The junior partner

31 10 2016

Readers will surely find a new Foreign Policy op-ed by Paul Chambers of considerable interest.

It begins with the statement of a view: “The military cooperated with the royal family for decades – but now it wants a subordinate, not a partner.” While the article doesn’t really follow through on this claim, there does seem something to the notion of a transition.

Chambers notes the “unstable interregnum where a junta-led military is enforcing an arch-royalist order” and where Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn has not taken the throne, “leaving the future of both the monarchy and military unclear.”

He observes the long symbiotic relationship between monarchy and military:”The alliance between military and monarchy dates back to 1957-1958, when twin coups eviscerated the country’s young democracy, and they have since dominated the nation together, with the monarchy as junior partner.”

We are not sure we agree that the monarchy has been the junior partner throughout that period, and note the rise of the monarchy from 1973 until about 1978, when the military pushed back; the remarkable abdication of leadership to the palace under the regime headed by General Prem Tinsulanonda; and the further rise of influence after the 1992 events. To be sure, since about 2006, the monarchy has been in decline as the military has risen.

Chambers predicts that “unstable interregnum” could see “the military … soon insist that the monarchy’s quiet subordination become more explicit. A reassertion of the military’s role as palace guardian would permanently solidify its prerogatives and legitimacy.”

In looking at the military’s rise, Chambers notes that the draft constitution “enshrines a whole set of new powers for the military, most notably immunity to civilian oversight of its personnel and budget and a 20-year plan impervious to later government intervention.”

He also observes that the “junta has sought to follow Prem’s example of connecting to the palace, symbolically linking itself to the monarchy’s past…” and has promoted the prince’s public image. With a new reign (maybe) upon Thailand, Chambers says that “the armed forces will be tasked with both protecting the palace and acting as its representative.” He suggests that as the “new monarch comes to depend more on the military to prop up his own legitimacy, the power of the armed forces will only increase.”

The argument then loses steam and coherence in guessing about the future. That the military has increased its power over the throne, however, seems certain. After all, the monarchy has essentially been without a (active) king, not since 13 October, but since about 2006. Predictably, the generals have filled the political space.


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21 11 2016