As far as we know, the king has not passed. Yet an op-ed at the Nikkei Asian Review, by Tim Johnston of the International Crisis Group reads very much like a “pre-obituary,” assessing what happens next.
It will surely anger the regime and the royalists in Bangkok, even if it does repeat some of their propaganda about the ailing monarch. It is an interpretation that includes much that is debatable. That said, it is useful to look forward at a time that will be politically fragile.
Johnson seems to have read some of the academic papers that have claimed that it is “middle class” that has driven opposition to what he calls the “traditionalist elite.” We’d point out that several of these papers actually confuse low-income supporters of red shirts and allies with the middle class.
That aside, let’s continue with his story, where he observes that the “contradictions inherent in this modern, middle-class country ruled by a traditionalist elite are becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile.” He addresses this issue in the context of monarchy.
Johnston is wrong that “[t]he media were full of daily reports on his condition as the palace took the unprecedented step of inviting the public into its ceremonial hall to sign a book for well-wishers.” The signing of well wishes has been in place for years and the reports in the media were mainly limited to Royal Household Bureau announcements. Yet, he is right that “it is clear his [king’s] health remains in decline.”
Johnston is also wrong to declare that “Thailand has been a sheet anchor of stability in an otherwise turbulent region. The disputes were occasionally bloody, but tended to be tightly focused in Bangkok; although the shock waves often spread out across the country, the unrest had little material effect on ordinary people or investors outside the epicenter.” He’s wrong because it downgrades the impact of years of military dictatorship and American alliance and he’s wrong to ignore the long war in the south and the two decades of countrywide political struggle that revolved around communist insurgency.
He is right that the past 15 years of political conflict “has created the conditions for the sort of class warfare that could suck the nation and the economy even deeper into the mire.”
Johnston is wrong to declare, as if a palace propagandist, that “[f]or years, the king was the bridge that spanned the divisions that emerged. He has not personally intervened in recent disputes beyond giving formal approval to successive governments as they were thrown up by elections or coups, but that has not stopped a variety of players, mostly notably the military, from invoking his name to justify their policies.” This is errant nonsense. Has he not read The King Never Smiles? Has he not read any of the academic literature on the current monarch?
He’s also wrong to confuse fact and propaganda about the king’s alleged work and service while ignoring his wealth and power and the impact of palace propaganda, usually taxpayer funded, over many decades.
He is right that “the king and the monarchy are not interchangeable: the man is much more powerful than the institution, and such power is not heritable.”
Johnston may be right that there “will be a vacuum at the heart of a deeply unstable social and political system.” But he can’t have it both ways and say the king isn’t a political player but then have him at the very center of the political system.
He declares that the “self-appointed defenders of the monarchy, … have an over-riding interest in ensuring that the succession is to their liking, if necessary through the use of force.”
That’s probably true, especially if the draft charter is any guide. Clearly, in that document, the military and the “traditionalist elite” are seeking to establish “independent agencies” to assume the political role played by the king in maintaining an exploitative and conservative social order.
He’s wrong that the junta is a self-appointed defender of the monarchy. These generals have been very close to the palace for many years. That loyalty is what got them to the top.
Johnston is on target when he observes that:
The opposition, cowed but not defeated by the draconian emergency powers the generals have granted themselves, knows it cannot take on the palace, the army and the bureaucracy while that triumvirate can invoke the moral and personal authority of King Bhumibol. Without his mystique, the elite’s forceful defense of a status quo that has repeatedly disenfranchised large swathes of the population risks appearing as naked self-interest.
On the middle class, Johnston notes that the current reign “has seen Thailand become a middle-income nation, with all the implied middle class aspirations for progress. The government’s attempts to force the country to retreat into a sclerotic theme-park version of Thai tradition looks quixotic and baffles those whom it does not anger.”
Yes and no. Much of the middle class is opposed to democratic reform and is supportive of “good people” defined in conservative terms that are as sclerotic as the junta’s view of “real” Thailand.
We also think he’s right to say that:
The king’s death will be followed by a substantial period of mourning, but political tensions will continue to seethe under the surface. How the generals and the bureaucracy handle the inevitable challenges to their power will determine whether Thailand’s post-Bhumibol social contract will be settled by confrontation or negotiation.
He may be right to speculate that the king’s death will trigger a “damaging identity crisis.” For the military,
which is among various institutions to have fetishized the concept of “Thainess,” such an identity crisis could easily look like an existential crisis, inviting an overreaction to criticism that risks ripping the fabric of Thai society in ways that would take years to repair.
We also think he’s right that “millions of ordinary Thais” have “outgrown the political and economic paternalism” of the past. Johnston’s view that “[f]or Thailand to continue to grow socially and economically, the elite needs to relinquish its hold on power and trust ordinary Thais to play an equal role in determining their future as a shared enterprise.”
The question is whether the elite can do that without being pushed and shoved off its trajectory. To be honest, we doubt it. The International Crisis Group should probably expect more crises in Thailand.