Inside the Beltway commentary

19 10 2016

As we know if we read junta tea leaves, the US is always “misunderstanding” the country with which it has its longest treaty relationship in Asia. So for what it’s worth, what do the Yankees say about Thailand in the current period? A reader sent us a couple of posts from a privately circulated, “inside the Beltway” daily newsletter on everything Asia from business and government. Here they are:

Immediately following the king’s death:

THAILAND’S KING IS GONE…long expected bad news, but still bad news, given that his designated successor, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, is not especially popular except with the military junta.

And, to be brutally frank, the man has been seen by the USG for some 20 years as dishonest beyond the norm, utterly untrustworthy, and often dangerously incompetent due to let’s just call them personal recreational habits.

One of those you can perhaps work around, but all? And this has been a long-held concern in both Bangkok and Washington…and we suspect other places throughout Asia, including Tokyo.

Bangkok? Sure, if he can stay alive, it will be thanks to the protection and sponsorship of the junta…so the generals will call the shots, unlike his late father, who was often able to mediate in the country’s best interests.

We reported during the Bill Clinton Administration that because of trust issues, Vajiralongkorn was was refused a classified briefing at DOD and raised hell about it, but the White House held firm. We had that directly from involved NSC, so no indignant denials, please!

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State Dept. release:

Passing of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej

Press Statement
John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
October 13, 2016

I join President Obama and the American people in offering our deepest condolences to members of the Royal Family of the Kingdom of Thailand, and to the people of Thailand, on the death of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

For over 70 years, His Majesty led Thailand with integrity and compassion, always mindful of the needs and aspirations of the Thai people.

His Majesty the King was one of America’s most valued and trusted friends, and was the only monarch in history ever born in our country. The Bhumibol Adulyadej Square in the city of Cambridge, in my home state of Massachusetts, marks his birthplace and will remain an enduring memorial to the special bond he created between our peoples. He will be long remembered and will be deeply missed.

The United States stands with the people of Thailand at this difficult time. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.

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Cardin Statement on Passing of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and the Subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, released the following statement Thursday after the passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, who at the time of his death was the world’s longest reigning monarch:

“I extend my deepest condolences to the royal family, the people of Thailand, and the Thai community of Maryland on the passing of His Majesty King Bhumibol.

“Over seven decades, through periods of peace and turmoil, the King was widely revered by the Thai people as a stabilizing and respected leader. In particular, his interests in rural development and in strengthening ties with the international community and with the United States benefited his country and his people.

“The United States and Thailand have an enduring, strategic partnership dating back centuries and it is imperative that we replenish and strengthen our relationship during this time of transition in Thailand and increased tensions across South and East Asia.”

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Here’s a section of VOA’s excellent coverage today…not too hard to read between various lines:

VOA… King Bhumibol — also known as Rama IX — came to the throne as an 18-year-old in 1946 after the mysterious shooting death of his 20-year-old brother, King Ananda Mahidol.

The 70th anniversary of his accession was celebrated in Thailand on June 9 with millions of his subjects donning yellow shirts for the day.

Bhumibol Adulyadej was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the United States, a grandson of one of the Kingdom of Siam’s most revered monarchs, Chulalongkorn, or Rama V.

Throughout the last half of the 20th century, Rama IX became the most familiar king Thailand had ever known with the advent of mass media portraying him as a wise and compassionate head of state, working effortlessly to improve the lives of his mostly rural subjects.

The king was revered as a semi-deity in the deeply Buddhist country. His rule provided a bedrock of stability in a country faced with many social and economic challenges, including a fragile democratic system. The kingdom now is governed by a military junta, which took power in a bloodless coup on May 22, 2014, ousting a weak civilian government beset by sometimes violent street protests.

During his reign there were frequent military coups. Bhumibol acted as the ultimate arbitrator over feuding generals, defusing dangerous situations and sometimes consenting to the army’s request for the overthrow of elected governments.

His son, the 63-year-old Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn is heir apparent. The prince also inherits properties said to be worth in excess of 35 billion dollars.

Prince Vajiralongkorn, however, has never achieved the esteem that the king and Queen Sirikit — who has been in poor health for years — enjoyed. The prince remains a rather remote figure, especially compared with his popular younger sister, Princess Sirindhorn, known for being humble and active with charitable work.

Some Thais have quietly spoken of having the princess succeed her father. But she has not been designated a possible heir and most Thai political analysts say the powerful military backs the crown prince.

The succession can not be openly discussed in Thailand. The kingdom has harsh lese majeste laws and any perceived criticism of the monarchy or its top royals can result in quick arrest and long prison terms.

Thailand is now expected to enter into a long period of official mourning. Analysts say that will put on hold any quick return to civilian government, indefinitely extending the military’s rule…

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US-ASEAN Business Council Mourns the Passing of His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand

The US-ASEAN Business Council offers its sincere condolences to the people of Thailand upon the death of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej after a long illness. His Majesty was 88 years old, and had served Thailand as its King since 1946. He was the longest-serving monarch in the world. Thailand is the United States’ oldest treaty ally in Asia, and under His Majesty’s reign the bilateral relationship has grown into an important political, economic, and cultural partnership. In addition to his moral leadership, King Bhumibol’s promotion of economic development led to Thailand’s current position as a regional economic powerhouse.

“His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej was a great friend to the United States,” said Alexander Feldman, President & CEO of the US-ASEAN Business Council. “Not only was the King born in the State of Massachusetts but he visited many times and met with American Presidents from Eisenhower to Obama. The King personally did much to strengthen the relationship between the peoples of Thailand and America during his long reign. We recognize the exalted position of His Majesty in Thailand, and the deep devotion felt by Thailand’s 67 million loyal subjects and countless others around the world. We send our condolences and our sincere sympathy to the Thai people during this difficult period. The King will be missed.”

