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Thailand’s New King Adds Even More Uncertainty to Thai Politics

by Joshua Kurlantzick
April 17, 2017

Thailand-Vajiralongkorn Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun salutes as he arrives at the monument of King Rama I after signing a new constitution in Bangkok, Thailand on April 6, 2017. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)

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Two weeks ago, David Streckfuss, a longtime analyst of Thai royal politics, wrote an incisive op-ed in the New York Times. It effectively summarized a growing current of analysis about how Thailand’s new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, may upend the country’s already fractious politics.

Before assuming the throne, the longtime crown prince was described, in many media outlets, as a playboy who had spent much of his recent time abroad. He seemed relatively unlikely to exert the same level of influence over Thai politics as his father, King Bhumibol, who assumed the throne at a much younger age, enjoyed high levels of public popularity, and worked assiduously to build the monarchy’s influence and image during his long reign.

Prior to assuming the throne, the new king also seemed to be mending fences with some of his critics in the royalist/military establishment, and many analysts assumed he would closely cultivate the powerful junta leaders, including junta head Prayuth Chan-ocha, once enthroned. He also had worked to improve his public image among Thais, such as by leading massive bike rallies to celebrate his father—rallies that seemed designed to promote the new king as a unifying and responsible actor. As Kevin Hewison notes, the junta in turn “supported the [then] prince in getting his personal life in order” after 2014, before he became king.

But over the past five months, the new king has begun throwing his weight around, potentially undermining the military’s grip, though doing little to restore democratic rule. He does not necessarily seem to be trying to make nice with the junta. As Streckfuss notes, in early April the king signed Thailand’s new constitution, its twentieth. The new charter, which had been approved in a public referendum during which the junta weighed in heavily to swing the vote, likely will dilute the influence of Thailand’s biggest political parties when new elections are finally held, force the lower house of parliament to have unwieldy political coalitions, and place greater power in the hands of a range of unelected institutions.

The new king, however—who spent much of his time in Germany as crown prince—did not just sign the constitution, which is probably what military leaders expected. He also challenged the junta. He asked to make changes in the constitution before he signed it, including giving the monarch more powers over naming a regent and naming the monarch as the key arbiter in times of constitutional upheaval. The second change is important—it places the king, legally, at the center of potential political disputes. The junta agreed to the changes, even though they could decrease the military’s power, showing that the king—even this king—wields considerable influence, and potentially setting the stage for the monarch intervening more in politics.

With this potential increasing presence in politics, the new king adds even more instability to a kingdom still divided by major regional and class divides, and hampered by the armed forces’ continuing deep presence in politics and the uncertainty about a return to civilian rule. Is the king preparing to exert even more power, a kind of “king’s coup,” as Streckfuss asks? If so, how would he wield it? Will he try to assume a role as a kind of anti-elite, populist force? (Streckfuss notes that the new king does not seem to have the same anti-Thaksin Shinawatra views as many elite Thais.) Will he use his influence to elevate his own military allies, doing little to change the balance of power between military and civilian elites? Will he use the power simply for personal gain?

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