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Thailand after King Bhumibol

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Male inmates pay their respects to the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Central Correctional Institution for Young Offenders in Pathum Thani province, on the outskirts of Bangkok,Thailand 27 October 2016. (Photo: Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom).

In Brief

The passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej brings Thailand as we know it to a close. Over a seven-decade reign, the late monarch presided over Thailand’s climb from a village backwater to a modern nation.


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His glorious reign was enabled by conditions and circumstances that were uniquely suited for his leadership. But he has left behind a grieving and grateful population who must now chart their own path into an uncertain future.

Foreign audiences are easily bewildered by the intense affection the Thai people harbour for King Bhumibol. When he celebrated his 60th year on the throne in June 2006, hundreds of thousands of Thais lined Bangkok’s thoroughfares to catch a glimpse of their monarch and to celebrate the milestone with him. In his final twilight they flocked to the hospital where he stayed in order to pray and pay their last respects.

When the leader of Thailand’s junta, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, publicly announced his passing on 13 October, many tears were shed. The Thai people knew the day would come but they wanted to hang on to the reign for as long as possible because it had done so well for them.

The Thai people’s treatment of their collective father figure can come across as god worship characteristic of born-again evangelicals or the manufactured adulation common in North Korea. But in the Thai kingdom, the late monarch enjoyed reverence and respect that are organic from the bottom up.

Such adoration derives from the Cold War decades, when Thailand had to go it alone as the last domino that withstood communist expansionism in Southeast Asia. In rapid succession during April–May 1975, Cambodia fell to the Maoist Khmer Rouge, Saigon to the North Vietnamese Army and Laos to communist insurgents. On Thailand’s western front, then-Burma became reclusive and autarkic from 1962.

At home, Thailand was poor, beset with regular blackouts, unreliable waterworks and unpaved roads in most places. It was in these early years of economic development that King Bhumibol exerted efforts beyond the call of duty and built an indelible bond with his people. He traversed far-flung corners of the land — at some risk as the local communist insurgency was making headway — to promote agricultural production, irrigation, infrastructure construction and a myriad of public goods.

A core component of the Thai national identity, the late King lived a modest life when it could have been lavish, and endured hardship when comfort was available. He gave Thailand a unifying, rallying symbol behind which to thwart external threats and to believe in their country’s immense potential in the wider world.

Detractors and critics will say all that was achieved came at the great cost of a long period of authoritarian rule by the military, that development was lopsided in favour of the urban elite and that democratic development was stunted by repeated coups that kept the military–monarchy symbiosis front and centre in Thai society.

These points are not invalid, but they do not discount the reality that Thailand would not be where it is today without King Bhumibol as a force of personality who led by example with unsurpassable moral authority. His achievement is self-evident in view of the harsher times that befell Thailand’s neighbours over the same period.

By virtue of his success, the late monarch has left behind a modern country that now has to come to new terms. While the military junta will play an instrumental role in the transition to a new monarch, elections and democratic rule cannot be denied forever. Popular voices have been heard time and again calling for a collective self-determined future. For this reason, the monarchy King Bhumibol rebuilt will not be the same under his successor.

The imperatives of democratic rule require a 21st century monarchy, operating within a renegotiated constitutional order. Brokering and institutionalising this compromise is Thailand’s way forward.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches International Political Economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

2 responses to “Thailand after King Bhumibol”

  1. King Bhumibol was highly revered by Thais during his long seven decade reign. His only son has not impressed us, and he knows. Some of us would have wanted his elder sister, the good princess, to succeed the throne. However, this is not permissible in our constitution.

    Former premier Prem is too old to do anything much in a year. As a regent, he could help to pacify the current discomfiting situation. We Thais love our monarchy system, and we would not want it to be discontinued.

  2. Thailand has remained one of the most economically successful Southeast Asian countries in modernity. The Kingdom is the only Southeast Asian state to have not been colonized by the European powers although the colonialists attempted to control and contrived to manipulate the political economy of the Kingdom. The French were particularly responsible for the loss of Thailand’s Cambodian and Vietnamese territories. History will show that Thailand today is more cohesive and coherent as a sovereign state despite the destructive relationships with the European colonialists and the manipulation of various pre-War French governments. King Bhumiphon Adulyadej the Great is one of only four Siamese monarchs to have attained the title of the Great. There are many good reasons for the title including his Sufficiency Economy philosophy, the strength of the Thai baht, Thailand’s international relations with its Southeast Asian counterparts as well as with the major powers of China, Russia, the US, and western European countries. Contrary to US criticism of Thailand’s junta in 2006 and 2014, the Kingdom is doing well economically. Thailand continues to be dominated by a neofeudal system of “father knows best” with the rich getting richer and sharing some of their wealth with the poorest poor. The lack of a sufficiently strong democratic verve to enable a successful democratic transition in Thailand has not caused widespread harm as political alarmists appear to portray. The junta under General and self-appointed Prime Minister Chan-o-Cha has achieved three main objectives: (1) crime has been reduced significantly in the major tourist areas. Bangkok is safer now than it was during the Thaksin Shinawatra regime; (2) Thai people are not sufficiently frustrated as to resort to their old protest culture that was seen in 2008-2010. The people are not demonstrating in the way that they did under Yingluck Shinawatra; there is more civil obedience and social responsibility; and the number of lese majeste cases have fallen significantly; and, (3) the junta successfully received approval, in the end, from the new King for the revised and updated Constitution. Thailand’s economic relationship with China is also booming. Chinese investments in Thailand now exceed 50 billion baht in various projects across the Kingdom. But what is the downside to Thailand’s economic attainment under Chan-o-Cha? Foreign observers believe that there is a human rights problem. They also believe that there is nepotism in many Thai businesses as well as some bad hats among those who procure licenses for businesses. Thai scholars in self-imposed exile in London and Paris continue to question the credibility and legitimacy of the government today. Nevertheless, in Antonio Rappa’s view, the people appear to be better off economically today than they were two decades ago. Antonio Rappa also believes that there are significant improvements in terms of policy planning and delivery compared to the corruption under previous Thai governments. There are also fewer allegations of nepotism and corruption under Chan-o-Cha today than under the Shinawatra siblings. All said, the miltary regime has done a more than positive job in ensuring the safety and security of most Thai people most of the time. The next problem is likely to be the issue of the Thai general elections. If the GE is not properly managed in a fair and open manner with farang or foreign observers, then the regime will suffer the political consequences and erode the achievements over the past four years.The new King Rama X or King Maha Vajiralongkorn is in fact a more resourceful and careful leader than is ordinarily perceived. Leading Thai political scientists in Bangkok interviewed by Antonio Rappa observe that Thailand’s prospects today under Rama X are positive and appear to look bright. The chances for a better economic and political environment for the Thai people is greater today than it was previously. Thailand will do well as long as its safety and security are carefully managed and maintained. Thailand should take care of its tourist industry and manage it well so that tourists are not victims of scams and that the millions who visit Thailand are ensured of good clean fun in a safe and security environment. Recall that it too decades before the Thai people came to love and venerate the old late Great King Bhumiphon Adulyadej. Therefore King Rama X Maha Vajiralongkorn will also need more time to become as beloved as his Great Father. However, foreigners should not impose their values on the Thai people or on Thai culture. Thai people living in self-imposed self-exile ought to be careful not to be overtly influenced by western value systems and expect that these systems be imposed on Thai people and Thai culture. That being said, it would be interesting to determine if there is such as a thing as human rights. This is because in theory, human rights are universal but in practice, human rights are not universally accepted. Antonio Rappa.

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