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Thailand In Turmoil
Thailand Lifts State of Emergency But Crisis Goes On

Thailand’s government continues to lurch through one of its worst political crises in years. The government, headed by populist Yingluck Shinawatra, lifted a two-month old state of emergency today; the violence that had consumed the capital and led to the deaths of dozens of people had eased, the Cabinet declared.

But the crisis is far from settled.

Like anything written in Thailand about the country’s monarchy, this piece, written by “Bangkok Pundit” at a website called Asia Correspondent, is elliptically phrased and hard for outsiders to understand. But the point seems to be this: the current, widely respected King is 86 years old and cannot live forever. Whoever is Prime Minister as the moment of transition approaches will have the power to determine the rules governing the succession. Those who choose the next royal ruler in Thailand will enjoy great power and prestige, and have the backing of the throne in future political contests.

If the current Prime Minister or her party remains in control of the government, she and her brother Thaksin, many of their opponents believe, will have the ability to shape the future of the Thai monarchy. If Thaksin adds the support of the throne to the power that his popularity among the masses in the north and northeast of the country gives him, he will be to all intents and purposes the master of Thai politics for some time to come.

Fear of this development drives the persistence of those who want the current government removed, either by politically connected judges in the court system or, if that fails, through military action. If the current government is replaced by one supported by opposition leader Suthep Thaugsuban and his “yellow shirts”, the new government can rewrite the rules of monarchical succession to allow another candidate to ascend the throne. This would preserve the old establishment’s power into a new reign and offer a check to what otherwise might be the overwhelming power of Thaksin.

But, as the piece points out, the risks involved in this are very high. Public opinion in much of the country might well reject either a military coup or a court decision seen as politically motivated, and  the country could plunge into civil war over the royal succession. The consequences for Thai unity and the economy could be catastrophic; civil wars that involve both class and regional dimensions can be horrifically brutal.

One hopes that the Thai people can find a way through this difficult moment, and the positions of both sides have merit. The red shirts (supporters of Thaksin and Yingluck) really do represent a popular hunger for a more just and less harsh society, but the yellow shirts are right to caution about the potential for abuse of power if Thaksin breaks the hold of those who have opposed him in the past. Thai society has a genius for compromise and peaceful accommodation, but it has a violent and brutal streak as well.

The two likeliest successors to King Bhumibol (who has reigned in Thailand since 1950) are the Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and the Crown Princess Sirindhorn. Traditionally, only males have been able to rule, in part because the religious rituals connected with the kingship have been considered to require a kingly priest. But long before the current political controversies boiled over, the Crown Princess was seen by many Thais as having inherited the political and moral qualities that made her father one of the most successful constitutional monarchs anywhere on earth. The Thai constitution was altered in the 1970s to allow for female succession, so she is technically eligible for the throne, though her brother would take precedence unless the political authorities changed the rules. She would be seen by many supporters of royal authority as having the capacity to influence in Thai politics as the current king has so successfully done. Having participated once in a video conference meeting organized by the State Department over which the Crown Princess presided, I can testify that she has the mix of intelligence and authority that makes her a formidable presence.

The Crown Prince, many Thai analysts seem to think, would be a different kind of royal presence than his father, less focused on national and political issues and more engaged in private and personal pursuits. Rumors have swirled around the Crown Prince for many years; Thai laws prevent frank discussion of these in the local press, but it’s possible for foreigners to get some insight into the behind the scenes stories by checking sources like Wikipedia.

From the standpoint of the welfare of Thailand as a whole, one can make a case for both kinds of constitutional monarch. A more laid back, less politically interventionist king might give democracy more room to grow. George I and George II of the United Kingdom were not particularly effective as kings, and their private lives were not always edifying, but their very disinterest in British politics allowed parliamentary government to develop and mature.

On the other hand, as many yellow shirts would argue, Thailand’s political institutions and parties might not be mature and effective enough to flourish in the absence of a politically astute, widely respected and fully engaged royal figure. Certainly, the paralysis and conflict that has descended on the country as old age brought a reduction in King Bhumibol’s political activity could be taken as a sign that Thailand still needs a strong constitutional monarch. Moreover, the argument that Thaksin’s power would be too great to be contained in the absence of a counterbalancing royal institution cannot be dismissed out of hand.

There are a number of options for the succession short of breaking with precedent and placing a woman on the throne. Some have suggested that the Crown Prince could be passed over in favor of one of his sons, with the Crown Princess named regent. All this is speculative, however. If a pro-Thaksin, red-shirt government is in power when the current king dies, existing laws would assure that the Crown Prince would succeed his father as king. The urgency behind the demonstrations and the legal attacks of the yellow shirts against the government presumably reflect the conviction among some members of the Thai establishment that the clock is ticking.

These are issues that only the Thai people have the right to decide, and the time when that decision must be made may not be far off. A compromise might involve some kind of understanding being reached between the supporters of the Crown Princess and the red shirt movement. While not everything the current king did during his reign was uncontroversial, on the whole the Thai monarchy has played a moderating role in Thai politics, encouraging compromises as Thai society responds to the challenges of rapid modernization and economic development.

“The hands of the king are the hands of a healer.” say the crowds of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings, and the ability to heal was the test by which the rightful ruler could be known. One wonders whether in Thailand today there are thoughts about how a new ruler might go about healing the country’s divisions. Whoever managed that would certainly have a claim to King Bhumibol’s legacy.

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  • Breif2

    “elliptically phrased and hard for outsiders to understand”

    No worries, mate: we have studied at the School of Anthony! 🙂

    (No insult meant to Anthony, just good-natured joshing.)

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