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 no more.
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 prime minister.
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 election.
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.