1. INTRODUCTION & WARNING
2. THE RULES OF THE GAME
3. KEY PLAYERS AND TOP TEAMS
3.1 BHUMIBOL ADULYADEJ
3.2 MAHA VAJIRALONGKORN
3.3 SIRIKIT KITIYAKARA
3.4 MAHA CHAKRI SIRINDHORN
3.5 THAKSIN SHINAWATRA
3.6 PREM TINSULANONDA
3.7 THE NEXT GENERATION
3.8 THE MILITARY
3.9 THE ROYALISTS
3.10 THE RED SHIRTS
4. THE STAKES
5.1 MONEY AND POWER
5.2 STAYING ALIVE
5.3 DEFINING 21ST CENTURY SIAM
5.4 WHAT IT MEANS TO BE THAI
5. THE STATE OF PLAY
6. A NOTE ON BLOOD
7. STRATEGY AND TACTICS
8. SUDDEN DEATH: THE ENDGAME
1. INTRODUCTION AND WARNING. Thailand is convulsed by conflict over the royal succession as the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej draws to a close. Unacknowledged by the elite and poorly understood by most observers, the contested succession is the key to making sense of the chronic instability and recurrent confrontations that have plagued Thailand over the past decade. There has long been pervasive dread that the end of Bhumibol’s reign would be a time of turmoil in Thailand. That time is now. The king is still clinging to life but has become an increasingly spectral presence, and a bitter struggle over who will inherit his throne is already well under way.
Bhumibol’s death may well trigger an escalation of the conflict before any resolution is reached. Until then, the country will be suspended in a state of perpetual crisis, blighted by corrosive uncertainty about the future. The eventual outcome is likely to influence Thailand’s destiny, prosperity and sense of identity for decades to come.
Most of Thailand’s 70 million people have been kept completely in the dark about this elite conflict that has enfeebled the economy, eroded the quality of governance and undermined the rule of law. Foreign companies with factories and offices in Thailand, and foreign investors holding Thai assets, are equally uninformed about their exposure to the acute political risk associated with the contested succession. Thailand’s draconian lèse majesté law criminalizes frank discussion of the monarchy, preventing ordinary people gaining adequate understanding of the succession conflict and how it is destabilizing their country. The foreign media has failed to challenge restrictions on reporting, and international news coverage of Thailand tends to be highly misleading, focusing on trivial issues such as the incessant squabbles among rival parties in parliament, and failing to adequately explain how and why the succession is dominating political developments. Brokerages and investment banks have mostly adopted a similar head-in-the sand attitude: fearful of mentioning the succession and lacking the information they need to fully understand its significance, they tend to pretend it is not worth mentioning at all.
The aim of this brief guide is to help Thais and all those with a stake in Thailand’s future understand the impact and implications of the royal succession struggle. It is based on more than 21 months of research including detailed analysis of over 3,000 Thai-related confidential U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks, ongoing conversations with hundreds of sources in Thailand and beyond, and extensive investigation to uncover corroboratory evidence. To write honestly about Thailand I had to exile myself indefinitely from the country as a fugitive from Thai law, and resign from a senior position at Reuters after 17 years as an international correspondent. Most journalists are understandably reluctant to go to such lengths, and this is why coverage of the monarchy is generally so poor. With the media failing to provide credible coverage, Thais mostly rely on rumours and stories shared via gossip and online forums to keep them informed about palace antics and issues. Royal folklore circulating in Thailand includes a vibrant array of tales of sharply varying degrees of accuracy, and the problem is figuring out what is fact and what is fiction. The information presented in this guide to the succession is not simply rehashed rumour: everything stated as fact is based on verified evidence, and particular care has been taken to confirm the details of the health of key players, which is central to the analysis.
The significance of the succession struggle does not diminish the importance of the momentous social, economic and technological changes that are transforming Thai politics: in particular, popular pressure for good governance and democracy, and the refusal of Thailand’s increasingly politically aware urban and rural poor to meekly accept their traditional lowly place in society. The significance of the conflicted succession is that it explains the otherwise incomprehensible actions and strategy of the royalist elite. To understand why the royalists behave as they do, it is essential to be aware of their position on the succession, and to see through their efforts to deny or misrepresent their primary motivation.
Finally, please bear in mind that this brief guide to the Thai succession contains multiple flagrant violations of the lèse majesté law. I hope that readers find it useful and that it reaches a wide audience, but those in Thailand or intending to travel there in the foreseeable future should be aware that distributing or openly discussing this document represents a serious crime. Please consider your safety and take sensible precautions before sharing it or commenting on it.
2. THE RULES
2.1 OFFICIAL Despite Thailand’s divisions, there is remarkable apparent consensus among the elite that the royal succession will proceed smoothly according to clear rules and there is no cause for concern.
Officially the relevant rules governing the succession can be found in the 1924 Palace Law on Succession and the 2007 constitution. The 1924 Palace Law was written under the supervision of King Vajiravudh, Rama VI, to prevent conflict and confusion by establishing a clear line of succession. Thai kings up to Vajiravudh routinely took several wives and consorts and fathered dozens of children, creating multiple claimants to the throne. The law stipulated that only males were eligible, and that succession followed the principle of male primogeniture, with the important modification that if the reigning monarch was polygamous, the rank of the mother would determine which line was paramount. So the monarch’s eldest son by the highest ranked queen would be first in line, followed by other sons by the most senior queen in descending order according to their age, then the monarch’s eldest son by the second ranked queen, and so on. Sons of women who were commoners, or foreign, were explicitly excluded.
In modern Thailand, where royal polygamy is no longer officially practised, the Palace Law on Succession implies straightforward male primogeniture. A woman cannot accede to the throne — Article 13 of the law states:
For the moment, it is still not appropriate for a woman to accede to the throne as a sovereign queen.
The relevant sections in the 2007 constitution, meanwhile, are as follows:
Section 22. Subject to section 23, the succession to the Throne shall be in accordance with the Palace Law on Succession, B.E. 2467 (1924).
The Amendment of the Palace Law on Succession, B.E.2467 shall be the prerogative of the King. At the initiative of the King, the Privy Council shall draft the Palace Law Amendment and shall present it to the King for His consideration. When the King has already approved the draft Palace Law Amendment and put His signature thereon, the President of the Privy Council shall notify the President of the National Assembly for informing the National Assembly. The President of the National Assembly shall countersign the Royal Command, and the Palace Law Amendment shall have the force of law upon its publication in the Government Gazette.
During the expiration of the term of the House of Representatives or the dissolution thereof, the Senate shall act as the National Assembly in acknowledging the matter under paragraph two.
Section 23. In the case where the Throne becomes vacant and the King has already appointed His Heir to the Throne under the Palace Law on Succession, B.E. 2467, the Council of Ministers shall notify the President of the National Assembly. The President of the National Assembly shall convoke the National Assembly for the acknowledgement thereof, and the President of the National Assembly shall invite such Heir to ascend the Throne and proclaim such Heir King.
In the case where the Throne becomes vacant and the King has not appointed His Heir under paragraph one, the Privy Council shall submit the name of the Successor to the Throne under section 22 to the Council of Ministers for further submission to the National Assembly for approval. For this purpose, the name of a Princess may be submitted. Upon the approval of the National Assembly, the President of the National Assembly shall invite such Successor to ascend the Throne and proclaim such Successor King.
During the expiration of the term of the House of Representatives or the dissolution thereof, the Senate shall act as the National Assembly in acknowledging the matter under paragraph one or in giving an approval under paragraph two.
Section 24. Pending the proclamation of the name of the Heir or the Successor to the Throne under section 23, the President of the Privy Council shall be Regent pro tempore. In the case where the Throne becomes vacant while the Regent has been appointed under section 18 or section 19 or while the President of the Privy Council is acting as Regent under section 20 paragraph one, such Regent, as the case may be, shall continue to be the Regent until the proclamation of the name of the Heir or the Successor to ascend the Throne as King.
In the case where the Regent who has been appointed and continues to be the Regent under paragraph one is unable to perform his or her duties, the President of the Privy council shall act as Regent pro tempore.
In the case where the President of the Privy Council is the Regent under paragraph one or acts as Regent pro tempore under paragraph two, the provisions of section 20 paragraph three shall apply.
