Thailand used to be the most stable country in Southeast Asia. That is no longer the case and its long-running, slowly developing political crisis is taking a dramatic turn for the worse.
This is important. Geopolitically and economically, Thailand matters enormously to both China and the United States. Any serious unrest there could bring American and Chinese interests into conflict, greatly complicating the task of managing this vital relationship as China’s influence rises in the wake of its economic success.
Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra won the biggest election victories in Thai history by gaining the support of the impoverished farmers of rural Thailand, especially in the northeast. Forced out of office by middle class Bangkok protesters and traditional military and business interests who saw him as a dangerous demagogue — a cross between Berlusconi and Huey Long — Thaksin continues to haunt and torment the current Thai government from abroad.
Now things are taking a dangerous new turn. The Thai government wants to try Thaksin on corruption charges; Cambodia — which borders Thaksin’s political base in northeastern Thailand — has offered him asylum. In a startling interview with the London Times, Thaksin dramatically upped the ante, violating some of the deepest taboos in Thai society as he speculates openly about the political consequences of the transition from the current Thai king, 82 and reportedly hospitalized with pneumonia, to a Crown Prince who, Thais say, is much less respected than his father. (One sometimes hears speculation that the unpopularity of the prince could lead to his being passed over in favor of his sister, Princess Sirindhorn.) In the Times interview, Thaksin praises Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and clearly points to a time when a new Thai king will allow Thaksin back into office. The calculation appears to be that a weak and unpopular king will gladly accept the support of a strong and powerful prime minister.
Change is clearly coming to Thailand. The current king Bhumibol Adulyadej plays a unique role in the country’s political system, balancing various factions and interests. As Thai society develops, it is harder and harder for any single person to play that role, and the king’s successor will have to develop a new vision for the monarchy. That task would be difficult under any circumstances; with Thailand deeply divided its next monarch will agree with Shakespeare’s Henry IV: Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
Uneasy, too, will be the heads of diplomats and policymakers in Beijing and Washington as the Thai crisis unfolds.