — remain unspoken.

The family is helmed by the beloved-but-ailing 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest reigning monarch, who on Sunday will preside over the 21st general election of his 67 years on the throne. But his influence appears to be waning: After spending four years in a hospital with a lung infection, his public appearances have become increasingly rare. And his 81-year-old wife, Queen Sirikit, has not been seen in public at all since suffering a stroke in July 2012.

With the king and queen fading from view, there are increasing signs of a vacuum at the top of Thailand’s power structure, with control increasingly exercised by people and organizations orbiting the throne. "Now you’ve got a network monarchy without an active monarch," said Andrew M. Marshall, a journalist who has written extensively on Thailand. According to the country’s succession laws, 61-year-old Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, a jet-setting father of seven children (borne of three different women), is first in line to the throne. Although the widely-disliked Vajiralongkorn is still believed to be the king’s preference, rumors have escalated that the third child, Crown Princess Sirindhorn — who many Thais affectionately refer to as "Phrap Thep" or "princess angel" — is a serious contender.

The succession issue is crucial to Thailand’s future. But few dare discuss it openly. Strict lèse majesté laws muzzle the media and prohibit detailed discussion of the monarchy, increasing doubt about who will succeed Bhumibol. Known as Article 112, Thailand’s lèse majesté law states that "no person shall expose the king to any sort of accusation or action" in other words, commenting on the monarchy can be punished with up to 15 years in prison. Although the king admitted in a 2005 birthday speech that even he "can do wrong," a gentle acknowledgment that seemed to open the door to more dialogue, the use of lèse majesté has risen sharply — from about five cases that year to more than 400 in 2010. Cases can drag on for years; many are deterred from writing or discussing the monarchy at all.

Yet criticism of the Thai monarchy is growing, and social media discussion of the monarchy and its involvement in politics is in some cases surprisingly matter-of-fact. This is partly due to wider Internet access, but also because of the increasingly bitter nature of the conflict, says David Streckfuss, a scholar at Khon Kaen University in northeast Thailand and a leading researcher on lèse majesté. Traditionally, the royal family has strained to show neutrality when it comes to Thai politics, at least publicly. Yet, the youngest of the king’s four children, the 56-year-old Princess Chulabhorn, has appeared on Instagram with her dogs dressed in the Thai tricolor, an enduring symbol of Suthep’s protest movement, prompting extensive comment on Facebook and Twitter. And while Sirindhorn is keeping quiet, it’s clear she’s on the same side as her younger sister, Marshall said. The prince, on the other hand, is linked to Thaksin, according to a source close to the exiled former prime minister, who asked to speak anonymously, and in U.S. cables released by Wikileaks.  (Representatives of the royal family could not be reached for comment.)

So far, Bhumibol has not publicly taken sides, calling only for calm in two rare recent speeches since the protests began: one on his 86th birthday on Dec. 5, and another on New Year’s Day. "Our nation has always been in peace for a very long time because there is unity in our nation. Each of us performs our duties in a harmonious manner for the sake of our country," the king said in a halting voice during a televised birthday address from the royal family’s seaside palace in Hua Hin.

The Privy Council, an influential 18-member body of royal advisors led by 94-year-old former general Prem Tinsulanonda, remains staunchly loyal to King Bhumibol, and opposed to Thaksin. (On Jan. 1, Yingluck met Prem and discussed Thailand’s political crisis for one hour but no details have emerged.) The commander of the army, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has declared his neutrality in the conflict, amid persistent rumors of him planning a military coup. But he is definitely anti-Thaksin, said Paul Chambers, a specialist on Thailand’s military at Chiang Mai University. "And he would lead a coup against Yingluck" should those in the palace network "give him a green light," he said.

Since the abolishment of the absolute monarchy in 1932, Thailand has witnessed at least 18 military coups. There’s a long-standing tension in Thailand between two sources of legitimacy: the elected government, and the army and the palace, said Matthew Wheeler, International Crisis Group’s Bangkok-based analyst, adding that there is now "a real risk of a serious violent conflict in Thailand." So far, at least 11 people have been killed, most of them anti-government protesters, including a man shot dead on Jan. 28 in Bangkok, who may have been tortured. On Jan. 26, a protest leader was also shot dead while giving a speech in the capital; police investigations of the murders are ongoing. Both sides have warned of more violence on polling day. But whatever may play out on the streets, the real battle for power seems to be behind palace walls.

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