These rules on the succession — including the intriguing provision that if the king dies without naming an heir, the privy council can propose a princess as monarch — were first introduced in the 1991 constitution, and were repeated verbatim in the 1997 and 2007 constitutions. The 1974 constitution was the first to specify that a princess could be nominated as monarch, but only if the king died without surviving male descendants, a stipulation that vanished in 1991.
Applied to contemporary Thailand, the combined provisions of the 1924 Palace Law and the 2007 constitution have only one possible interpretation, according to all factions of the elite: Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn is the uncontested heir to the throne.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has produced an adulatory website about Thailand’s monarchy that includes a section with “Frequently Asked Questions” setting out the official position on the royal succession:
The issue of Royal succession is governed by both the Palace Law on Succession B.E. 2476 (1924) and the Constitution. As such, there are clearly stipulated rules and procedures as to what will happen should the need arise. Relevant provisions in the current Constitution also lay out the specific roles of the Privy Council, National Assembly and Cabinet. The sections on the monarchy in Thailand’s constitutions – be it the 1997 Constitution or the present 2007 Constitution – have remained substantively unchanged since 1991. Under these laws, it is His Majesty the King’s prerogative to appoint His Heir to the Throne. Once the King makes such a proclamation, the line of succession is clear. In this connection, His Royal Highness Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn was proclaimed Crown Prince, or in other words Heir to the Throne, in December 1972. There is thus no cause for uncertainty and no warranted basis for speculation otherwise.
During his tenure as prime minister from December 2008 to August 2011, the staunch royalist Abhisit Vejjajiva followed this line, although he sometimes appeared confused about the precise mechanics of succession. This video shows his rather awkward responses when questioned about the issue during a May 2009 visit to the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong:
Abhisit’s nemesis Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled populist leader who controls the current government nominally led by his sister Yingluck, has also stuck to this story. In a Bloomberg interview in Singapore in 2012, Thaksin claimed:
There shouldn’t be any problem about the succession of the throne. There is nothing to worry.
Both Abhisit and Thaksin have acknowledged that some Thais are apprehensive about the succession, arguing that this is natural because it will take time for Vajiralongkorn to earn the respect and affection that King Bhumibol built up during more than six decades on the throne. Abhisit told the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong in May 2009:
If you look at succession issues, there are two things that we should accept. The first is that if there are clear rules for succession. That eliminates a lot of uncertainty around how the succession process will actually evolve or work out. There are clear constitutional provisions, so in that sense, that eliminates some of the uncertainty. The second issue is undebatable. When you have had a leader for more than six decades and one that has built up so much reverence and respect from the people, there’s always going to be anxiety. I don’t know of any country or society or even organization where there has been an inspirational leader who has been there for a long time that does not have anxiety about succession. But Thailand has to make sure that we are mature enough as a country to deal with changes, economic, political and whatever issues that we need to face. I have no illusion that when it happens, it will be a very difficult time for all of us because we are very much attached to His Majesty. But we have to prove our maturity as a people and as a society and demonstrate to the rest of the world that we can deal with all issues and changes.
In a controversial interview with The Times in November 2009, Thaksin declared:
The Crown Prince, because he will be new, may not be as popular as His Majesty the King. However, he will have less problem because the palace circle will be smaller, because of being new in the reign.
Another remarkable set of answers to “Frequently Asked Questions”, released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during Thailand’s worst political violence in decades in May 2010, acknowledges that many Thais feel anxious about the succession:
The succession is certainly a difficult issue for Thais to discuss, given what His Majesty has done for more than 60 years for the well-being of all Thai people who regard him as a father figure. It is thus normal for people to be apprehensive.
The official narrative — that the prince is the unchallenged heir to the throne and that his succession will proceed smoothly according to clear rules — has confused many observers. Even analysts astute enough to understand that the succession has profoundly affected modern Thai political developments have often struggled to explain how this could be so, because they largely accept the story that Vajiralongkorn is the uncontested heir.
But in fact, it is a myth that Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn will proceed smoothly onto the throne of Thailand as King Rama X. The succession is contested, and is likely to be anything but smooth.
2.2 ACTUAL In Thai politics, the rules are rarely an impediment for the powerful. Laws and constitutions are highly flexible, and can be manipulated by those with money and clout. This is particularly true for the palace and the military.
Historically, since the emergence of Thai kingdoms more than seven centuries ago, rules of succession have tended to be interpreted particularly flexibly. For a succession to proceed smoothly according to fixed laws has always been extremely rare.
Tumultuous succession conflicts were commonplace in all the monarchies of the region, as Robert Heine-Geldern wrote in his classic 1956 study Conceptions of State and Kingship in Southeast Asia:
The deification of the king, while raising him to an almost unbelievably exalted position with regard to his subjects, has in no way succeeded in stabilizing government, rather the contrary. As explained above, the theory of divine incarnation, and even more so that of rebirth and of karma, provided an easy subterfuge for usurpers. The fact that the relatively easy task of seizing the palace, as in Burma and Siam, or of seizing the regalia, as in certain parts of Indonesia, often sufficed to be accepted as king by the whole nation, was bound to act as an additional incitement to rebellion. Moreover, the immense power and the lack of restrictions which the king enjoyed invited abuses which in the end made the monarch obnoxious to his subjects and hastened his downfall.
To this came the vagueness of the rules of succession. Sometimes the king himself chose his successor. Sometimes the ministers appointed a prince as king. Then again the queens unofficially but efficiently exercised their influence in favor of a prince of their choice. Often the crown simply fell to the prince who was the quickest to seize the palace and to execute his brothers. Under these circumstances it is no wonder that the empires of Southeast Asia from the very beginning were torn by frequent rebellion, often resulting in the overthrow of kings or even dynasties.
Thailand entirely fit with this pattern. The 14th century Palace Law that governed succession in Ayutthaya did not set out a clear system, stating that the new king could be a son of the deceased monarch, or a brother, or even, in some circumstances, somebody much more distantly related. Even this vague set of rules was often ignored.
Efforts to impose order on the succession — such as the innovation introduced by King Trailok in the 15th century of monarchs designating an heir apparent or uparaja, usually a brother or eldest son — failed to prevent regular paroxysms of conflict. The German naturalist Engelbert Kaempfer, who travelled to Siam in the late 17th century, observed in his posthumously published The History of Japan: Together with a Description of the Kingdom of Siam that:
By virtue of the ancient Laws of Siam, upon the demise of the King, the Crown devolves on his Brother; and upon the Brother’s death, or if there be none, an the eldest Son. But this rule hath been so often broken through, and the right of Succession brought into such a confusion, that at present, upon the death of the King, he puts up for the Crown who is the most powerful of the Royal Family, and so it seldom happens that the next and lawful Heir ascends the Throne, or is able to maintain the peaceable possession of it.
This uncertainty of Succession even sometimes gives an opportunity to Strangers, who have no pretensions at all to aspire to the Throne…
Chronic conflict over the succession destabilized and weakened the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya in the 17th and 18th centuries, contributing to its cataclysmic collapse in 1767 as Burmese armies swept through Thai territory and sacked the capital. As Cornell University Professor David Wyatt wrote in Thailand: A Short History:
Ayutthaya’s lack of strong, durable political institutions, and mechanisms for the transfer of political power from one generation to the next, threatened the kingdom’s survival…
Virtually every royal succession in these two centuries turned into a political crisis. These crises became increasingly dangerous as the stakes grew higher. The nobles of the central bureaucracy had well-established economic, social and political interests to preserve, and any new king might radically alter the existing balance of power among them. If there was a real general crisis in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it stemmed from the tension between royal and noble power, between the paramountcy of the throne and the competition among elite, noble factions and interest groups.
B.J. Terwiel’s account of Siamese succession in Thailand’s Political History notes that even discussing conflict over the throne has long been taboo:
The power of an anointed Siamese king was so great that the whole system was weakened when an incompetent individual came to the throne. Only a quite exceptional individual could fulfil the monarch’s duties in the manner intended by the law. For this very reason the succession often caused problems. Although the eldest son of the king and his queen had precedence, in reality, more often than not it was another relative of the king who succeeded him. Sometimes there were rival claimants and the assumption of power resulted in much bloodshed. The very divine powers and status of the reigning king often prevented a peaceful succession. The king was so elevated and ritually superior that even just to discuss his succession openly could be regarded as treason. Thus officially, as long as the king was in charge, only the king himself arranged for his succession, and when the king neglected to do so, dangerous rivalry could occur. Thus, paradoxically, it was the the very power and exaltation of the office that caused a weakness in the system.
