Thai crisis, king’s health put focus on succession

Reuters India

Fri Dec 5, 2008 5:47pm IST

By Andrew Marshall, Asia Political Risk Correspondent

 

Photo SINGAPORE (Reuters) – At times of crisis, Thais have traditionally looked to the widely revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej to heal divisions and halt a slide towards turmoil.

Few would disagree that Thailand faces a crisis now. But this time, the king — regarded as semi-divine by many of Thailand’s 65 million people — has been silent.

Thais marked the king’s 81st birthday on Friday in a solemn mood after he failed to give his traditional address to the nation. His daughter, Crown Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, said he had a throat infection and was on a saline drip.

His ill-health has focused attention on what will happen after the world’s longest-reigning monarch is gone. Strict laws on perceived criticism of the royal family have prevented this question being publicly discussed either at home or abroad. But it is an issue that many fear could lead to even deeper chaos.

“If the king is very seriously ill, and we don’t know that, it will put the succession issue at the forefront of peoples’ minds,” said Craig Reynolds, a historian at the Australian National University.

Analysts say that over the past three decades the king has developed an interventionist style of monarchy that has allowed him to influence Thailand’s political course — sometimes decisively or overtly, more often behind the scenes.

After he dies, many analysts expect that this model might collapse, creating a power vacuum.

MORE THAN A SYMBOL

Thailand’s king is officially a constitutional monarch, a symbolic head of state without formal powers. But during his six decades on the throne, King Bhumibol’s influence expanded.

Despite his official neutrality, he intervened at times of crisis three times — in 1973, 1976 and 1992 — to rule on struggles between the military and popular movements that were threatening to cause widespread civil strife.

Behind the scenes, he wielded influence. He told the New York Times in an interview in 1989 that the king must act as a mediator between Thailand’s conflicting forces: “We must be in the middle, and working in every field,” he said.

For decades most Thais welcomed the king’s efforts.

But his son and presumed heir, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, commands little of his father’s popular support.

Talking to foreign media last year, former prime minister and staunch royalist Anand Panyarachun said the king had never forcibly intervened, but because of the respect the monarch had earned, Thailand’s leaders had often looked to him for guidance.

“The status that our king has risen to … is something he has earned. It is not a hereditary thing,” Anand said.

“What I am trying to say is that the indirect, reserve powers of a king are earned by that particular person. They cannot be inherited. Somebody who succeeds him can try to earn it … If he does not succeed, there is no reason for complaint. He will remain a king, a symbolic king.”

CHANGING THE RULES

In more stable times, the transition would have been easier to manage.

What makes it worrying now, analysts say, is the perception among some Thais that the monarchy has been drawn into the political struggle that has polarised Thailand.

The conflict is between allies of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has huge support among the rural poor, and backers of Thailand’s “old elites” in the military and bureaucracy who say the country’s future cannot be entrusted to politicians alone.

The yellow-shirted anti-Thaksin People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which plunged Thailand deeper into crisis with its siege of Bangkok’s airports, says it is fighting to protect the king. PAD leaders want a system of government in which appointed elites temper the power of politicians.

Thaksin’s red-shirted followers say elected lawmakers should be allowed to govern without military or royal approval.

Analysts say the palace’s reputation as being above the struggle was shaken when Queen Sirikit signalled support for the PAD in October by attending the funeral of a female protester killed in clashes with riot police.

They say the monarchy is now in the awkward position of being seen by some Thais as allied with a movement that has sought to topple elected governments.

In a column in the Straits Times, Ho Kwon Ping, executive chairman of the Banyan Tree hotel group, wrote that Thailand had owed its stability to the fact the monarchy was “a final arbiter, a source of moral authority which stood high above any politics and which could intervene at pivotal times of peril”.

“If that authority ever became politicised and a player in the game, rather than a referee, the fundamental nature of Thai society would change irrevocably,” he said.

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