Heavy Lies the Crown

The long career of Thailand’s king offers a study in the virtues of constitutional monarchy — and in the immense challenges of royal rule.


For 70 years, King Bhumibol Adulyadej provided a steadying hand in the rough-and-tumble world of Thai politics. Through nearly a dozen coups and 17 constitutions, the king developed a role as the ultimate adjudicator between an over-zealous military and a notoriously corrupt civilian political class. As he grew ill and retreated from public life, however, Thailand entered a period of heightened uncertainty. His death on Oct. 13 provides an opportunity to consider the benefits of constitutional monarchy — a system of government with many virtues if the right person holds the throne.

Since Bhumibol took the throne in 1946, almost half of monarchies that then existed around the world have been abolished; only 27 survive. It’s hard to be the king. To endure, a constitutional monarchy requires a leader who stays above the fray and yet remains available, who is grounded in principle and yet in touch with popular opinion — and who can master the ceremonial trappings of the position while exercising a good deal of political savvy. Because the stakes are lower, this task is much easier in rich democracies like Denmark and Belgium than in the developing world. Whereas Queen Elizabeth, now the world’s longest-serving royal, has presided over a period of post-war reconstruction and European integration, Thailand has during the same period transformed from a poor agrarian country to a mid-level developing nation while surviving a regional wave of war, dictatorship, and revolution.

In many ways, the country was fortunate in its monarch. Raised as the younger of two sons and never expecting to be king, Bhumibol assumed the throne upon the unsolved murder of his brother in the palace in 1946. He was the ninth king in the Chakri Dynasty, which has ruled Thailand since the 18th century, but the monarchy had been weakened by a coup in 1932, and the king’s role had become somewhat precarious. The country was just emerging from Japanese occupation and was divided between military leaders and nationalists; opposition to the monarchy lay just below the surface.

But King Bhumibol rose to the challenge. Gradually, he developed a series of alliances with the military and commercial class, modernizing the monarchy by aligning it with these new centers of power. He made frequent appearances among the public and sponsored development projects that emphasized the traditional virtues of village life. By cultivating an image of a monarch devoted to his people, he became a widely revered figure among ordinary Thais.

For the remainder of his life, King Bhumibol judiciously used the influence he had won to guide his country through a troubled century. His elliptical interventions — sometimes giving a wink to a potential coup-maker, other times dressing down a dictator — provided a steady hand during this period of tremendous economic and social change. The king proved sympathetic to mass student protests in 1973 and engineered the appointment of a democratic prime minister. Later, however, he sided with right wing forces as Communist revolutions overthrew the neighboring monarchies in Cambodia and Laos. In the early 1990s, in the midst of mass protests, the king called the leader of the protests and the military-backed prime minister to a televised audience and demanded a peaceful resolution. This led to the eventual restoration of democracy. But he has also, on occasion, sided with coup-makers when he thought that elected politicians were not acting in the interests of the nation. He has been guided throughout by a good sense of the political center of his country.

Constitutional monarchy sometimes seems like an anomalous form of government, a hybrid vestige of a bygone age. But King Bhumibol’s reign demonstrates its genuine virtues. Monarchs are repositories of public faith and act as a source of authority outside the bounds of ordinary politics who can step in when the going gets tough. Particularly when a country is in the midst of rapid change, a single individual who serves as a symbol of national unity can provide a crucial anchor. Perhaps this explains why the constitutional monarchies in the Middle East — such as in Bahrain, Morocco and Jordan — have proven more enduring than the region’s republics. But much depends on whether the symbolic figure is truly respected. When monarchs are seen as out of touch or partisan, they risk squandering their authority. Remember Juan Carlos of Spain, whose tone-deaf spending during Spain’s financial crisis led to his resignation, or King Gyanendra of Nepal, whose resistance to constitutional limits led to the end of the monarchy entirely in 2008.

In Thailand, the need for any government — military or civilian — to recognize King Bhumibol’s authority helped limit political turmoil. Every coup-maker has sought royal blessing before taking action, and justified the intervention as protecting the monarchy and Thai tradition. If royal endorsement was not forthcoming, the coups usually failed. It’s also noteworthy that, relative to its Southeast Asian neighbors, dictatorships in Thailand have been relatively mild: Unlike in Cambodia, Burma, or Indonesia, the country has no history of genocidal violence. On the downside, the country’s democracy also never took deep root, and dissatisfaction with corrupt political parties remains a trope of Thai political discourse.

As the king aged, he became less engaged and his ability to steer politics diminished. This trend expressed itself most dramatically in the rise of the populist billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, whose allies have won every major election since 2000. Now exiled, Thaksin exposed serious cleavages in Thailand’s society along class and regional lines, pitting the Bangkok elite against his base, the long-disenfranchised rural poor. In recent years, the two sides have staged violent demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, with supporters wearing yellow or red shirts. Coups in 2006 and 2014 deposed Thaksin and his sister Yingluck from power.

The king managed to stay above the fray and maintained the respect of most Thais. But he has been unable to address the deep divisions of Thai society, which show no signs of being resolved. The current prime minister, Prayut Chan-Ocha, who led the 2014 coup, has promised to give up power (in keeping with Thai tradition). But the constitution passed this summer gives him a good deal of authority even after new elections, which are promised sometime in 2017. Should those elections again be won by Thaksin’s allies — and there is little reason to think that they will not — the cycle of instability may well continue.

Monarchies are like family businesses: Generational transitions are points of vulnerability. The iron law of regression to the mean suggests that the more outstanding the leader, the less likely the children will be to measure up. King Bhumibol’s heir, Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, has a playboy past and enjoys far less respect than his father. He has a good deal of support within the military, but not as much among the Bangkok elite or the rural poor, and he has been mostly invisible during the political turmoil of the past few years. As a result, he seems unlikely to be able to provide the same steadying hand that his father did.

Constitutional monarchies must embody tradition but also show resilience in the face of change. Despite Thailand’s well-deserved reputation as a tolerant society, there are certain red lines that cannot be crossed, and the government’s aggressive use of laws that criminalize insulting the king has prevented even superficial discussion of the monarchy’s role. In recent decades, prosecutions under this law have increased dramatically to several dozen each year. The law suppresses discourse, and so Thais speak of the monarchy with whispered euphemisms. It seems unlikely that the new King Vajiralongkorn will have the confidence to allow public criticism of himself, and this may render the monarchy more brittle. As we learned from revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, leaders who do not allow criticism are vulnerable to rapid shifts in public opinion.

Constitutional monarchy can be a stabilizing form of government but requires skill to manage through changing times. Thailand’s transition poses major challenges if the country is to remain one of the handful of successful constitutional monarchies in the world today. The preamble to the country’s 1997 Constitution — the most democratic in its history — began with the Buddhist exhortation “May There Be Virtue.” In the years to come, Thailand will see whether its new king is up to the test.

In the photo, a monk lights candles for the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej at Mahabodhi temple in Bodhgaya on October 14.

Photo credit: STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

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