Official histories tend to underplay the vicious intrigue and frequent spasms of violence that have always characterized Thai kingdoms as a result of conflict over the royal succession, but a recent hagiography, King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work, acknowledges the bloody history of Ayutthaya in an introduction written by freelance scholar Chris Baker:
Internally, competition for the throne, which had accrued enormous wealth, was intense. Succession laws were unclear. Intrigue was rife. When a king died, bloodline was a significant determinant of the heir but so too was clout. Hoping to advance their own status and and gain the spoils of increased manpower for themselves, factions of nobles surrounding the court lobbied in the name of rival heirs. Foreign traders and monks patronised by high princes also exerted influence over the selection. The losers in the succession dramas often lost their lives, and their entire families and allies were violently purged.
In his chapter on succession in the same volume, David Streckfuss observes that:
At least one third of Ayudhya’s royal successions involved bloodshed. Indeed, the history of the kingdom at that time is a chronicle of frequent usurpations and of ambitious men thwarting the final wishes of recently departed kings.
The current Chakri dynasty was established by an interloper called Thong Duang, a part-Mon and part-Chinese commoner who served as a royal page and rose to be governor of Ratchaburi and a general under King Taksin following the fall of Ayutthaya. Thong Duang seized the throne in 1782, overthrowing Taksin and founding a new kingdom with Bangkok as its capital, proclaiming himself King Rama I. In an effort to ensure the longevity of his dynasty and prevent the savage power struggles over succession that had undermined Ayutthaya, he enacted various reforms including a new legal framework, The Three Seals Code, and created a new institution, the Council of Accession, with supposedly binding power to name a new monarch when the king died.
Yet succession conflicts plagued the House of Chakri too. Prince Tub, also known as Jessadabodindra, grabbed the throne as King Rama III in 1824 despite the fact that as the son of a concubine rather than a full queen, his claim was dubious. Prince Mongkut, the rightful heir according to the rules, was left in an extremely perilous position, and spent 17 years as a monk until becoming King Rama IV in 1851. His son Chulalongkorn, King Rama V, faced a serious confrontation with the uparaja, Prince Vichaichan, in 1874/75, during which a bomb attack set several buildings in the Grand Palace complex ablaze. Following this, Chulalongkorn abolished the position of uparaja in 1885, replacing it with the practice of naming a crown prince. The first crown prince, Vajirhunis, died before his father, in 1895. The second crown prince, Vajiravudh, became Rama VI in 1910. King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work notes that “the accession of King Vajiravudh was the least problematic succession in the history of the House of Chakri up to that point”. Not coincidentally, Rama VI was also one of Siam’s worst ever kings: as Benedict Anderson observes in Imagined Communities:
The new system brought to the throne in 1910 an erratic homosexual who would certainly have been passed over in an earlier age.
Vajiravudh enacted a new Palace Law on Succession in 1924 in an effort to delineate a credible sequence of proximity to the throne among Chulalongkorn’s 33 sons. That law, modified by recent constitutions, remains in force to the present day. The 20th century saw an extraordinary and unprecedented development: after Rama VI died without a male heir, there were three monarchs in succession who appear to have never coveted the throne, never made any effort to acquire power, and became king by accident. King Rama VII, Prajadhipok, was terrified by the prospect of ruling Thailand and tried to get his half-brother Prince Boriphat to take the job instead. King Rama VIII, Ananda Mahidol, was only nine years old when Prajadhipok abdicated, and was chosen largely because as a child living abroad, he was expected to be ineffectual. The current king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, inherited the throne as a gauche 18-year-old boy after his brother Ananda was shot dead in the Grand Palace in June 1946. None of the three had ever been crown prince. As Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian writes in Kings, Country and Constitutions:
In his attempt to strengthen the monarchy and to reduce the conflicts and tensions that had arisen out of the question of succession, King Chulalongkorn had intsitutionalized the position of heir-apparent in the Crown Prince of Siam. Since its inception in the 1880s, the position has only been bestowed on three high-born Princes, including the present holder of the title, Prince Vajiralongkorn. So far only Crwon Prince Vajiravudh has succeeded to the throne… None of his successors ever held this august title. So it seems that the position of Crown Prince of Thailand has neither been well-tested nor developed into an accepted institution as accepted by its founder.
Although chronic conflict over the succession had severely negative consequences for Siam over the centuries, there were good reasons why the rules were usually vague and interpreted flexibly by the elites. Among the biggest weaknesses of hereditary systems of government is the risk of an incompetent or malignant ruler coming to power. For this reason, many hereditary systems build in a degree of flexibility rather than sticking strictly to rigid rules of succession. As Robert L Solomon wrote in his RAND study Aspects of State, Kingship and Succession, published in 1970, Southeast Asian monarchies have always been characterized by “vagueness of succession”:
Southeast Asian practice — and ideal — regarding royal succession kept within the two poles of standardization of rules (which makes the transfer of office a smoother, more acceptable affair) and flexibility (necessary to maintain a minimal level of competence and adequacy).
A crucial element of the theology of Siamese kingship was that monarchs were legitimised not just by blood but also by merit. This corresponds to the two intertwined traditions of Buddhism and Brahmanism that provide the spiritual foundations for the Thai monarchy. In the Buddhist tradition, the monarch gains legitimacy from merit, while in the Brahmanical tradition legitimacy derives directly from the king’s royal blood. As Christine Gray explained in her brilliant 1986 PhD thesis Thailand: The Soteriological State:
The Thai royal tradition that developed from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century was an amalgam of Buddhist and Hindu beliefs about the divine and sacred qualities of the king. This tradition incorporated two potentially contradictory ideologies of purity and power: the Hindu, based on the idea that the king’s ‘sacrality’ [khwam saksit] was a function of his “pure substance” (i.e., his pure blood or biogenetic substance) and the Buddhist, based on the idea that the king’s sacrality was primarily a function of his pure religious practice (selfless action). In the Hindu tradition, the king’s superior wisdom and insight, his powerful propensity towards world renunciation, were seen literally as inhering in his pure blood; pure blood was both a symbol of purity and the physical “stuff” of purity — high rank, merit, ability, and pure practice were conjoined features in a cultural matrix. In the Buddhist tradition, the king’s ability and wisdom were represented as arising solely from his renunciatory activities — in much the same way that this process occurs for Buddhist monks (who, as the Buddha made clear, may come from all strata of society); the king’s pure blood was deemphasized, subsumed within talk of royal genealogies. The concept of royal genealogy remained ambiguous.
The importance of preserving pure royal blood led to routine incest in Siamese royal dynasties: kings and princes often married their own half-sisters and cousins. This has persisted to the present day: King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit are cousins, and Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn’s first marriage was to his cousin Princess Soamsawali.
But the importance of merit as well as blood created significant ambiguity, which has always been reflected in Thai succession struggles. It was not enough for an aspiring king to have pure royal blood: he also had to display merit. As the anthropologist Stanley J. Tambiah observed in The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets, Siamese kings were not directly identified with the Hindu god Shiva, as the Khmer god-kings of Angkor had been. Siamese royals had to legitimise their claim to power through meritorious conduct and political success:
There were no stable dynasties of rulers who succeeded one another according to defined and predictable rules of heirship. If there were “divine” kings, they were continually dethroned by palace rebellions and wars of secession. The “divinity,” or claims to righteous or universal kingship, were based on “personal charisma” rather than on institutionalised rules pertaining to the tenure of an “office.”
Tambiah noted that kings — and those wanting to become king — could attempt to legitimise themselves through ostentatious personal virtue that would enable them to claim they were a dhamaraja or cakravartin, conforming to the highest ideals of monarchy. A second legitimating strategy was to win physical possession of the palace and of sacred artefacts and palladia. It was widely believed that force alone could not win possession of palaces and artefacts imbued with royal and sacred power: only the righteous could possess them. Thong Duang, the first Chakri king, exploited his possession of a small jade figurine known as the Emerald Buddha to legitimise his reign. He seized the sacred artefact from the Lao capital of Vientiane in 1779 and it remains the palladium of Chakri-era Thailand, housed in a temple inside the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok.
Violent succession struggles tended to automatically confer a degree of spiritual legitimacy on the winner. Anyone who successfully seized the throne could proclaim this as proof of their merit, even if they were not closely connected to the royal bloodline. The rules for succession took second place to the survival of the fittest. Contested successions tended to weed out weak and incompetent candidates. They were less effective at excluding corrupt and amoral pretenders to the throne: it was an asset in succession conflicts to be well versed in the dark arts of bribery, deception and intrigue, and to be unsqueamish about extreme brutality (including the murder of close relatives) when necessary.
