A tale of two kings: Thailand’s new monarch wants a greater say in public affairs

Photo: Amrufm/CC BY 2.0

King Maha Vajiralongkorn wants to assert his influence over how his country is run. This marks an end to a longstanding history of the monarch staying out of politics. 

By Nicolette Chua, edited by Francesca Ross

Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn is looking for greater influence over his nation after succeeding to the throne of his much-loved father.

The King has signed a new constitution

Thailand is entering a new phase of politics after the signing of a military-backed constitution on April 6. The King had asked for amendments to this document in relation to his power, such as allowing him to travel overseas without appointing a regent.

The parliament passed these changes with a huge majority in favour but the King’s move initially alarmed the country’s ruling junta. The new monarch has publicly been an ally of General Prayuth’s government, which seized power in a 2014 coup.

The constitution allows the government to remain in power, even after upcoming elections in 2018. It also gives the King significantly more parliamentary power than his father and allows him greater influence in decision-making. The new monarch wants to be an active ruler rather a figurehead of the constitutional monarchy system.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn has been reorganising the palace staff

Political observers have noted that King Vajiralongkorn has already introduced changes to the royal household. He has stripped more than 30 palace officials of their positions. In one case, the King dismissed an army major-colonel for “disputing [of] royal observation” and “improper manner and behaviour”.

He has also appointed new officials and promoted existing ones. Prem Tinsulanonda, head of the Privy Council, has kept his job while military officials with connections to the King have received promotions. The king seems to be creating his own group of loyal aides to provide legitimacy and support for his reign. Many of these have a military background.

Restrictions on freedom of speech in Thailand are still in place

Prayuth’s government is also strengthening its already-authoritarian rule by further cracking down on free speech. For example, two renowned academics and a journalist have been banned from public discourse and anything they say online cannot be shared online. Thais who contravene this ban will violate the Computer Crimes Act and are subject to criminal charges.

The three activists, journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall, historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul and academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun, have advocated for democratic reform. Marshall said he believed “The real danger is from the new king, much more than the junta”, and that “attempts to control information are now the most oppressive and extreme they have ever been in Thailand”. The reporter said he is willing to defy the existing lèse-majesté laws which protect the king to advocate his cause.

The ban has come from the government but clearly shows the influence of the king in public regulation. It is also further evidence of the junta’s vehement resistance to criticism.

Can the King live up to his father’s legacy?

The new monarch has often been compared to his father, King Bhumibol Aduyalej, who occupied the throne for more than seven decades until his passing on 13 October 2016. The comparisons are not always favourable.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn is seen in stark contrast to the deep reverence given to his father by the Thai people. Bhumibol was the “ideal national arbiter” and an influential figure in ensuring political stability. His son’s insecurity about his place in the hearts of the population could be driving his recent moves to assert greater control over the nation’s affairs.

In early April, Thais noticed that a plaque along the sidewalk of Bangkok’s Royal Plaza which commemorated the 1932 revolution had suddenly disappeared. The 1932 uprising overthrew an absolute monarchy for a democratic government. There has been speculation that the incident is the result of the King’s fear of history repeating itself.

Thailand’s current situation is fragile and the junta needs Palace support

Thailand’s government is facing increasing economic and political challenges as the country undergoes yet another rocky transition. Conflict continues in Southern Thailand and military intervention is a largely unfeasible solution.

The economic outlook is still uncertain as potential investors watch political events unfold. Restrictions on freedom of expression are set to continue as long as dissidents are seen as threats to the legitimacy of the current government.

The King’s close affiliation with the military is likely to continue. However, if he agitates for greater control, a power struggle between the monarch and the military government could well emerge.

To avoid this both parties would have to strike an uneasy balance – the military accommodating the King’s requests while the monarch refrained from overstepping his boundaries. The new constitution means that a return to an absolute monarchy remains unlikely – but the delicate nature of Thai politics ensures the voice of the king will be heard.

Prayuth needs the Palace to be speaking in his favour as he tries to maintain his precarious rule. Coup or no coup, the Palace reigns supreme.