Thailand’s Game of Thrones enters new era

A woman walks past a portrait of Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun at a department store in central Bangkok, Thailand January 13, 2017. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

A woman walks past a portrait of Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun at a department store in central Bangkok, Thailand January 13, 2017. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
January 14, 2017

While people in the United States grapple with having done exactly what the Founding Fathers railed against and have elected a cartoon version of George III, the entrenchment of authoritarian democracy is going much more smoothly in Thailand.

Mind you, in Thailand the country’s aristocracy and its military leaders have been busy for 10 years creating a managed democracy. And the whole charabanc risked sliding off the road last October 13 when much-loved King Bhumibol Adulyadej died and his despised and mistrusted son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, prepared to ascend the throne.

However, after three months of largely invisible negotiations behind the heavy curtains in the corridors of power, the project to give Thailand’s nearly 70 million people a highly restricted democracy overseen by the military is back on track. But King Bhumibol’s death has thrown the timetable a bit off track. Elections, in their new restricted and highly stylised form, are unlikely to be held before 2018, when there had been hopes of having them this year.

Thirty years ago it appeared that all 10 countries of Southeast Asia were travelling purposefully and positively down the road to stable democracy. But Thailand’s reversion to military-vetted democracy and the election of the self-confessed murderer Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, means that there is now only one country in Southeast Asia – Indonesia – which can be called a democracy in the fullest sense of the term.

Vietnam and Laos remain one-party communist states. Burma, also called Myanmar, is still under military rule with only a thin veneer of civilian politics. Malaysia has been ruled by the same party – the United Malays National Organization – since independence from Britain in 1963 and now bubbles over with corruption. Singapore is not so much a country as a corporate conglomerate controlled by the family of founding father Lee Kuan Yew. Cambodia is the personal domain of Hun Sen, who in one guise or another has ruled the country since 1985. Brunei is a sultanate – an absolute monarchy — sitting on top of a large subterranean bubble of oil.

Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia

Thailand’s new constitution, slotting it into this community of democracy lite regimes, is all ready for the approval process. But it got side-tracked by the death of King Bhumibol and frictions between the Crown Prince, now King Maha, and the military regime, led by coup leader and now Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha. The new constitution was sent to King Maha for royal approval on November 8, but he hasn’t responded yet. That may now happen after a compromise this week removing the authority of Prem Tinsulanonda, 96, the Machiavelian and scheming head of King Bhumibol’s Privy Council who has been regent since the old king’s death. King Maha wanted Prem out of the way so he can establish his own authority over his court and royal household, and attempt to create his own relationship with the military and government.

Once King Maha approves the outline of the new constitution it will go back to the Constitutional Drafting Committee, which will have 240 days to write the necessary laws. These will then go to the National Legislative Assembly, which will have 60 days to debate and approve the process. If the assembly wants to make changes, these will have to be considered by joint sessions with the Constitutional Drafting Committee.

And then the whole thing will have to go back to the king for royal approval. New elections must be held within 150 days of royal assent for the new constitution. So it is very hard to visualise a timeframe that allows for new elections this year.

There are three decisive elements in the new constitution. The first changes the law dealing with political parties. This is aimed at encouraging participation by small parties, forcing the creation of parliamentary coalitions and making it impossible for a single-party government. Second, there will be a senate appointed by the military to keep check on the activities of the lower house of parliament. Third, a “crisis committee” will allow the military to intervene and remove the elected government if it thinks national security is under threat.

This is the culmination of over a decade of protests, riots, coups, bloody military crackdowns, and huge social and political upheaval at the heart of which is one objective – to destroy the political power of self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin was an extraordinary innovation in Thailand’s politics when, after a career building a massive mobile phone and telecommunications corporate empire, he burst onto the political scene in the 1990s. He founded the Thai Rak Thai party, with its populist pledge to better the lives of the country’s large rural peasant population, and swept to power at the head of a strong coalition government in 2001. This was remarkable enough in Thai political history, but then in 2005 Thaksin did something unique. He not only won re-election, but did so with a clear majority for his Thai Rak Thai party of 374 of the 500 seats in parliament.