In modern Thailand, the rules for succession remain flexible, and deliberately so. It is as important as ever for the palace to give itself some room for manoeuvre and avoid the prospect of an unsuitable monarch acceding to the throne. Besides the old beliefs that the king must exemplify the highest moral standards, which still persist in 21st century Siam, a new reason has emerged for avoiding rigid adherence to the rules: democracy.
A hereditary monarchy that wields absolute or significant political power is fundamentally incompatible with the principles of democracy. As demands for democracy grew louder during the 20th century, the Thai monarchy was in an increasingly perilous position. Instead of retreating to a purely ceremonial role, the palace sought to portray itself as an inherently democratic institution, making the extraordinary claim that the monarch reigned only with popular assent. But the pretence that the king was somehow elected by the people could not be sustained if an unpopular ruler was allowed to accede to the throne. King Prajadhipok, Rama VII, was privately painfully aware of this reality. As he wrote to U.S. advisor Francis Sayre in 1926:
As you well know, the king has absolute power in everything. This principle is very good and very suitable for the country, as long as we have a good king. If the king is really an elected king, it is probable that he would be a fairly good king.
But this idea of election is really a theoretical one. The kings of Siam are really hereditary, with a very limited possibility of choice. Such being the case, it is not at all certain that we shall always have a good king. The absolute power may become a positive danger to the country…
The position of king has become one of great difficulty. The movements of opinion in this country give a sure sign that the days of autocratic rulership are numbered. The position of the king must be made more secure if this dynasty is going to last. Some kind of guarantee must be found against an unwise king.
It was an explicit recognition that the survival of the Chakri dynasty depended upon ensuring some flexibility in future royal successions to prevent an undesirable candidate becoming king.
The absolute monarchy in Siam came to a sudden end in 1932 when a group of foreign-educated bureaucrats and military officers seized power. Prajadhipok became a constitutional monarch, and abdicated in 1935. But Thailand’s royalists have never accepted the palace being relegated to solely symbolic status. As Benedict Anderson wrote in his brilliant 1977 essay Studies of the Thai State: The State of Thai Studies:
‘Royalism’ in the sense of an active quest for real power in the political system by the royal family … persists in a curiously antique form in contemporary Siam.
To provide ideological justification for the continued political power of the palace, royalists formulated the concept of “Thai-style democracy”. This philosophy has gone through several incarnations, all of which involved rejecting popular sovereignty and promoting the palace as the source and safeguard of democracy in Thailand. This required the continued pretence that the monarch ruled by popular assent. In a famous lecture in 1946, The Old Siamese Conception of the Monarchy, royal mythologist Prince Dhani Nivat claimed:
A Siamese monarch succeeds to the Throne theoretically by election. The idea is of course recognisable as coming from the old Buddhist scriptures in the figure of King Mahasammata, the ‘Great Elect.’ No hard and fast rules exist as to how electors are qualified as such, but’ they were usually royal and temporal Lords of the Realm sometimes doing their business in the presence, but not with the participation, of spiritual Lords. Irregular successions there certainly have been, but they were exceptions rather than the rule.
The current monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, claims to be the democratic choice of his people. He told U.S. magazine Look in 1967:
I really am an elected king. If the people do not want me, they can throw me out, eh? Then I will be out of a job.
In reality, there has never been a precedent in centuries of Thai history for “the people” overthrowing a monarch. When monarchs were deposed it was by the elite, usually as part of a succession struggle. The last time a king was toppled was in 1782 when Bhumibol’s ancestor Thong Duang seized power from King Taksin and began the Chakri dynasty. But for the monarchy to maintain its relevance in the 21st century and hang on to its privileges and political influence, the pretence of the elected king must be maintained. Above all, this requires manipulating the royal succession so that a highly unpopular monarch never accedes to the throne. The rules must remain vague enough and flexible enough to permit some leeway in selecting the designated heir.
The 1924 Palace Law on Succession contains a provision explicitly aimed at preventing the accession of an undesirable monarch. Article 10 states:
The Heir who is to succeed to the Throne should be fully respected by the people and the people should be able to rely on him happily. If he is considered by the majority of the people as objectionable, he should be out of the line to the Throne.
The claim of the Thai monarchy to be somehow democratic rests heavily on this provision being applied when appropriate.
The prospect of Vajiralongkorn succeeding Bhumibol and becoming King Rama X is therefore by no means inevitable. Claims by the elite that the crown prince will smoothly inherit the throne are highly misleading.
King Bhumibol can designate any heir he chooses. Although the constitutional provision effective since 1991 that a princess may accede to the throne appears to conflict with the 1924 Palace Law on Succession, in practice this need not restrict Bhumibol’s choice, because since 1991 the constitution has also given the king the sole prerogative to change the 1924 law whenever he wishes. If he wants to name a woman as his successor, he could do so simultaneously with announcing a change to the Palace Law. As Kobkua argues in Kings, Country and Constitutions:
In the 1970s, the Constitution specified that royal daughters of King Bhumibol were, with Parliament’s approval, eligible to succeed the King. However, the reigning monarch reserves the traditional right to name his successor. This would appear to mean that in spite of the Succession Law (the appointment of the Crown Prince) the King could, if he thinks necessary, overrule and name any Prince or Princess among his children as his rightful successor. Considering the general public’s concerns about Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, and considering the immense prestige and influence King Bhumibol exercises, the question of succession remains an enigma, at least among a substantial number of the King’s loyal subjects.
If Bhumibol dies without making any formal comment about an heir, Vajiralongkorn will still not automatically inherit the throne. It remains unclear whether the crown prince has already been officially designated as Bhumibol’s heir. In 1972, when Vajiralongkorn was 20 years old, Bhumibol performed a ceremony naming him crown prince of Thailand. But in 1977, the king elevated his second daughter Sirindhorn to the status of potential heir to the throne too. Official sources usually explain this move by characterizing it as a precaution in case anything happened to Vajiralongkorn, and claim it did not cast the prince’s status as heir into doubt. But in fact, the elevation of Sirindhorn to crown princess generated significant ambiguity that has never been satisfactorily resolved. Most elite sources, including Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, insist that the 1972 ceremony formally designated Vajiralongkorn as heir to the throne. But Sukhumband Paripatra, a cousin of Bhumibol and great grandson of Chulalongkorn with considerable expertise in royal protocol, told Spiegel in an April 2009 interview that “as far as we know” the king has not formally chosen his successor.
If this ambiguity is not cleared up by Bhumibol before his death, it could open the way for elite factions to challenge Vajiralongkorn’s succession. Even if the king does clarify who he wants to succeed him, there is no ironclad guarantee that his wishes would be followed, particularly if the designated choice is unpopular and has powerful enemies among the elite. If that were the case, a challenge to the succession could be mounted after Bhumibol’s death, based on Article 10 of the 1924 Palace Law. Because of the important constitutional role of the privy council in the succession process, any attempt to block the crown prince’s accession would be unlikely to succeed without the support of the privy council president and most of his colleagues. It would also be unlikely to succeed without the consent of parliament — or if parliament was somehow dissolved or neutralized, the consent of the senate. Finally, given the military’s self-proclaimed role as defender of the Thai monarchy, any attempt to interfere with the royal succession would almost certainly be crushed by the army unless senior generals were on board with the plan.
If some or all of these powerful institutions wanted to put a different monarch on he throne after Bhumibol’s death, then just like the succession struggles of past centuries, the outcome would be determined by a test of strength among competing factions of the elite.
3. KEY PLAYERS AND TOP TEAMS
3.1 BHUMIBOL ADULYADEJ Thailand’s current king — and its longest reigning — is perhaps the most accidental monarch the country has ever had. Born in 1927 in Massachusetts to a father who was a Siamese celestial prince and a mother who was a half-Chinese commoner from an impoverished background, Bhumibol was thrust onto the throne as an awkward teenager in June 1946 after a series of unexpected events and untimely deaths. Over the six decades that followed he won immense affection and reverence from Thailand’s people as the father of their nation, and widespread respect around the world as a brilliant and far-sighted monarch. And then, suddenly, everything began to unravel. Bhumibol is now confined to hospital, his mental and physical health deteriorating, his reputation disintegrating, as a full-blown succession conflict tears Thailand apart.
