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Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn is carried on a palanquin through the streets of Bangkok. Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn is carried on a palanquin through the streets outside the Grand Palace during the second day of his coronation ceremony in Bangkok, May 5, 2019 (AP photo by Wason Wanichorn).

Why the Thai King’s Power Grab Could Backfire

Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019

Since ascending to the throne in 2016, the Thai king has taken several actions to expand his influence over Thailand’s politics, military affairs and economy. Will his maneuvering backfire?

Two weeks ago, the Thai king issued a royal decree placing two army units under his direct control, rather than under the normal military hierarchy. The decree claims the change was made necessary by an emergency, but there is no obvious emergency that justifies such a decision.

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In reality, taking personal control of the military units is just the latest move by King Maha Vajiralongkorn to expand his influence over Thailand’s politics, military affairs and economy since ascending to the throne in late 2016. With elections and the seating of a new parliament earlier this year, Thailand shifted back toward an ostensible democracy, although one that remains under strict military control five years after the country’s latest coup. Vajiralongkorn seems intent on pushing the country further away from a constitutional monarchy as well, but in another direction altogether: closer to an absolute monarchy.

Under the long reign of Vajiralongkorn’s father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the monarchy possessed significant powers, but they were mostly exercised behind the scenes and in collaboration with the Thai army. The king wielded power over politics, but he had to work with prominent generals who often ran the country via juntas or hybrid governments that combined elected, appointed and military leaders. The king did intervene in politics, but usually in secret or via proxies acting on his behalf in what some observers have called a “network monarchy.”

In addition, under Bhumibol, the powers of the monarchy stemmed less from official rules and laws than from the personal authority of the Thai king, his popularity with the people and his cultivation of an aura of almost deity-like righteousness, all accumulated over the course of his 66 years on the throne.

In the 2000s and early 2010s, as Thailand cycled between democratically elected governments and military juntas, the monarchy’s power appeared to fade. In 2006, Bhumibol’s support for the bloodless coup that ousted then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist who tried to push aside the network of royal allies through which the monarchy influenced politics, seemed to alienate some Thais. Bhumibol subsequently suffered a long physical decline. When the army once again seized power in 2014, this time from Thaksin’s sister Yingluck, it instituted the country’s most repressive military regime in decades, and the military seemed to have become by far the most powerful actor in Thailand.

When Bhumibol died in 2016 and his son succeeded him, the army still appeared dominant. As crown prince, Vajiralongkorn had never enjoyed the enormous popular goodwill his father did. He lived abroad most of the time, and still does. He has also been repeatedly tainted by scandals over the years.

Yet since taking the throne, Vajiralongkorn has managed to maneuver himself to the center of Thai politics, decreasing the power of both the army and politicians along the way. Besides taking personal control of the two previously mentioned army units, which would be essential for mounting a successful coup, Vajiralongkorn has consolidated power in multiple other ways. He has forced other, formerly Bangkok-based units to leave the capital, while empowering the faction of the army most aligned with the crown. He has neutered the Privy Council, an advisory body, by taking away its power to act as regent. And in contrast to his father’s style, in February, the king intervened directly in Thailand’s elections, essentially ordering his sister not to run as a prime ministerial candidate for a pro-Thaksin party, even though she intended to do so as a commoner. The move was unprecedented in the modern era.

The Thai king’s maneuvering is making enemies among business, military and political elites, in addition to quiet republicans who already distrusted the monarchy.

The king also has acquired personal stakes in major Thai companies like Siam Commercial Bank, in addition to taking more personal control of the Crown Property Bureau, which invests in real estate, blue-chip Thai companies, and other assets. The bureau is estimated to be worth some $30 billion, with major stakes in some of the most important companies in Thailand.

How has a seemingly unpopular monarch whose personal life remains tumultuous—he recently made his former bodyguard his fourth wife and also took an official concubine—been able to turn back the clock on Thailand’s constitutional monarchy?

To begin with, Vajiralongkorn has utilized the enormous cult of personality built up around the monarchy over previous decades, deploying it without the restraint of his father, to force even military leaders to bow to his wishes. He has repeatedly embarrassed top brass, such as by forcing Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former general who led the 2014 coup and is now prime minister, to accept changes to the new, army-midwifed Thai constitution that would bolster the king’s powers. Since the military has for years portrayed itself as the ultimate defender of the monarchy, it is in no position to oppose the king. In fact, some senior military officers are so arch-royalist that they may support Vajiralongkorn’s move to amass more power. Meanwhile, harsh lese majeste laws, which outlaw criticism of the monarchy, insulate Vajiralongkorn from an overt popular backlash.

The implications of Vajiralongkorn’s accumulation of power are dangerous for Thailand’s politics and economy, and possibly even for the monarchy itself. He may have shifted the balance of power away from the military, but a more influential king is even less accountable than Thai governments that have historically been dominated by factions of army officers, bureaucrats and businesspeople. Prayuth, the prime minister, is now weak, with a fragile majority in parliament and overshadowed by the king’s domination of the military. Given Vajiralongkorn’s control over the Bangkok-based army regiments, he could essentially control a coup if he wanted, or dispose of Prayuth in some other way.

Vajiralongkorn seems even less favorably disposed toward Thailand’s nonmilitary politicians. His direct intervention in the 2019 election showed a disdain for democratic politics. Since then, he has done nothing to stop the post-election harassment of opposition politicians, including Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the leader of one of the biggest opposition parties, Future Forward.

Meanwhile, the Thai king’s takeover of the Crown Property Bureau puts this sizeable asset into the hands of someone with no financial management ability. In the past, the Crown Property Bureau, though still too opaque for an entity of its size and influence, was managed by capable technocrats and overseen by the finance minister. It still has a board of directors, but that board is now overseen by the king, and it is hard to know whether Vajiralongkorn will squander or mismanage the bureau’s assets.

Ultimately, the king’s power grab might hurt the long-term viability of the monarchy. Although lese majeste laws outlaw public criticism, Thais are generally well aware of Vajiralongkorn’s past and present conduct. There is little evidence he has boosted his popularity as king. His maneuvering is making enemies among business, military and political elites, in addition to quiet republicans who already distrusted the monarchy. Meanwhile, disempowering advisers, like the Privy Council, and assuming more control over both politics and the economy removes any plausible deniability for the king in the event of failure.

By operating in the shadows, the king’s father wielded significant power but allowed the blame for Thailand’s problems to fall on others. Vajiralongkorn may have squandered that option.

Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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