Royal succession at core of Thai turmoil

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Jonathan Manthorpe, Vancouver Sun

Published: Wednesday, October 22, 2008

There is one simple but profound question behind the turmoil that has overtaken Thailand’s political life from the military coup late in 2006 to protesters’ occupation of the PM’s office compound today.

What happens when ailing 80-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej dies?

Since he came to a discredited throne in 1946, King Bhumibol has worked diligently to establish the monarchy as an island of sanity and court of last resort in Thailand’s turbulent and frequently interrupted transition to democracy.

As is famously known, the king has become much revered for his record of, on occasion, blocking coups, and casting his deciding vote for the people and against special interests.

But the overall picture of the role of the king and the royal household is not that clear-cut and within Thailand the confusion of loyalties and objectives is made even more opaque by the fiercely-enforced lese-majeste laws. These threaten severe punishments for uttering anything held to be untoward about all senior members of the royal family.

So much of what you are about to read would merit a prison sentence in Thailand.

The waning years of the king’s reign have coincided with the coming to electoral authority of a new phenomenon in Thai politics, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin is a populist, self-made billionaire businessman who became prime minister after a landslide election victory in 2001.

But from the start Thaksin’s high popularity among the rural poor put him at odds with the palace and its loyalists. Thaksin compounded his sins by falling prey to the arrogance of power.

Persistent street demonstrations against Thaksin by a royalist party made up largely of urban middle class professionals called the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) prompted the army to oust Thaksin in a coup in September, 2006.

The fingerprints of the palace are all over that coup, especially those of Prem Tinsulanonda, the former army general who was prime minister through most of the 1980s and who has been the king’s chief adviser as head of the Privy Council since 1998.

But to the plotters’ disgust, the return of democracy at the end of last year only resulted in the return to power of a new party, the People’s Power Party (PPP), that is a self-confessed front for Thaksin, now in exile in Britain.

The impetus now among royalists is to try to control the succession by imposing limits on democracy before the king dies and Thailand enters a period of uncertainty.

So the PAD has continued its demonstrations, occupied the prime minister’s office compound and is demanding the resignation of the government led by Thaksin’s brother-in-law Somchai Wongsawat.

The PAD wants a new constitution that would take away the vote from the rural poor and establish a largely appointed parliament stocked with professional and middle class people loyal to the palace.

King Bhumibol has played to his loyalists by encouraging intervention by the courts, whose judges have ruled against the government. And last week Queen Sirikit committed the partisan act of attending the funeral of a PAD demonstrator.

The key question is whether the king will be succeeded by his thuggish son Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, whose lurid love-life is a matter of public scorn and whose accession to the throne would herald a dangerous rift with the current parliament.

The alternative is Crown Princess Sirindhorn, who is much loved for her work for the poor though she has never married and is said, respectfully, to prefer the company of women.

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