Bhumibol’s reign began with an extraordinary tragedy: he shot his beloved 20-year-old brother Ananda Mahidol, the reigning King Rama VIII, through the head with a Colt .45 Automatic pistol in the Grand Palace on the morning of June 9, 1946. There is a long Siamese tradition of ambitious royals murdering their siblings and other relatives to seize power, but there is no evidence that Bhumibol coveted the throne or that the killing of Ananda was premeditated. It appears to have been a dreadful accident: the two boys often played with loaded guns, and secret British cables suggest Bhumibol may have forgotten that one round remains in the chamber of a Colt .45 even when the magazine is removed.
The disaster could easily have spelled the end of the Chakri monarchy in Thailand. The prestige and influence of the palace had already been demolished by the 1932 revolution and Prajadhipok’s abdication in 1935. Neither Ananda and Bhumibol had demonstrated much kingly merit: they were callow youths, born and educated abroad, who struggled with the Thai language and the arcane customs of the palace. The fact their mother was a commoner meant their blood claim to the throne was weak in the opinion of staunch royalists. Had the truth about Ananda’s death emerged, Bhumibol would have never become king, and the monarchy may never have recovered.
Bhumibol was broken by the tragedy. Ananda had been his constant companion and only friend. Some of those who witnessed his behaviour in the hours after the regicide believe he initially wanted to confess but was persuaded by his mother and senior princes that the truth must never be allowed to come out. He was proclaimed king on the evening of his brother’s death, and departed for Switzerland two months later to return to university. He appears to have suffered from severe depression, abandoning his studies in Lausanne and resisting repeated calls to return to Thailand. There was widespread speculation that he would abdicate, and some leading royalists in the Democrat Party became so exasperated by his prolonged malaise and apparent lack of kingly qualities that in 1948 they hatched a plan to force him off the throne in favour of Prince Chumphot Paripatra, who was regarded as a far stronger potential monarch. The plan was foiled by nationalist military leader Phibun Songkram, who wanted a weak king on the throne, and deposed the Democrats in an April 1948 coup. The same year, the British government refused to allow Bhumibol to visit the UK because of the unresolved suspicions that he had killed Ananda. In October 1948, an increasingly distressed Bhumibol crashed his Fiat 500 Topolino sports car into the back of a truck near Lausanne. The accident left him blinded in his right eye.
Bhumibol’s prolonged personal crisis, and his refusal to take on his duties as king, did further damage to the power of the palace. But a romance with his cousin Sirikit Kitiyakara, the feisty daughter of Thailand’s ambassador in Paris, lifted his spirits and saved the day for the royalists. Bhumibol finally went back to Thailand for three months in 1950 for the traumatic ordeal of cremating the brother he had killed, as well as two happier ceremonies: his wedding and coronation. In late 1951 — never having completed his studies in Switzerland — he returned permanently to Thailand to properly begin his duties as king. A coup just days before his arrival, with the explicit purpose of stripping the monarchy of political power, meant the young king had only a ceremonial role to play, much to his disgust. Shunning the Grand Palace because of the terrible memories of Ananda’s death, Bhumibol made Chitralada Palace his residence. He was generally treated with contempt by Thailand’s military rulers, and their knowledge that he was responsible for Ananda’s death left him helplessly weak: as British academic Roger Kershaw observed in his book Monarchy in South-East Asia, the king was highly vulnerable to “blackmailing insinuation about his own possible role” in the killing. In 1955, the swaggering police chief Phao Sriyanond oversaw the execution of three palace employees sentenced to death for King Ananda’s murder at the end of a dismal series of show trials that dragged on for seven years. Bhumibol failed to save the men from the firing squad, even though he must have known all along that they were innocent. It was the most morally dubious decision of his life, leaving him more compromised than ever, and dangerously indebted to the military government. He seemed destined to be an ineffectual puppet monarch for the rest of his reign.
But Bhumibol’s fortunes changed dramatically when army chief Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat deposed Phibun and Phao in a 1957 coup. Instead of sidelining the monarchy as they had, Sarit saw the benefit of using the king as an image-enhancing front man for his dictatorial military regime. Bhumibol was encouraged to travel around Thailand and abroad, and the king and his glamorous wife Sirikit received a rapturous welcome wherever they went. The United States, which was pouring troops and money into Thailand to combat communism in Indochina, also realized Bhumibol’s usefulness as a figurehead and actively promoted his image. The formerly feckless monarch suddenly began to receive the attention and reverence he wanted.
Sarit was an alcoholic, drugs smuggler and sexual predator. When he died in December 1963 at the age of only 55, his liver and kidneys ravaged by decades of alcoholism, it emerged that he had corruptly stolen more than $140 million from the state over the previous decade, and maintained scores of mistresses around Bangkok, many of whom were given a house, car and salary. But a grateful Bhumibol declared an unprecedented 21 days of mourning in the palace for the wayward field marshal, and approved ceremonial honours fit for a prince.
Sarit’s successors, a triumvirate of military strongmen who became known as “the three tyrants”, provoked mounting resentment among ordinary Thais, and in October 1973 students rose up to oppose them, staging mass rallies in Bangkok. Bhumibol tried to broker an end to the revolt by extracting a promise from the three tyrants to promulgate a constitution within a year, but the situation span out of control on October 14 when the military attacked sections of a vast crowd of protesters who had gathered in Bangkok’s royal quarter. At least 70 people were killed. Desperately trying to escape the bloodshed, some students clambered over the walls of Chitralada Palace and were given sanctuary by the royal family. In cooperation with more moderate military officers, Bhumibol engineered the downfall of the three dictators, who fled into exile. Elected parliamentary government was restored. It was a defining moment of Rama IX’s reign, winning him a reputation both at home and abroad as a democratic monarch who sided with the people in the face of oppression.
But the king was never comfortable with the concepts of popular sovereignty and electoral democracy, and the palace soon became intensely paranoid about the threat of communism. Bhumibol and Sirikit aligned themselves with ultra-right-wing factions of the elite and sponsored neo-fascist paramilitary groups. In October 1976, paramilitary thugs whipped into a calculated frenzy by extremist demagogues aligned with the palace launched a savage assault on the riverside campus of Thammasat University where thousands of student protesters had gathered. Students were shot, beaten to death and lynched; their corpses were mutilated and set ablaze, and in the case of some female victims, violated with sticks. By the official count, 46 people were killed. The actual death toll is believed to have been much higher. The brief era of democracy was over, in appalling circumstances that could easily have been avoided. The palace installed an authoritarian ultra-conservative prime minister, Thanin Kraivixien, to govern as Bhumibol’s proxy. Even the military found his extremism distasteful, deposing him within a year, to the fury of Bhumibol and Sirikit. They soon engineered the appointment of another proxy prime minister, General Prem Tinsulanonda, who governed from 1980 to 1988 with the explicit support and protection of the palace.
The slaughter of October 1976 disgraced the monarchy, divided Thailand more bitterly than ever, and shocked the world. To try to repair its image and promote Thai unity, the palace escalated its already extraordinary propaganda efforts, saturating the media with royal fairytales in which Bhumibol and Sirikit were the benevolent father and mother of the nation, semi-divine figures who could do no wrong. The truth about 1946 and 1976 was rigorously suppressed, and a fantastical fictional version of history in which the palace was the source of everything good that ever happened to Thailand was taught to citizens virtually from birth. Daily propaganda broadcasts on television and radio depicted the royal family tirelessly traveling around the country to oversee development projects for the benefit of the people. Professor Thonchai Winichakul, a former student radical who was imprisoned after the Thammasat massacre, refers to the ideology propagated by the palace and its mythologists after 1976 as “hyper-royalism”. As he wrote in his 2008 paper Toppling Democracy:
The huge industry of royal deiﬁcation was elevated to an unprecedented level following the 1976 massacre, which was seen among the right-wing royalists as a decisive victory over the communism that threatened to end the monarchy. The deiﬁcation rituals are not necessarily ancient ones. Several traditions have been invented, both by the government and by civil society. The important point is that they enhance the monarchy’s perceived barami (virtuous or moral power), an ancient concept of power innate to the righteous king. Among the prominent invented rituals is the royal birthday celebration that became a major annual festival for the entire country. The king’s birthday has been designated ‘‘Father’s Day’’ and the queen’s birthday as ‘‘Mother’s Day,’’ and there are grander celebrations every tenth anniversary and every twelve-year cycle for each of them. The birthday rituals reinforce the cultivated notion that they are the parents of all Thais. Grand celebrations for the Silver, Golden and Diamond jubilees for the reign, and so on, have reinforced the idea of King Bhumibol as Dhammaraja. A year hardly goes by without a grand royal celebration for one occasion or another. Any accomplishments were and are celebrated to the highest level. All of this means that Thais who are currently sixty years old or younger grew up under the pervasive aura of an unprecedented royal cult.
