As Thailand transitions from the reign of the late, beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej to that of his son, competing factions in the country are working toward a new equilibrium. Although early signs suggested that the Thai junta might strengthen its control in the wake of the succession, Reuters reports that the new king has taken a stronger stand than expected:
From requiring constitutional changes to pushing for unity in the divided country and reshaping the royal household, Thailand’s new king is putting an assertive stamp on his rule.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn has made it clear to the generals running the country that he will not just sit in the background as a constitutional figurehead since taking the throne in December from a father treated by Thais as semi-divine.
That matters in Thailand, where relationships between monarchy, army and politicians have long determined the stability of Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy and America’s oldest regional ally.
Predictions by some pundits of a troubled royal transition have proven wrong – at least for now.
So far, reports coming out of Thailand suggest that the king is walking a fine line, keeping the military under control while moving toward a gradual re-opening of political competition. On his watch, the junta has convened reconciliation talks among dozens of political parties, ahead of elections planned for next year. Those talks could become a crucial bellwether for a country that remains broadly divided between the Bangkok-based elite and the poorer, rural provinces that supported Yingluck Shinawatra, the populist former premier ousted in a 2014 coup.
It is unclear how all this will play out, but it is important for U.S. interests that Thailand stay on a stable footing as it manages a complex transition. Thailand has historically been a strong American partner in Southeast Asia, but U.S. policy has not helped the relationship in recent times. The Obama administration’s post-coup decision to chide Thailand about human rights and democracy while cutting off high-level engagement, for instance, proved counterproductive, alienating the Thais and providing an opening for Beijing to cozy up to Bangkok.
With new leadership in both Bangkok and Washington, could a course change be in order? As it happens, American troops are in Thailand this week for the Cobra Gold military exercises, a long-planned activity that nonetheless could help reboot a strained relationship. The American admiral attending the exercises, Harry Harris, is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Thailand since the coup, and he is meeting with the junta’s leader during his visit, even while emphasizing the need for democracy in Thailand.
Both Bangkok and Washington have a delicate balancing act to pull off, as they seek to take the other’s pulse without hastily abandoning past positions. The Trump-Thailand relationship is one to watch; if the President hopes to stand up to China, he would be wise to get back into the Thais’ good graces—and build bridges to the King, the military, and political actors alike to ensure that Thailand remains a stable and secure partner.