Updated: How’s the new king looking?

7 04 2018

Each year, the academic journal Asian Survey has articles which provide brief country summaries of the previous year’s significant events. For 2017, well-known analyst and commentator Duncan McCargo has completed the article on Thailand (opens a PDF).

The article is necessarily short but has some comments on King Vajiralongkorn that merit posting here, not least because they mesh with some of PPT’s comments a few days ago.

In the abstract, McCargo states that “…King Vajiralongkorn is untested and lacks popular legitimacy.” True enough, although it has to be said that almost all those who succeed to thrones are largely “untested” and that popularity is no qualification for monarchy, where it is bloodlines that matter. Like a few other commentators, including some who are anti-monarchists, there’s a tendency to unfavorably compare Vajiralongkorn with his deceased father. Unfortunately, some of these comparisons required considerable retro-acceptance of palace propaganda about the dead king.

When he deals with the new reign, McCargo observes:

New King Vajiralongkorn’s detractors have long dismissed him as a playboy who takes little interest in serious matters, but since ascending the throne on December 1, 2016, he has proved to be an activist and interventionist monarch.

This is an important point. The areas where he has intervened, however, have been mostly about the monarchy and its privileges and the control of the palace. Clearly, Vajiralongkorn has been planning his succession maneuvers for some years. McCargo continues:

King Vajiralongkorn apparently pays very close attention to government policies and matters of legislation, especially where they may affect the legitimacy or privileges of the monarchy, or touch on matters of religion. He carefully monitors promotions and transfers inside the bureaucracy, especially the upper echelons of the military and the police force.

His interest in religious matters goes back to the 1990s and we know about his intervention in police promotions. Readers may recall that the last police intervention was in favor of Pol Gen Jumpol Manmai. Later Jumpol was made a Grand Chamberlain in Vajiralongkorn’s palace. That didn’t go well and, as far as we can recall, nothing has been seen or heard from Jumpol since…. Which reminds us, if legal infractions cause the king to disgrace a senior aide, can we expect that Gen Prem Tinsulanonda will soon be sacked from the Privy Council by the king?

Presumably the upcoming military reshuffle will result from a junta-palace consensus. One report reckons the reshuffle buttresses The Dictator’s position.

But back to McCargo’s commentary. He says:

… the new king remains neither popular nor widely respected; crucially, while his father never left Thailand after 1967, King Vajiralongkorn spends much of his time in Germany. His private life is the topic of constant gossip and speculation. The prospect of his coronation—and a raft of associated symbolic changes, such as new banknotes, coins, and stamps—fills many Thais with apprehension.

In fact, Bhumibol visited Laos in April 1994 (an error also made officially), but this slip doesn’t diminish the point about Vajiralongkorn’s extensive periods away from Thailand. On the bit about gossip, that’s been true for several decades and the king seems to have accepted that he is a “black sheep.” That there is “apprehension” over symbolic changes may be true, but if a report in the Bangkok Post is to be believed, that apprehension seems to be dissipating. It says:

Large crowds formed long queues at provincial offices of the Treasury Department to exchange cash for the first lot of circulated coins bearing the image of King Rama X on Friday, the Chakri Memorial Day.

Palace propaganda continues apace, the military junta has crushed republicans, and monarchists are remaining adhered to the institution if not the person.

Update: Another measure of apprehension dissipating might be seen in the report of “traditional” clothing sales. While the report refers to the influence of a hit soap opera, the influence of the king’s efforts at a revival of all things pre-1932 are having an impact too.


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