Bhumibol’s credentials as a democratizing and populist monarch were further burnished in dramatic circumstances in 1992, when Bangkok students and middle class Thais revolted against a military junta that had seized power the previous year. Bhumibol made no effort to foil the 1991 coup — in stark contrast with the 1980s when he protected his proxy premier Prem Tinsulanonda several times in the face of attempted putsches by military factions — and as popular discontent mounted in late 1991 and early 1992 the king showed himself to be firmly on the side of the military. Mass rallies in April and May 1992 attracted more than 100,000 protesters, the largest demonstrations against the ruling regime since 1973. In the early hours of May 18, the government declared a state of emergency, and troops opened fire on unarmed protesters in Bangkok’s royal quarter, killing and wounding scores of people. Over the 48 hours that followed, there were multiple attacks on protesters by soldiers. The violence dominated news headlines around the world, but the palace remained silent. Many Thais and foreign journalists were astonished by Bhumibol’s failure to intervene and began to speculate that he was being held incommunicado in military custody. Finally, on May 20, Bhumibol summoned military prime minister Suchinda Kraprayoon and protest leader Chamlong Srimuang to Chitralada Palace at at 9:30 p.m. What happened next became instantly legendary. With Chamlong and Suchinda. kneeling submissively on the floor, Bhumibol lectured them in a soft but stern voice, ordering them to stop their confrontation and settle their differences peacefully. The footage was shown on Thai television at midnight and broadcast around the world. The effect was immediate. Soldiers returned to barracks and protesters returned home. Suchinda and Chamlong agreed to work together to resolve the situation without further bloodshed. In an editorial the following day, the Washington Post was effusive in its praise:
Who will soon forget the remarkable picture of the military ruler and the opposition leader together on their knees before the king of Thailand? Summoning up the impartiality and sense of national essence that he has cultivated for 42 years on an otherwise powerless throne, King Bhumibol Adulyadej was able at least to ease the immediate confrontation between Suchinda Kraprayoon, the general who is prime minister, and Chamlong Srimuang, the former general who leads the opposition. At once Thailand’s boiling crisis was moved from the streets to the political bargaining table.
Bhumibol’s 1992 intervention is widely regarded at home and abroad as the defining proof of his greatness. It remains the most enduring image and memory of his reign, as Maurizio Peleggi of the National University of Singapore noted in Semiotics of Rama IX:
By the early 1990s signs of Rama IX’s incipient apotheosis were aplenty, but none more eloquent than the televised royal audience on 20 May 1992… Fifty million TV spectators watched Suchinda and Chamlong kneeling at the king’s feet… and humbly receiving the royal admonition to take a step back and stop the violence in the streets.
In fact, the 1992 crisis had demonstrated Bhumibol’s shortcomings: his instinctive preference for authoritarian military governments, his genteel horror of popular protest, and the inadequacy of his understanding of the public mood and aspirations for democracy in a country transformed by rapid economic growth. In his lecture to Suchinda and Chamlong, Bhumibol focused heavily on criticizing the protesters who were demanding what the king dismissively referred to as “so-called democracy”, rather than castigating the military that was gunning them down in the streets. He had backed the wrong side throughout the confrontation, but through sheer luck rather than judgment he emerged triumphant with his improbable reputation as a champion of democracy enhanced. Reverence for the king scaled dizzier heights than ever.
In 2000, after his 72nd birthday, an important spiritual milestone in Buddhism that marks the end of six 12-year cycles of life, Bhumibol seemed to believe his life’s work was largely done. Turning his back on the stifling formality and incessant scrutiny that made inner palace life so claustrophobic and stressful, Bhumibol decamped to the seaside. The king took up residence in his beachfront summer palace named Klai Kangwon, or Far From Worries, in the town of Hua Hin, where he mostly spent his days pottering around the palace and its grounds, and frolicking with his beloved pack of pet dogs. Aside from the palace servants and the elderly musicians who played jazz with him once a week, Bhumibol mostly shunned human interaction, as the the U.S. embassy reported in a secret cable in 2009:
The King’s decade-long sojourn in Hua Hin starting in 2000 significantly limited the amount of interaction he had not only with the Queen but also those whom many outsiders (incorrectly) presume spend significant amounts of time with him: Privy Councilors; as well as officials of the office of the Principal Private Secretary, all of whom are Bangkok-based and do not have regular access to the King… His most regular social interaction in recent years came in weekly late-Saturday night jam sessions with his pick-up jazz band, whose geriatric members have played with the King for decades.
But while the king undoubtedly wanted to be left in peace for a while, there were also important strategic motivations for Bhumibol’s decision to go into seclusion: he was trying to dispel widespread anxiety that the royal succession that followed his death would be a particularly problematic and precarious one. Bhumibol was painfully aware that most Thais regarded his assumed successor Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn as disastrously unsuited for the demands of kingship, and there were fears his accession could unleash chaos.
lacking in his apparently The presumed heir, Vajiralongkorn
Although there was no official announcement, Bhumibol’s open
was clearly indicatin planned to start letting go of the duties and burdens of kingship as he entered the final chapter of his reign, and returned to Bangkok just a few times each year for ceremonial occasions and medical procedures.
Going into semi-retirement by the seaside was an astute move by Bhumibol move by Bhumibol in terms of preparing Thais for the dreaded royal succession: it signaled that
ignalled that sending a clear signal that a transition was a
Bhumibol’s reign was
ther signaled the beginning of the end of the
an astute stratey
way to start
As a reassuring way of preparing Thailand for the dreaded royal succession, Bhumibol’s semi-retirement by the seaside was an excellent idea. A little book the king wrote about some of his favourite dogs, published in 2002 as The Story of Tongdaeng, was part of the strategy. The text of the book is embarrassingly simple-minded and ill-judged: Bhumibol’s core message, expressed in several clumsily obvious hints embedded in the feeble narrative, is that Thailand’s people should emulate the best qualities of the monarch’s pet dogs. Despite this
the message home a little book that Bhumibol wrote about his favourite dogs, published in 2002 as
The zenith of Bhumibol’s popularity was in 2006, when Thailand celebrated 60 years of his reign. Five days of royal pageantry marked the occasion, amid an outpouring of adoration from Thailand’s people and an impressive show of respect from the shrinking ranks of royal families around the world. All over the country, Thais wore yellow to honour Bhumibol, as well as orange wristbands with the slogan “Long Live the King.” On Friday June 9, a million people crowded into Bangkok’s Royal Plaza to see Bhumibol give a public address — only his third in six decades — from a palace balcony. Millions more watched intently on television, standing to attention in their homes and workplaces. In a confidential cable, U.S. ambassador Ralph “Skip” Boyce described the 60th anniversary celebrations:
The multi-day gala offered dramatic and often times moving evidence of the nation’s respect and adoration for its monarch…
Twenty-five representatives of royal families from around the world joined with a who’s who of Thai politics and high society in commemorating the occasion in a series of Buddhist ceremonies, a public address by the King, fireworks, a royal barge procession on the river, and finally, a gala dinner at the palace.
While the Thai people’s respect and reverence for the 78 year old monarch is often cited, the weekend’s celebration was a rare occasion to see — and feel — the depths of this sentiment in person.
By 2006, thanks to decades of propaganda, superficial reporting by most journalists, and rigorous enforcement of the lèse majesté law, most Thais and foreign observers uncritically believed myths built around Bhumibol that cast him in the role of modern Thailand’s hero, a monarch who almost single-handedly fostered economic development and democracy, and who protected the interests of ordinary people against the self-serving schemes of corrupt politicians, venal generals and shady criminal godfathers. Widespread acceptance of this fairytale version of Bhumibol’s reign has spawned some common myths and misconceptions about the royal succession.
