King Maha Vajiralongkorn accepted the Thai throne in December 2016. What does his first year in power tell us about what may lie ahead?
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 still stays for long periods 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.
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 had the military-drafted constitution amended. He took 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.
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.
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.”