For the third time since 1991, Thailand is under military rule. As familiar a scene as this is in Bangkok, where at least 19 coups have taken place over the past century, there are hints that a major shift in Thailand's political landscape may be underway. With a royal succession looming, the May 22 coup may be part of the military's efforts — with tacit agreement from certain members of the royal family — to head off a looming crisis within the palace and safeguard the role of the monarchy in Thai society.
Led by 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the Thai monarchy has served as the center of gravity in Thai political culture over much of the past century. Its success deterring foreign invaders and Western colonizers, along with its perceived ability to stabilize Thailand's regular bouts of political chaos, earned it widespread respect among the public. The king, in particular, has become deeply revered.
However, the king's power is not absolute, and the monarchy has often struggled to stay above the political fray. For example, Bangkok elites, the military and the courts have often justified moves against elected governments as needed to preserve the institution of the monarchy, particularly in the years since populist Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra came to power in 2001. With the king's health deteriorating, the impending end to his more than 60-year reign has generated deep anxieties about the future in Thailand and triggered a slowly escalating battle over succession.
Earlier this week, the king was curiously absent from the ceremony giving his official assent to the new military junta. The king usually grants a televised audience to incoming leaders as a way to legitimize the transfer of power. It has been suggested that his absence from the proceedings was intended to distance the monarchy from accusations (particularly by Thaksin supporters) that the palace had orchestrated the coup. Though the Thai monarchy is officially apolitical, any such institution would inevitably wield some degree of political influence (whether legal, symbolic or otherwise), particularly with the dual crises of succession and political division intensifying.
The military's purported goal in taking power was to prevent intensifying street violence between rival political groups. Thailand's political scene is highly polarized, with mostly rural supporters of the Shinawatra family on one side and Bangkok elites and royalists bestowed with judicial, military and bureaucratic power on the other. However, the enduring electoral strength of Thaksin and his allies, along with his allegedly cozy relationship with 57-year-old Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn (widely seen as unpopular with the public), worries many royalists, who have long been opposed to the prince one day taking the throne.
Over the past decade, the perception of a threat to the establishment has been exacerbated by the belief that Thaksin would complicate the transition and use the succession as an opportunity to return to power as well. Parliamentary approval would likely be needed for any unorthodox transition, so the military's recent moves may be, in part, related to the royalist establishment's need to ensure that a Thaksin-friendly government is not in power at the time of a royal succession — at least before reaching a grand compromise that could guarantee the interests of the establishment without provoking further backlash from the pro-Thaksin populist movement. The lack of such settlement has led many to believe the military would move to suspend or at least curtail elected governments during a likely prolonged succession debate.
Indeed, the possibility that the elderly king would pass away while Thaksin still dominated the political climate posed a distinct danger to the monarchy. Part of the issue is the apparently divided nature of the palace itself. Internal palace politics are clouded by rumor, so it is unclear if King Bhumibol would consider any alternatives to the crown prince. It is believed that the crown prince has lost favor with Queen Sirikit and the king's powerful Privy Council, making it possible that those who oppose the prince are seeking some sort of institutional arrangement to bypass him in succession. Since shortly after martial law was declared May 19, the prince and a large entourage have been laying low in a hotel in England, increasing speculation about a looming succession struggle (though the prince travels abroad frequently).
Some speculate that the crown prince would be bypassed in favor of his sister, the very popular Princess Sirindhorn, but sources say she has vowed not to pursue the throne. There are also suggestions that she or the queen could serve as a regent while one of Vajiralongkorn's sons (some of whom have been living in exile in the United States) is groomed for the throne. Further complicating matters is the apparent decline in the health of the queen, who has not appeared in public regularly since 2012.
In any immediate scenario involving the death of the king, the Privy Council — a board of elders, many of them former generals and senior officials — would be expected to play a pivotal role in ensuring continuity and managing the transition. Short-term stability will be shouldered by the military forces headed by coup leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is believed to be a staunch royalist. This would involve moves to eliminate the Shinawatra family's influence over the populist movement and neutralizing any perceived threat that it poses to the monarchy.
However, an unsettled royal succession process could create a power vacuum — at least in the short term — leaving space for various stakeholders to maneuver and capitalize on the chaos. In that regard, a return to elections and civilian rule would be unlikely to take place before at least a temporary truce among Thailand's competing political heavyweights could be reached.
Thus, the unsettled issue of royal succession has added serious uncertainty to Thailand's already divided political scene. Considering Thailand's perpetual cycles of street violence, coups and transfers of power — along with its deepening geographic, economic and political divisions — a royal succession could give the country a chance for a fresh new order. Or it could portend a twilight for the throne that would almost assuredly be complemented by intense civil strife in for the foreseeable future. Regardless, how the monarchy — and the royalist establishment that empowered it — manages its legitimacy and influence in Thai politics after the king passes on will be central to Thai stability going forward.