The royalists’ knives were out for him immediately and Thaksin’s behaviour did much to encourage the belief among urban elites that he was a republican intent on overriding the central position held by the king in the country’s political discourse. There were several occasions when Thaksin showed what many people considered disdain for the monarch.

Street protests against Thaksin began in early 2006. Demonstrators alleged he was corrupt, that he had avoided massive tax liabilities in the sale of one of his companies to the Singaporean national wealth fund, and that he had restricted press freedom. Thaksin’s response was to call a snap election in April, in which, with the benefit of a boycott by most other parties, he won 462 of the 500 parliamentary seats. But then the Constitutional Court ruled that election was invalid, and a new election was ordered to be held in October.

That never happened because on September 19, while Thaksin was attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the army launched a coup and took control of the country. It set up a junta, which was quickly recognised as the government by King Bhumibol. It is highly unlikely, however, that the king was involved in the planning or giving prior for the coup. But there is evidence that the head of his Privy Council, Prem Tinsulanonda, was deeply involved in the military take-over.

An air of embarrassment hung over the whole escapade. The Thai Rak Thai party was dissolved by the Constitutional Tribunal, and a return to civilian rule after new elections was promised within a year. That’s what happened in 2007, except that the election was won by new parties affiliated to Thaksin. He remains highly popular among the rural poor, and although he operates from exile, he is able to use his vast wealth to finance political operations at home.

Predictably, the election result re-energized the anti-Thaksin forces. Over the next months there were dozens of protests and violent incidents leading to the occupation of Bangkok’s international airport and the occupation of the government district. The political deadlock was broken when the Constitutional Court in 2008 banned Thaksin’s proxy governing party and opened the door for the opposition Democrat Party to take power.

However, when the Democrat Party Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, called an election in 2011, a majority of Thai voters again showed their loyalty to Thaksin. Thaksin’s latest political operation, the Pheu Thai Party, run by his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, won an outright majority. But in May, 2014, the Constitutional Court again intervened and removed Yingluck from office after finding her guilty of abuse of power. It was then that the Commander of the Royal Thai Army, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, stepped in with a coup and installed himself as Prime Minister.

Prayuth is being much more diligent than were the 2006 coup plotters in trying to ensure that Thaksin cannot yet again win an election and take control of government. But the death of King Bhumibol and the coming to the throne of King Maha may complicate this mission. Thaksin and King Maha appear to have formed a close relationship, though it is difficult to fathom the basis of the alliance or how deep are their political bonds.

They have at least one thing in common. Both live outside Thailand. Thaksin spends most of his time in Dubai since he went into self-imposed exile after the 2006 coup. King Maha has lived in Munich, Germany, for many years where his eventful personal life attracts less attention. He has had four wives, messy break-ups between marriages, a progression of mistresses, and many children from these liaisons whose rank in line for the throne changes with the status of their mothers. His vindictive nature is not confined to the women in his life, which is why King Maha’s accession to the throne is a matter of much disquiet and fearful apprehension.

So the possibility that King Maha may become a promoter of Thaksin’s overt return to Thai politics carries the prospect that the country is not approaching the end of more than a decade of upheaval, merely the opening of a new and doubtless equally colourful chapter.


Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2017

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Related on F&O:

Uneasy lies the head that wears Thailand’s Crown, by Jonathan Manthorpe, December 2014  Column

It’s a story that would have William Shakespeare licking his lips and sharpening his quill. The tale has everything that excited the creative juices of The Bard. There’s a dying king, much loved and revered by his people for his care for their wellbeing. But waiting in the wings is a hated, rapacious and vindictive Crown Prince. Even the most fervent royalists among the people are consumed with anxiety about what may happen when the prince assumes the throne and grasps the powers of monarchy. There is a rival for the crown, the king’s daughter, who has earned the public’s affection because of her charity and good works. But it is unclear whether she has the desire or the will to challenge her brother for the throne.



Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.


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