Firstly, journalists and commentators still tend to cling to the outdated assumption that Bhumibol is unquestioningly loved and revered by an overwhelming majority of his subjects, and that the king’s death will therefore be a shattering event that profoundly traumatizes Thailand’s people. A confidential diplomatic cable from the U.S. embassy in 2007 predicted immense national grief when Bhumibol dies:
There is no precedent for a Thai King’s death in the modern era. Although the Constitution and the Palace Law on Succession establish certain procedures, their pace and susceptibility to manipulation remains unclear. What is certain is that the King’s death will prove heart-wrenching for the millions of Thais who genuinely adore him, and normal political life will come to an immediate halt for a period of months and possibly longer.
A second tenacious myth is that King Rama IX has been crucial for Thai stability and democratization. He is viewed both as an impartial arbiter whose decisive interventions have prevented the country collapsing into chaos, and as a paragon of virtue whose personal morality has been a beacon for his people to follow, keeping the forces of darkness at bay. When that guiding light is snuffed out forever, conventional wisdom predicts this will herald the beginning of a blighted era of conflict and upheaval. Chulalongkorn University’s Thitinan Pongsudhirak eloquently expressed the fears of many Thais in his 2008 journal article Thailand Since the Coup :
What happens after the current king leaves the scene could be the most wrenching crisis yet. So successful has been his kingship that most Thais have come to take too much for granted what he has meant to the fabric of national life. His reign has seen Thailand go from a rustic backwater filled with thatch roofed villages to a modern nation with gleaming skyscrapers. His has been a remarkable life… As it stands, the monarchy as embodied by King Bhumibol is at the apex of Thailand’s sociopolitical order.
The King’s popularity and legitimacy have emanated from his devotion to his people and to leadership by example. Despite his enormous wealth, he has lived a relatively modest life free of the opulence often associated with monarchs. He has worked in far-flung corners of the country in public-works projects, capturing hearts and minds in the … rural heartland. Above all, he has played the crucial role of final arbiter in a country whose politics are chronically fractious and volatile. King Bhumibol’s unsurpassed moral authority has long been Thailand’s sheet anchor, the mainstay of national stability and continuity. Once he is gone, the country will be in uncharted waters.
It is common knowledge that none of King Bhumibol’s eligible heirs can be reasonably expected to command as much popularity, reverence, and moral authority as he does. Not only will the King leave behind a large gap by virtue of his remarkable personal achievements, but it may also be argued that institutionally the monarchy occupies an asymmetrically important position in a now-modern country where public expectations for representation and demands for a greater share of the pie are rife. Matching up to such a predecessor and crafting a new role for the modern monarchy will be daunting challenges indeed.
In accord with palace law, 56-year-old Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn is first in line for the throne, and has several sons and daughters who may also be deemed eligible. Any succession outcome that bypasses the heir-apparent appears problematic, as its rationale must be justified and his willingness to accede must be assumed. The role of Queen Sirikit, who is closest to the Crown Prince among her four children, is expected to be crucial. Strictly enforced laws against lèse majesté deter open discussions of acceptable and workable modalities for royal succession. Unlike their equivalents in most other countries with monarchies, Thailand’s lèse majesté lawsuits can be filed against anyone by anyone, and not merely by the Royal Household. As long as King Bhumibol is around, the Thai people’s conspicuous and paramount regard for the monarch seems likely to discourage forward-looking discussions of the pros and cons of what might happen after the end of the current reign…
The constitution prescribes that, when the time comes, the 19-member Privy Council, currently chaired by General Prem Tinsulanond, a retired army chief and former prime minister, will decide upon the succession and notify parliament. The Privy Council has been politicized over the past three years of crisis amid perceptions of General Prem’s personal conflicts with Thaksin before the coup. Thailand has never been here before, and the Privy Council has not expressed any preference regarding the succession. Nor has King Bhumibol indicated his own preference thus far, aside from a 1974 legal revision that enabled a female heir to ascend to the throne. Without clearer indications from the King, the palace, or the Privy Council, the royal succession will remain Thailand’s biggest and most daunting question mark, with far-reaching implications for political stability. It is clear now that Thailand’s democratic institutions are too weak, divided, and politicized to manage the succession effectively. Unless clearer signs appear of what will happen after King Bhumibol, all bets are off as to where Thailand will be headed when the current royal twilight finally fades to full darkness.
But the story of Bhumibol’s life has changed: it no longer has a happy ending, world has changed. Bhumibol can no longer boast universal popularity and unchallenged legitimacy. much of the conventional wisdom is wrong. of these assumptions are wrong. Since 2006, there has been a profound reappraisal of Bhumibol’s reputation and role. Building on pioneering works by Benedict Anderson in 1977 and Kevin Hewison in 1997, Duncan McCargo’s paper Network monarchy and legitimacy crises in Thailand demonstrated how the king had exercised power for most of his reign through a network of royalist “good men” who acted as his proxies and instinctively served the interests of the palace, and a brilliant biography of Bhumibol, The King Never Smiles by journalist Paul Handley, demonstrated in compelling detail how the king and his cronies had meddled in politics throughout his reign, often to the detriment of democratization. These works transformed contemporary opinions about the reign of Rama IX. Royal myths were further undermined by the publication in 2010 and 2011 of secret U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks
Even more importantly, a royalist military coup in September 2006 that could only have succeeded with at least tacit approval from Bhumibol shattered the myth that the palace was above politics and a democratizing force in Thailand, forcing millions of Thais to question some of their deepest-held beliefs. There is a growing sense of betrayal among ordinary people, fueled by Queen Sirikit’s stunning public intervention of the side of royalist extremists in October 2008, when she attended the funeral of a young Yellow Shirt woman killed during a day of clashes with police outside parliament, and by Bhumibol’s silence and inaction when ultra-royalists stormed Bangkok’s airports in November 2008, shutting down international flights in and out of the capital. The king’s failure to intervene when a military crackdown on anti-government protesters provoked fierce street battles that claimed 91 lives in April and May 2010 alienated many more. Something unprecedented has happened in Thailand: for the first time in history, anti-monarchist views are extremely widespread, especially in Bangkok and the north and northeast of the country.
As David Streckfuss says in his monumental study Truth on Trial in Thailand, the coup “laid bare the underlying dynamics behind modern Thai history”:
The coup and its aftermath caused an ideological implosion that threatens to rather unceremoniously shove Thai history out of its half-century old suspension and, perhaps, lead to its reckoning….
Thai history no longer made any sense. Or maybe better said, the illusion of a progressive, democratic movement evaporated, revealing both a core authoritarian mindset amongst the elite and intellectuals, part and parcel of a shared project to keep Thai society and history in suspension, and subject to systemmatic social injustice…
The majority of people in Thailand, who live on the other side of this political divide, have become incredulous and enraged… Tempers seethed in the North and Northeast, as it seemed that everything was being done to thwart the will of the majority. Sovereignty, apparently, was not to be with ‘the people’.
This process of profoundly rethinking everything Thais had learned to believe has become known as ตาสวา่ง — phonetically, taa sawang; literally, a brightening of the eyes. The closest English-language equivalents are seeing the light, having one’s eyes opened. Thongchai Winichakul describes it as “disillusionment” which captures not just the terrible disappointment felt by ordinary Thais who suddenly realized they had been deceived, but also the unravelling of the hyper-royalist myths and illusions. The taa sawang phenomenon has generated a coded language of slang and symbols attacking and insulting the monarchy. Internet forums and social media — in particular Facebook — now contain open discussion, criticism and condemnation of the monarchy, a development reported by the U.S. embassy in November 2008 in a cable entitled “Questioning the Unquestionable”:
Online and open public criticism of Thai royals, particularly of Queen Sirikit, has increased recently…
The rise in high-profile lese majeste cases, the frequency of online remarks bordering on lese majeste, and the seriousness of the authorities’ response indicates that some segments of society are highly dissatisfied with the behavior of some members of the royal family, if not the institution itself. If the authorities were to harshly repress critics of the monarchy, this could prove counterproductive, as quiet discourse in many circles could shift from mere gossip about some royals’ distasteful behavior to a more weighty questioning of the monarchy’s role after the death of widely-beloved King Bhumibol.
The enormity of the tectonic shifts that were transforming Thailand became stunningly clear on September 19, 2010. More than ten thousand Red Shirt protesters rallied at the Ratchaprasong intersection, the symbolic centre of modern Bangkok, to protest against the government and the bloody crackdown five months earlier. In a stunning development, a section of the crowd began chanting a slogan aimed directly at Bhumibol, using a crude Thai insult that literally means “monitor lizard”, a particularly reviled animal; the closest English-language equivalent is probably “bastard”:
The bastard ordered the killing. The bastard ordered the killing.
