What King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s first year tells us about Thailand’s future

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King Maha Vajiralongkorn accepted the Thai throne in December 2016. What does his first year in power tell us about what may lie ahead?

By John Pennington

Few knew what to expect when King Maha Vajiralongkorn succeeded his much-loved father. He was unpopular as a crown prince, and his public appeal has barely changed in the last 12 months.

He has surprised onlookers by trying to make a clean break from his father, King Bhumibol. He has taken a more hands-on role. Whether this will continue in 2018 may be a crucial turning point in Thailand’s future.

The new king was not popular when he ascended the throne

Former King Bhumibol’s longevity ensured his authority and legitimacy. His son, no stranger to controversy, will never compare favourably with him.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn has done little to project a cleaner image of himself. He prefers to spend much of his time in Munich, well away from Thailand. He invited both his wife and mistress to attend his father’s cremation. His behaviour may indicate that he has no intention of changing his ways.

The new king does not have the same unifying ability as his father. As a result, Thai politics and society could become even more fractured. In the south, where conflict continues, this could have significant ramifications. The Malay-Muslims respected King Bhumibol, but they may not hold his son in the same regard.

The worst-case scenario is a loss of territory. However, King Maha Vajiralongkorn reportedly has a “special interest” in the region. He is apparently keen to restore peace. His next moves here could alter his public image in the short-term and define his long-term legacy.

He stood his ground with the military

Analysts did not expect the new king to consolidate his power over the military. However, the king moved quickly to do so. He enforced changes to the Privy Council. He made amendments to the military-drafted constitution. He gained control of the Crown Property Bureau. He has made appointments himself.

By doing so, he managed to check the power of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha. The king is taking control away from the military. In theory, that would suggest a return to civilian-led democracy is edging closer. In reality, a destabilising power struggle is more likely. The junta may delay the elections again.

The military continues to enforce the lèse majesté law rigorously

Any hope that the new king’s ascension would herald a new era of tolerance vanished quickly. If anything, the military applied the lèse majesté law more rigorously once he came to the throne.

Courts handed record sentences to people posting on social media. The junta took on Facebook. It was unhappy as South Koreans praised criticism of the king. Earlier this year, the courts jailed a blind woman for 18 months. She had shared, via Facebook, an article which was critical of the monarchy.

The lèse majesté law offers King Maha Vajiralongkorn protection from dissent. Arguably, he needs it more than his predecessors. The clampdown looks set to continue.

People can access information quicker and easier than ever before. If King Maha Vajiralongkorn wants to hide things, it is now almost impossible to do so. The law’s effectiveness is diminishing. However, as long as the military and Thailand’s elites need royal patronage, the lèse majesté law will stay in place.

Sources: International Federation for Human Rights (1), (2)

The new king has backed the Kra canal

King Maha Vajiralongkorn is reportedly committed to building the Kra canal. This commitment is another departure from his father’s legacy. The proposed canal would run from Thailand’s west coast to its east. The canal would offer a direct route from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. That would alter shipping dynamics and hit Singapore’s shipping industry hard.

However, the junta has shown no interest in building the waterway. It says it has other priorities. King Bhumibol believed it would split Thailand in two. Constructing the canal and achieving lasting peace in the south may be impossible. Has King Maha Vajiralongkorn taken that into account? Has he showcased a political naivete that could have dramatic consequences?

What does 2018 hold?

In 2017, King Maha Vajiralongkorn focused on consolidating his power. He has made it obvious he will not allow the military to control him. More consolidation of royal power could follow.

Concerning the Thai public, however, his intentions are not yet as clear. He is yet to set out his agenda for his people. Those interested in the Thai monarchy will watch his coronation closely. It may offer clues about what the next 12 months may bring.

More of what we have already seen may not be good news for Thailand. As Paul Handley wrote in his biography of Bhumibol, entitled The King Who Never Smiles, “Bhumibol’s most fundamental failing is the Achilles’ heel of every monarchy: he has been unable to guarantee an orderly succession to a wise, selfless, and munificent king like himself.”