King Maha Vajiralongkorn expands his territory – but at what cost?

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King Maha Vajiralongkorn is now in charge of the agency that controls Thailand’s crown property. As he consolidates, the military’s hold on power could come under threat.

By John Pennington, Edited by Tan Jie Ying

Change is afoot in Thailand. Amidst continued instability and uncertainty, King Maha Vajiralongkorn asserts more control. This move puts the ruling military junta in check.

The king now has full control of the agency that manages the holdings of the monarchy. Details about the Crown Property Bureau (CPB) are shrouded in secrecy. But it is worth at least US$30 billion thanks to significant holdings and investments, estimates suggested.

The king swiftly installed a close aide as CPB chairman

The Crown Property Act replaces three laws that dated back to 1936. The king will now directly supervise the agency, and the law states that the bureau’s properties will be managed “at his majesty’s discretion.”

The king may also delegate management of properties and assets, and he alone can appoint a board of directors and its chairperson. Previously, Thailand’s finance minister held this position. King Maha Vajiralongkorn promptly installed a close aide as the head of CPB – his former private secretary Air Chief Marshal Satitpong Sukvimol.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s appointment of Sukvimol appears to validate anxieties about his absolutist tendencies. “He seems determined to reassert the rule of monarchy and he doesn’t want all these rules and regulations,” veteran journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall commented. “He wants everyone to know that he controls the money.”

This is the latest in a series of moves the king has made to assert control

Since acceding to the throne in December, King Maha Vajiralongkorn has taken a number of steps to increase his decision-making influence and consolidate his power. Unlike his father, he is not simply going to take a back seat and allow the junta to have total control. The junta risks losing influence and decision-making ability. But it is obliged to obey the king’s orders thanks to protocol obligations and King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s military background.

Soon after he began ruling, he demanded changes to the constitution. King Maha Vajiralongkorn now has power over naming a regent and the option to intervene in case of political deadlock. The amendment affords him independence and political influence. It also creates more instability.

Furthermore, the junta allowed him to name Thailand’s top monk. He then replaced officials who served his father with his own men – a precursor to what he has just done with the CPB. In April, King Maha Vajiralongkorn took control of five state agencies that oversee royal affairs and security. The government or military previously controlled all five. Many of those  King Maha Vajiralongkorn has promoted come from a faction of the army sympathetic to the new ruler.

“His majesty has proven himself to be very adept at managing the junta and the military,” assessed Paul Chambers, Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai.

He is making a clean break from his father

King Maha Vajiralongkorn is bringing about major changes in the relationship between the royal family and the junta. His recent moves represent a clean break from his father, who was able to wield influence and power without needing to take control of agencies.

Whereas King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s popularity gave him legitimacy, King Maha Vajiralongkorn cannot count on anything like the same appeal. Censorship and lèse majesté laws will only prevent so much information about his private life slipping out. Perhaps aware of his own reputation and public image, he is pushing hard to impose himself and build his power base.

To some, it has come as a surprise. “A lot of people would not have expected of him what he has done so far,” Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor at Kyoto University, assessed. “But it turns out that we have seen him moving towards consolidating his own political power. This is just the beginning,” he warned.

The divide between the king and the junta is growing

For decades, the monarchy and military have worked closely together. But differences between the junta and the king are growing. King Maha Vajiralongkorn is keen for reconciliation between opposing political camps whereas Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has little appetite for it. Prayuth is also averse to King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s allegedly close links with Thaksin Shinawatra.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn still has the support of the junta for the moment. The junta is shrewd enough to recognise the importance of bolstering the new king. A stronger monarchy means stronger rallying effect for the politically fragmented population. Ahead of King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s birthday celebrations, Prayuth called for loyalty, urging, “The government hopes all people will join to do good deeds.”

However, more power for the monarchy means less for the military. Prayuth does not exert the same control that he once did. As King Maha Vajiralongkorn makes his own appointments and takes charge of agencies, Prayuth’s grip on power is slipping.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s latest moves prove he is quite happy to take a different approach from his father. King Bhumibol Adulyadej worked discreetly with the military. By asserting his control, King Maha Vajiralongkorn is breaking out into the open evidence of the close links between the ruling elites and then breaking them down. Time will tell whether this approach will deliver what he wants, which would appear to be a timely return to civilian-led democracy.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn is treading a fine line

These are uncertain times for Thailand. Conflict rages in the South. The junta faces a test of its resolve and leadership as Yingluck Shinawatra awaits sentencing next month. Prospects for democratic elections remain up in the air.

What exactly King Maha Vajiralongkorn does next with the CPB – or more precisely, the money – will interest observers and perhaps offer a clue as to his plans. He is no stranger to frivolous spending habits. Nor will the Thai public take kindly to seeing the public finances plundered for personal gain. Having divorced his third wife, whose relatives were abusing royal privilege for financial gain, has the king learned any lessons?

If he has not, there may be a case for asking how much control the junta will be prepared to let him have before acting. When Prayuth reportedly said earlier this year, “If they are carried away with thoughts about rights, liberty and democracy in every issue, it will lead to anarchy,” he was talking about the Thai people. He may not have had the monarchy in mind but that may change if King Maha Vajiralongkorn continues to assert control – and then abuses it.

The worst-case scenario would see King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s bid to expand his own personal power base resulting in Thailand losing territory in the south of the country. Continued uncertainty helps nobody.

Friction between ruling elites in Bangkok is nothing new. However, the more control the king takes, the closer the country is to a disruptive and debilitating power struggle between the monarchy and the military.