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“ANON” FORMER USG #1…reporting “from the field”:

A — We don’t really know when it happened, but preliminary indications of extreme nervousness on the part of the regime suggest that the backfield was in motion well before the announcement late this afternoon, the 13th. Real trauma for millions of people. The media are full of retrospectives, bespeaking a fair amount of apprehensive confusion.

B. — The PM/dictator spoke on TV about an hour ago, and because I saw it in a loud restaurant, some things he said were unclear to me. Nonetheless, he put his foot in it. First, the European trope for continuity (the king is dead; long live the king), doesn’t scour here. His second thought, after the respects, was to emphasize just what thinking Thai dread most, the succession. (I was sitting with royalists … people who support the current government, and they were put off and dismayed.

C — Then he told everyone to support his new constitution and remain calm, which was way too much of the usual fluff. In brief, he treated the most traumatic event in recent years as one of his Friday night fireside chats, wherein he bores everyone with statistics about what his regime is doing to help the country, and failed to register an appropriate level of grief. He even spoke of “sending the king to heaven”, which was so tone deaf that I was actually embarrassed for him, a little.

More anon, as the situation unfolds. No reason to expect any problems before all the ceremonials are completed (a couple of months), since respect for the old king is widespread, though far from universal. I anticipate a favorable exchange rate when the portrait changes on the money.

“ANON” FORMER USG #2…now in DC:

The form and procedures of the transition will go smoothly. The Army and palace have been planning for this for a long time. After the mourning period, the palace intrigues and the bureaucratic politics in the palace and the junta are going to be opaque and unpredictable, in my view.

It probably will not matter too much to the US; external relations will continue more-or-less unchanged, I suspect….

I am a bit surprised at a mourning period of only one year. That was the period for the king’s sister. I figured his would be longer.

A little later:

The overall current mood is somber, but satisfied that things are proceeding predictably. It is a bit of a (welcome ) surprise that the heir has decided to bide his time and postpone any announcement of succession until he has had time to grieve. This introduces some legal complications ( a regent to be appointed so that government may function, the Legislative Assembly cannot meet to pass bills). The latter is important because without organic laws required by the new constitution, the December 2017 election can’t go ahead. This will have to be worked. But the most important fact is that things are proceeding precisely according to long established protocols.

It is important to note that the NCPO/Junta does not seem to be taking steps to postpone the election, far from it, they seem to be intent on plodding along on the old timetable. Many here were surprised – and most were gratified – that the initial announcements gave zero indication of an intention to delay things.

The timetable is fluid. The next monarch can be announced whenever, maybe after the 30 day period of “refraining from entertainment”. However, he cannot have a formal coronation until after his father’s funeral which will take place next October after the year of mourning. (The NCPO determination to move on deliberately is reflected in the year mourning period. It was two years for his sister and earlier predictions were for three years this time.)

Whatever the regard in which the next monarch is held internationally will have little influence on U.S. relations. Is the German President central to U.S.-German relations? Also, ignore U.S.-based commentary about bureaucratic and palace politics here. Those are opaque even to people with an ear to the Bangkok street. Also, be cautious about the “analysts” who are already talking about plots to delay the election. As above, there is no such indication as yet. Some do have “sources” here (I know several of them), and those sources are about as useful as the Lyndon Larouche acolytes who serve as sources to Chinese commentators on U.S. politics.

Thus, the outlook is for stability over the medium term. Economic growth will be modest at best, but the exchange rate will be more determined by Fed policy rather than by the face on Thai currency.

Given an appointed 250 member Senate voting together with the 500 MP elected House divided into several contending parties, the current talk is of the NCPO head becoming the next PM. Perhaps. But few now anticipate a quick return to the zero sum scorched earth politics of the recent decade, and that is modestly to the good.

Here’s another, from the same source:

THAILAND…here’s the latest from an “ANON former USG” who lives there and must, perforce, be protected:

After what I’d call a bungling misstep in his address to the nation on the day, in which the regime’s main goals, priorities, and worries were much too obvious, the PM and the regime generally are handling this crisis time pretty handily. As many have noted, the succession is a problem for them because it is: a. the basket in which they’ve put their eggs, and: b. not at all popular.

Therefore, although they want it to happen, they don’t want it too soon. Better to stand in the afterglow of the old reign for as long as possible, and try to construct a legitimate façade in the constitution (note, I do not suggest that they are moving the country toward a free and fair election at the end of next year).

The announcement by the Crown Prince that he will not ascend the throne during the mourning period almost certainly reflects the powerful hand of the regime, and was about the best “middle way” available under the circumstances.

It’s clear from the massive amounts of organized programming that all the media coverage, both the well-produced historical retrospectives and coverage of the ceremonies, was all prepared and rehearsed well before the event. The unending drumbeat of ceremonies is really impressive and beautiful to see. There is no doubt that we are watching the funeral of the King of Siam.

Other commentators have mentioned the futility of trying to see into the machinations of the palace. I fully agree, and will only add that machinations within the palace, and the inner ring of retainers and advisors, are no longer the important dimension here, and may amount to nothing more than Kabuke.

The question is not even whether the monarchy still has any power or influence, but rather what the several surrounding institutions which claim to derive legitimacy from it, especially the army, are going to do to retain power in the absence of that legitimacy, which must evaporate like dew over the coming months.

There’s considerable fluff in this but does show what voices are being heard inside the Beltway. Lots of speculation and guessing.


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