Thailand’s new King shows his muscle, is he about to take on the junta?

Photo: Prayut Chan-ocha/Wikimedia Commons

Thailand’s new King has rejected the junta’s constitutional amendments – leading to speculation that he might play more of a role in Thailand’s politics than his father. He needs to preserve the royal powers as Prayut’s power-hungry legislature encroaches on the King’s authority.

By Oliver Ward, edited by Holly Reeves

In a rare move of political intervention, the Thai King Vajiralongkorn has publicly rejected the junta’s proposed constitutional amendments,  raising concerns that the new King will play a much more active role in politics than expected. Despite there being much to dislike about the changes, which were approved in a flawed referendum where campaign criticism of the proposed constitution was illegal, they were agreed by the will of the people and should be respected.

The leader of the government, Prayut Chan-o-cha, says the King only has objections to “three or four articles.” In fact, Vajiralongkorn’s complaints all relate to limitations on his power. In particular, he wants to amend a rule which dictates that he names a regent when he leaves the country. He also intends to maintain the role as the final arbitrator in times of political crisis, which the amendments would see transferred to the constitutional court.

Thailand functions on a dichotomy of political power

The public rebuttal of the changes represents a discontinuation of established tradition by which king and government maintain a power balance. Here the monarch operates as a legitimising force, positioned above the political squabbling. As such, the public rejection of aspects of the constitution could show Vajiralongkorn’s increased willingness to encroach on Prayut’s role in the future.

Many of the political elite in the country are concerned that King’s intervention actually signals an increasing confrontation between the palace and the military. In particular, they fear that continued interference from Vajiralongkorn in a matter of political governance will bring instability to the country as the two power bases clash.

Will Vajiralongkorn play a more active role in politics?

His father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, was able to maintain a coordinated relationship between the monarchy and military in a much more delicate way. General Prem Tinsulanonda chaired his Privy Council, and the monarch was sufficiently detached from Thailand’s political scene to remain unaffected by public unrest and anger at the flip-flopping between military and civilian rule.

And the initial interaction between Vajiralongkorn and the junta appeared to be a continuation of this symbiotic coexistence. His own Privy Council is also filled with generals from the junta’s cabinet and he even asked for advice and guidance on who should fill the vacant head of Thai Buddhism post. There has been no indication that potentially turbulent times lay ahead.

Ekachai Chainuvati, Law academic at Siam University, suggests that, “this current king sees the amendment as important to him”, as the articles he wants amending relate only to his authority, and he is not stepping on the government’s toes and their rule over the population. Professor Pravin Chachavalpongpun said of Vajiralongkorn that he, “has over the years demonstrated little interest in political and royal affairs”. It seems unlikely he would suddenly begin now unless he felt his interests and power under threat.

Generally, he seems happy to leave the governing to Prayut and his junta, but equally, he wants to preserve the sovereign authority and will not permit any diminution of his power. His rejection of the amendments seems to come more from a perspective of self-preservation than a genuine desire to interfere with the governing of the country.

His issue with naming a regent would suggest that he may be thinking of ruling from his German retreat and has no desire to see his power bestowed on anyone else while he is away. Vajiralongkorn can smell Prayut’s desire to capitalise on what many critics have called a weak king and use constitutional amendments to erode some of the monarch’s authority.

Prayut is attempting to use the changes to strengthen the military’s position

During the succession, General Prem Tinsulanonda was named regent, and the current constitution dictates that in the King’s absence the head of the Privy Council will take on the role. Prayut was hoping to have a similar situation play out while Vajiralongkorn travels abroad. As the Privy Council remains full of military men from the junta’s ranks, a regent from the military, or even Prayut himself, would provide the military with royal powers whenever the king travels to Germany.

However, the King and the people would probably prefer to see Crown Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn assume the regency. The 66-year-old is beloved by the Thai population for her continuation of her father’s sponsorship of development projects across Thailand. She is also heavily involved in charity work as the head of the Thai Red Cross and could provide a compromise if the King were to name a stand-in. She could rule while Vajiralongkorn is overseas while simultaneously preventing the military from getting their hands on the royal powers that come with it.

Vajiralongkorn wants to use the constitutional amendments to create a legal power base

Ultimately, any regent is a diminution of the King’s authority as it grants additional powers, albeit temporary, to whoever takes on the role. For this reason, it is easy to see why Vajiralongkorn would take exception to a constitution binding him to name one. Given that he has just assumed the throne and is determined to build a power base of his own, he will not want to concede power to other factions unnecessarily.

At the heart of the issue is the fact that Vajiralongkorn is not shrouded in the same cloak of esteem and mysticism which his father had, and is, therefore, pursuing legal, constitutional powers as a substitute for the unconditional love, and support, that Bhumibol enjoyed.

The charter must get agreement by February 6

The junta has already approved the constitutional changes; however, the draft charter must receive royal approval within 90 days or be scrapped. This puts the deadline at February 6 to submit a revised draft of the constitution with royal approval. Although the deadline will be tight, both parties have reason to hurry. Prayut wants the 280-article draft passed to consolidate his power, while King Vajiralongkorn would lose face if he were to be responsible for the disintegration of a democratically approved constitution.

The whole process is likely to take several months to complete and could again push back the expected date for a new General Election until 2018 at the earliest.  As always, the citizens suffer most when powers collide, and this is no exception. Prayut’s attempt to seize royal power through the constitution appears to have failed, and while this may not be an indication of Vajiralongkorn’s willingness to interfere in politics, it shows Prayut will do anything to consolidate his power – including co-opting it from the monarch.