what happens when the King passes
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- Date: Wed, 21 Oct 2009 03:05:55 -0700 (PDT)
October 20, 2009
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Gwynne Dyer: What happens in Thailand after the death of King Bhumibol
By Gwynne Dyer
People get long jail sentences in Thailand for criticising the royal
family, so the Thai media have been silent on the question of what
happens after the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. But the king is 81
years old and he has been in hospital for a month now, so there are
widespread fears that he is dying. Last week the Bangkok stock market
fell by eight percent in a day on rumours that his health is worse
than the Palace admits.
Bhumibol has been on the throne for 63 years and he is universally
revered. Thailand is three years into the worst political crisis it
has seen since it became a more or less democratic country two decades
ago, and the king is just about the only unifying and stabilising
factor that remains. His death would make matters much worse.
The crisis is the result of democracy. Thailand has become a semi-
developed country—average income has risen forty-fold since Bhumibol
came to the throne—but most of the population is still rural and quite
poor. Their votes used to be bought by powerful local politicians and
delivered to whichever urban-based party paid the highest price, but
As the people of the overwhelmingly rural north and northeast acquired
more education and sophistication, they started using their votes to
back politicians who promised to defend their interests and not just
those of the Bangkok-based economic elite. In 2001, they elected a
populist politician of humble origins called Thaksin Shinawatra as
Thaksin had made a fortune in telecommunications, and he probably
couldn’t have won the elections if he wasn’t rich. But he did govern
in the interests of the poor, and he was re-elected with an increased
majority in 2005. It was how you would expect a maturing democracy to
work, for the poor always outnumber the rich.
But you would also expect a backlash from the traditional ruling elite—
which came in the form of the People’s Alliance of Democracy (PAD), a
yellow-shirted movement that actually aimed to roll back democracy. By
provoking confrontations in the streets with Thaksin’s supporters (who
took to wearing red shirts), the PAD created a pretext for its allies
in the army to seize power in a military coup in 2006. Since then,
Thailand has been in permanent crisis.
Thaksin was convicted of corruption in questionable circumstances and
now lives in exile. His political party, Thai Rak Thai, was forced to
disband after being found guilty of “electoral fraud” by the
Constitutional Court, whose impartiality in this case is open to
question. However, Thaksin’s supporters remain devoted to him, and
when the army allowed Thais to vote again at the end of 2007, a new
party that was essentially a continuation of Thai Rak Thai won the
The voters had got it wrong again, so the crisis continued. Two
successive prime ministers who were standing in for the exiled Thaksin
were forced to resign by PAD demonstrations and occupations that
included a blockade of both of Bangkok’s airports. The new pro-Thaksin
party was also forced to shut down by the Constitutional Court, and
late last year a new government was installed that was more to the
taste of the yellow-shirts.
The PAD’s urban, middle-class supporters can control the streets of
the capital (with some help from the army) and even overthrow
governments they don’t like, but they cannot force the rural majority
to abandon its own loyalties. The country is dangerously polarised and
politically paralysed—and many Thais believe that only King Bhumibol
can hold the country together.
Maybe it’s true, although there are suspicions that he actively
supported the 2006 coup rather than just acquiescing in it. (Again,
that cannot be openly discussed in Thailand. A well-known former
journalist, Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul, was recently sentenced to 18
years in prison after she suggested in a public speech that the king
had backed the coup.) At any rate, the king’s death would greatly
deepen the crisis, for his likely successor is not loved.
Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn has led a turbulent personal life,
including three marriages. His attitude has probably not been improved
by living for 57 years in the shadow of his father. He would be a
perfectly serviceable constitutional monarch in normal times, but the
Thai people have decided, fairly or unfairly, that they do not like
him very much.
Vajiralongkorn is so lacking in the respect that has enabled his
father to play a mediating, calming role that there are those who
quietly suggest that his sister, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn,
might perform the duties of the monarchy better. It’s not impossible.
Thai law has been changed to allow women to occupy the throne, and the
constitution leaves the final right to designate an heir to the 19-
member Privy Council of senior advisors to the king.
They are unlikely to change the succession, but the mere fact that it
could happen introduces another element of uncertainty and potential
conflict into the equation. Which gives Thais another reason to pray
for Bhumibol’s recovery.
The almost daily reports from the palace on the king’s condition are
always upbeat, but there have been references to a “lung
inflammation,” which is a delicate way of saying pneumonia. That is
potentially a killer in a man of his age, and the worries of the Thai
public are justified. Long live the King!
Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, Climate Wars, was published recently in
Canada by Random House and Vintage.
Recommend 5 readers have recommended this
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