New reign takes hold in Thailand
The country's royal succession has been smooth, defying predictions of a tumultuous transition, as King Maha Vajiralongkorn consolidates his position
On government buildings, shopping malls, and luxury hotels, larger-than-life portraits of recently deceased Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej are slowly but surely being replaced with images of his succeeding son. While black-clad Thais continue to mourn Bhumibol’s death last October, new King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun is gradually putting in place the pieces that will define his power and reign.
Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha, an ex-army commander installed in a May 2014 coup, has steered a mostly smooth succession, marked by the December 1 confirmation of Vajiralongkorn’s accession after a short interregnum under a royal advisor-led regency.
Earlier concerns that the royal transition could be marred by political instability or a prolonged national shutdown have not happened, as most Thais have calmly come to terms with the monumental monarchal change.
The 64-year-old Vajiralonglorn, known as Rama X, the oldest king to ascend the throne in the centuries-old Chakri dynasty, is expected to be formally crowned in October or November after the completion of Bhumibol’s elaborate funeral rituals. Initial indications suggest Vajiralongkorn may preside over a more assertive monarchy than his revered father left behind after seven decades on the throne – with potential implications for the country’s politics and power dynamics.
That was in evidence when his Principal Private Secretary, based on Vajiralongkorn’s observations, asked for changes before endorsing a draft constitution passed last August in a national referendum. The three sections, now under revision by a constitutional committee, all concern limits and interpretation of royal power. The legal process will further delay the junta’s road map to democracy, with general elections slated for this year now not expected until at least mid-2018.
The amendments will give the new king more autonomous authority than the previous version. One amended section will give the king full authority to appoint, or not appoint, a regent while he is abroad or otherwise unable to execute his royal functions. (Vajiralongkorn often resides in a luxury villa he maintains in Germany.) When Vajiralongkorn took time to grieve rather than immediately assume the throne after his father’s death, Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda, a former army commander and premier, automatically became regent.
Charter changes will also scrap a proposed committee of senior politicians, officials, and judges, outlined in Section 5, that would have had the authority to decide matters not explicitly defined in the charter. The power will apparently be returned to the monarch, as it was broadly, if not vaguely, defined in the 2007 constitution’s Article 7. A third change will no longer require the prime minister to countersign royal commands. Combined, the changes will give more constitutional power to the monarch than the popularly endorsed draft included. In late December, the junta’s legislature passed a bill that gives the king sole power to appoint the Supreme Patriarch of the Buddhist religion.
It is yet to be seen how these royal powers will be exercised. Bangkok-based diplomats already wonder whether the Privy Council, an 18-member royal advisory body, will command the same power and prestige under the new king as it did previously.
Days after his accession, Vajiralongkorn shuffled his father’s advisory body by removing especially elderly councilors and replacing them with top brass soldiers aligned with Prayut’s military regime. In a conciliatory move, he left in place 96-year-old council president Prem, one of Bhumibol’s long-time aides and committed guardian of royal prestige – though the potential for a wider shake-up is still possible after the influential Prem eventually passes.
Some analysts believe the Royal Household Bureau is poised for a bigger royal role. Before Bhumibol’s demise, Vajiralongkorn asserted influence over the RHB by appointing his known loyalists to top positions in charge of operations, royal residences and security. The appointment of Crown Property Bureau director Chirayu Isarangkun Na Ayuthaya as the RHB’s Lord Chamberlain was seen as a calibrated move to maintain continuity and balance between old and new, while also paving the way for Vajiralongkorn to appoint a new head of the CPB, which controls tens of billions of dollars worth of royal wealth.
Vajiralongkorn’s personal bodyguard unit, Royal Guard 904, will also likely be more prominent. In November, Vajiralongkorn consolidated an elite combat-ready King’s Guard unit, the 1st Infantry Division’s Fourth Battalion Unit of the Bangkok-based 1st Regional Army Command, with his existing unit, boosting significantly its power and size. The 1st Infantry Division has been key in nearly all past military coups, of which Thailand has had many. The reassignment was notably signed by 1st Army Region commander Major General Apirat Kongsompong – the son of 1991 coup-maker General Sunthorn Kongsompong – rather than army commander General Chalermchai Sitthisart.
Military and palace insiders say Sunthorn, now deceased, helped to train Vajiralongkorn, an air force decorated licensed pilot, how to fly military helicopters in the 1980s. It was then that Vajiralongkorn first became acquainted with Apirat, a relationship they say endured and deepened after Sunthorn’s death from cancer in the 1990s.
Some Bangkok-based diplomats now view the fast-rising Apirat, a King’s Guard soldier, as a potential future army commander, a potential royally endorsed challenge to the recent dominance of junta leaders, including Prayut, who hail from the competing elite Queen’s Guard.
Other analysts wonder if the new king will aim to define his legacy through royally guided reconciliation. Last November, Vajiralongkorn impressed on National Council for Peace and Order junta leaders during a royal audience on the need for genuine reconciliation and stability. Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan has since led a drive to reconcile opposed camps in the coup-ousted Peua Thai and rival Democrat parties, where political leaders will apparently be required to sign a memorandum of understanding outlining political ground rules, including an oath of loyalty to the crown, before new elections are held.
Vajiralongkorn has the power to issue royal pardons, an authority some in the coup-ousted Peua Thai party say they hope he will use to bring home self-exiled, criminally convicted ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra in the name of national reconciliation. Any such move would still be anathema to top royalists who have tacitly backed two military coups, in 2006 and 2014, to strip Thaksin’s and his sister Yingluck’s elected political power. Prawit has insisted his reconciliation initiative will not include an amnesty. But with the kingdom’s center of gravity shifting under a new reign, his ruling junta may no longer have the final word.