Thailand’s Junta (Respectfully) Wants the Monarchy To Know Who’s Boss

The military cooperated with the royal family for decades – but now it wants a subordinate, not a partner.

Women hold portraits of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej as they pray for his health at Siriraj Hospital, where the king is being treated, in Bangkok on October 12, 2016.
Thailand's junta chief said he planned to hold talks with the Crown Prince following days of unprecedented concern over the health of ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej. / AFP / MUNIR UZ ZAMAN        (Photo credit should read MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Women hold portraits of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej as they pray for his health at Siriraj Hospital, where the king is being treated, in Bangkok on October 12, 2016. Thailand's junta chief said he planned to hold talks with the Crown Prince following days of unprecedented concern over the health of ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej. / AFP / MUNIR UZ ZAMAN (Photo credit should read MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s presence once offered Thai citizens a comforting continuity through seven decades of putsches, riots, and chaos. But with the king’s death at the age of 88 in October, Thailand is caught in an unstable interregnum where a junta-led military is enforcing an arch-royalist order. The king’s heir apparent, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, has requested a delay “to mourn” before he takes the throne, leaving the future of both the monarchy and military unclear.

The military has long been loyal to the king, sticking with the crown through six decades and eight putsches. The alliance between military and monarchy dates back to 1957-1958, when twin coups eviscerated the country’s young democracy, and they have since dominated the nation together, with the monarchy as junior partner. But the junta that rules Thailand today, on a scale not seen for four decades, faces severe challenges to its rule — which is why the military may soon insist that the monarchy’s quiet subordination become more explicit. A reassertion of the military’s role as palace guardian would permanently solidify its prerogatives and legitimacy.

After the May 2014 military coup, the palace was the only part of Thai society the military didn’t claim control over. Section 44 of the post-coup constitution grants the junta leader a legal carte blanche for any deed necessary to ensure “reform in any field and … national peace and harmony” and to suppress anything harmful to security, the monarchy, the economy, or the government. This section, which enshrines the junta’s right to dictatorship, does, however, implicitly exclude the monarchy from military control.

The media is crammed with propaganda heralding the return of happiness under the junta’s leadership. A new constitution (which would replace the post-coup 2014 one), set to be enacted before Thailand’s return to formal electoral rule, predictably passed on Aug. 7 by referendum after the military squelched any sign of opposition. The draft charter enshrines a whole set of new powers for the military, most notably immunity to civilian oversight of its personnel and budget and a 20-year plan impervious to later government intervention. The next general elections are scheduled to take place in late 2017 or 2018. But despite all the junta’s attempts to keep power, it faces an array of potential threats to its longevity. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine the scenarios that keep the generals up at night. The political turbulence following the 2014 coup has contributed to the distancing of investors from Thailand, slowing growth. The death of the king, followed by the crown prince’s decision not to immediately take the throne, could extend this uncertainty to a point where the economy plummets — along with public confidence in the generals.

Tourism is a Thai economic mainstay, but if resort destinations are bombed again, as happened in August — with the most likely culprits being Malay Muslim insurgents — tourists may flee. If the economy goes, support from the junta’s mostly urban base could evaporate with it.

But the interregnum offers the armed forces the chance to cement their power through reinforcing their symbolic and practical ties to the monarchy. Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda, now regent, has been the monarchy’s front man since 1980, first as prime minister and then as a top royal advisor. As regent, Prem serves as the “acting” monarch and in this capacity can exert enormous influence over the armed forces, since the ruling monarch must endorse all military reshuffles.

The junta has sought to follow Prem’s example of connecting to the palace, symbolically linking itself to the monarchy’s past by building Rajabhakti Park (literally translated as “loyalty to the monarchy” park) — where giant statues of seven past kings look down on adoring tourists — on army land. Similarly, the recent “Bike for Mom” and “Bike for Dad” royal events, besides being tributes to the queen and king, were spearheaded by junta leaders. The armed forces are regular and major contributors to “royal projects” throughout the country. And Prem’s ascent to chair the king’s Privy Council, and his promotion of several top generals to sit alongside him, has militarized the king’s closest advisory body. With Prem already 96, junta leaders anticipate assuming his mantle as palace proxy upon his death, when they will also dominate the new king’s Privy Council.

Yet close military-monarchy relations could be turned against the armed forces if the new king asserts his own authority. That depends, though, on how closely the junta sticks together, the monarchy’s legal authority and ability to skillfully wield historical and cultural legacies, and how popular the new king proves to be. A strong monarch can control the army, while a weak one must comply. Where potentially strong monarchs are slow to assume power or exercise it, their ambivalence only facilitates more militarization. The third scenario may be closest to Thailand’s current situation. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn lacks the widespread popularity enjoyed by King Bhumibol, is often outside of Thailand, and is perceived by some as a profligate whose abilities cannot match those of his father. Whether he would even resist a continuing military dictatorship seems questionable.

Even with a weak monarch, internal squabbles could also cause the implosion of the regime. The junta, under Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his deputy, Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, appears to dominate the security forces. But the two enjoy only frictional amity with the aging regent Prem and are competing between each other to promote their own loyalists into positions of power. On a broader scale, Prayuth and Prawit represent a military faction known as the “Eastern Tigers,” a challenger to both the traditionally dominant “Divine Progeny” — centered on the King’s Guard — and the special forces backed by regent Prem. These factions aren’t ideological but represent powerful patronage networks. Although the Eastern Tigers hold the top positions right now, the new army commander, Gen. Chalermchai Sittisart, comes from the special forces, and the most critical strategic post, the commander of the forces stationed around Bangkok, is in Divine Progeny hands.

Of all the country’s political institutions, the military possesses the greatest capacity and unity to most ably stand upon the political stage, especially at a time of transition for the monarchy. At the onset of the new reign, the armed forces will be tasked with both protecting the palace and acting as its representative. But as a new monarch comes to depend more on the military to prop up his own legitimacy, the power of the armed forces will only increase.

Assuming it lasts, there are several possibilities for the junta’s future. First, it could persist as a direct dictatorship. Second, a military prime minister could be selected by a half-elected parliament — either as a party nominee or as an unelected leader without party connections. Finally, the military could decide to work behind the facade of a weak, albeit elected, prime minister. All these forms of control have been tried and tested in Thailand in the past. The form of military control that emerges could well depend on the extent of leverage that Prem and later the ascendant sovereign decide to apply upon the military.

Thailand is in a dark tunnel, with no light in view amid burgeoning uncertainty and continuing junta oppression. Should he choose to do so, Prem, in his role as regent, could offer the strongest potential resistance to the junta’s tyranny. In fact, on some occasions over the last two years, Prem has squabbled with Prayuth and Prawit, and he played no role in the 2014 coup. But the near-centenarian is also a military man. Sadly, it seems that the only opponents of the junta with the ability to force it from power are other soldiers who can’t be counted on to divert Thailand from an authoritarian future.

Photo credit: MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Paul Chambers is Director of Research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs (ISEAA).