Thailand plunged deep into mourning on Thursday following the death of much-revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch. Now the question is whether this politically polarized nation, a key U.S. ally in Southeast Asia, will plunge deeper into instability and military dictatorship.
King Bhumibol presided over Thailand’s modernization during 70 years on the throne and was beloved for his dedication to the country’s poor. At least twice, he intervened to defuse political crises.
But in his final years the octogenarian king allowed himself to be used by the Thai military and other anti-democratic elements in their war against the populist “red shirt” movement of Thaksin Shinawatra, which won every election after 2001 only to be repeatedly ousted by coups. The last, in 2014, installed a military junta that has brutally repressed political activity, in part by zealously enforcing a law banning all criticism of the monarchy.
The generals, led by Prayuth Chan-ocha, in August imposed an authoritarian constitution on the country through a rigged referendum. Now they have responded to the king’s death by ordering a year of mourning and instructing all television media to broadcast only state programming. Many analysts expect an election promised for 2017 will now be postponed, allowing Prayuth to continue ruling as a dictator indefinitely.
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That’s a recipe for instability – particularly as Prayuth confirmed that the king’s successor will be Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, an erratic and much-disliked playboy who once used his authority to give his poodle, Foo Foo, the rank of chief air marshal.
The generals may have believed that they could use the royal transition to cement their hold on power. But the crown prince, who as king will control properties and businesses worth billions of dollars and have the right to approve senior military appointments, may have ambitions of his own.
If he begins to assert himself, he could trigger turmoil within the regime and a popular backlash in the country.
The United States, which has designated Thailand as a major non-NATO ally and depends on it for naval and counterterrorism cooperation, needs to prepare for this potential trouble in two ways.
First, it should begin taking steps to lesson the Pentagon’s dependence on the Prayuth regime, so that it will have the freedom to speak out more freely about its violations of human rights, and to use U.S. leverage to press for a transition to genuine democracy.
President Barack Obama’s administration should also coordinate with its democratic allies in Asia, such as Indonesia, Japan and Australia, so as to present a joint front if the regime steps up repression, with or without the collaboration of the new king.
Thailand is mourning the loss of a sensible and honorable ruler; sadly, no ruler with those qualities is in sight in Bangkok.