Many protesters also scrawled expletives and accusations about the royals in graffiti on the makeshift enclosure around the gutted shell of the Zen department store, part of the Central World megaplex that had been set ablaze during a wave of arson attacks after the crushing of the May protest. The authorities had been trying to erase memories of the bloodshed and pretend everything was back to normal. The ruins of the Zen store were hidden behind corrugated metal walls emblazoned with slogans that were supposed to be reassuring. One repeated, over and over, a single phrase:
EVERYTHING WILL BE OK.
EVERYTHING WILL BE OK.
EVERYTHING WILL BE OK.
Another giant banner proclaimed:
REBUILDING ZEN, LOVING THAILAND
May this Rebuilding bring Peace and Prosperity to Thailand.
We must Reconcile as we are One Country, One Family and One People.
On September 19, the protesters wrote their own slogans on the wall: crude, angry denunciations of Bhumibol and Sirikit and what they had done to Thailand. They were showing their contempt for the old royalist myths of Thai unity. In the months that followed, anti-government protesters adapted their chant to include the queen too:
The bastard ordered the killing. The bitch ordered the shooting.
Millions of Thais still revere Bhumibol — not just conservatives and staunch royalists, but also a large segment of the middle class and elite liberals. As Chris Baker has argued:
Since the 1976 drama, an important section of the Thai elite and middle class has needed to imagine the king as a symbol of democracy, particularly in opposition to the soldiers who wanted to suppress it with guns, and the businessmen who wanted to subvert it with money. These people want to make use of the great moral authority of the monarchy, without paying attention to the politics. They have been complicit in rewriting history to cast the king as a peace-maker in 1973 and 1992, glossing over 1976 altogether, and ignoring the 1932 revolution to make democracy seem to be a gift from the throne.
But in contemporary Thailand, even the king’s remaining supporters tend to be mostly “Bhumibolists” — who respect him personally because of his perceived goodness, dedication and achievements — rather than royalists who uncritically support the palace. A secret U.S. cable noted in 2008 that:
The King himself is old, frail and ill, and the monarchal institution is weakening with him. The love for the Thai king is very personal — fostered by a concerted effort by the Palace for sixty years — and does not extend, at all, to his son and presumed heir.
Popular support for the monarchy has collapsed since 2006. The king is now a divisive rather than a unifying figure, the rest of his family even more so. And the shock of his death will be muted by the fact that it will not be sudden — Bhumibol has been in clear physical and mental decline since 2007. He has always been a solitary, lonely figure, and in the final years of his life he has been more isolated than ever. As leading royalist Anand Panyarachun told U.S. ambassador Ralph “Skip” Boyce back in 2007:
Anand said he was less concerned about the King’s physical health than about his ability to receive objective advice and to benefit from the company of friends. Anand remarked that half the people who work at the Palace did so only to acquire status and peddle influence; only around one-third of those at the court were there solely out of devotion to the King. He said the King was lonely and, for the most part, could not select the people with whom he spends his time.
Since September 2009, Bhumibol has lived a reclusive existence in Siriraj Hospital on the west bank of the Chao Phraya river that weaves through Bangkok, refusing to return home to one of his palaces even when his doctors cleared him to do so. On the rare occasions when he emerged since then he was a pathetic, shrunken figure in a wheelchair, usually accompanied by his beloved pet dog Tongdaeng, his closest companion and friend. Suthep Thaugsuban, a corrupt Democrat Party political godfather, told the U.S. embassy in 2009 that Bhumibol suffered from depression, and another leaked U.S. cable reported:
There is clearly no way for anyone to analyze accurately the King’s state of mind, or draw certain conclusions between political developments, possible mental stress, and his physical ailments. However, one long-time expat observer of the Thai scene, present in Thailand since 1955, has repeatedly asserted to us over the past year that the King shows classic signs of depression — “and why wouldn’t he, seeing where his Kingdom has ended up after 62 years, as his life comes to an end” — and claims that such mental anguish likely does affect his physical condition/failing health.
In November 2009, U.S. ambassador Eric G. John wrote that Bhumibol was:
by many accounts beset long-term by Parkinson’s, depression, and chronic lower back pain…
On his 84th birthday in December 2011, Bhumibol was wheeled out of Sirirajand loaded into a cream Volkswagen van to be driven through the streets of Bangkok to the golden-spired Grand Palace complex on the east bank of the river. Many thousands of Thais lined the route of the royal convoy, dressed in pink which is believed to be an auspicious colour for the king’s health, waving flags and clutching photographs of the king. Dressed in an ornate robe and seated on a gleaming throne, flanked by his wife Queen Sirikit, their four children and some of their grandchildren, Bhumibol gave a short speech from a balcony of the Grand Palace to the assembled ranks of politicians, generals and officials standing in the sweltering heat in the courtyard below. Thais were shocked at the extent of his decline. His mental and physical health seemed to have improved by May 2012, possibly a result of experimental stem cell treatment he has been receiving, and he made his first trip outside Bangkok in three years, visiting sites of royal significance in Ayutthaya while dressed in an army special forces uniform. He was still confined to his wheelchair, and returned to Siriraj Hospital the same day. On July 7 Bhumibol took a boat trip upriver — ostensibly to inspect irrigation projects — dressed in a marine uniform. Less than a week later, the king suffered a brain haemorrhage during treatment for Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus. It has left him more broken than ever.
Thanks to recent scholarship, and the lessons learned since 2006, it is increasingly apparent that Bhumibol has not been a positive force for stability and democratization in Thailand. In fact, Thailand has been chronically unstable during Bhumibol’s reign. The 1932 revolution that ended the system of absolute monarchy gave Siam its first constitution; since then, including interim, provisional, permanent and amended versions, Thailand is now on its thirtieth. Over the same period there have been 19 overt coup attempts by the Thai military, some successful, some not. These are astonishing statistics: no other country on earth comes close to matching them. Bhumibol has been directly responsible for this state of affairs: his preference for authoritarian military leadership over civilian governments, his determination to claim the credit for everything good that happens to the lives of Thailand’s people, and his disdain for parliament and elected politicians meant that Thai democracy remained stunted and strong institutions were never allowed to take root. In 1976, 1991 and 2006 he acquiesced to military takeovers that tore up the constitution and swept aside elected governments, even though — as he had demonstrated in the 1980s — he had the power to block coups if he wanted. He kept Thailand’s supposed stability is another fairy tale.
Any positive impact Bhumibol had on Thai governance was mostly confined to his restraining influence on military dictators — he tolerated them coming to power, but he also reined them in to some extent, most of the time, and in 1973 and 1992 he halted military massacres of civilian protesters. But in both cases, he did not act until blood had been spilled. In 1976, far from being a restraining influence, the palace helped create the ugly climate that led to the atrocities at Thammasat, and in 2010 he did nothing to stop the killing of civilians. The best that can be said of Bhumibol’s role is that he — usually at least — prevented military regimes from becoming too tyrannical, and this was the role he enjoyed — being able to act as the people’s protector against military juntas he tacitly condoned. When elected civilians were in power, he felt threatened and wrongfooted, and castigated them mercilessly.
Thailand’s toxic cycle of revolving-door governments and regular coups became so entrenched during Bhumibol’s reign that it was mistaken for a kind of stability. Instability became routine, and Thais learned to muddle through from one crisis to the next. Many came to see Bhumibol as a crucial unifying figure holding the country together, when in fact the behaviour of the palace was creating the chronic turbulence that made the country continually look to the monarchy for guidance and leadership. The king oversaw a kind of balanced imbalance, with the military, parliament and bureaucracy engaged in constant exhausting struggle for power, none of them able to gain full dominance. That suited the palace just fine.
When Bhumibol dies there may well be an eruption of upheaval, but not because the king played a stabilizing role — it is because the king kept the country in a state of simmering chronic conflict which may boil over when he is gone. But only for an intermediary period. In the longer run, the end-reign power struggles will very probably produce a more stable and lasting equilibrium. Most Thais hope that equilibrium will involve parliamentary democracy, with strong checks and balances to ensure good governance and the rule of law. They fear the equilibrium could be prolonged and unrestrained military rule by the ultra-right-wing factions of the elite.
Dark tides of sorrow and anxiety are sweeping through Thailand as Bhumibol’s life slips away. He is on the verge of death, and yet his life might drag on for many more years, given the quality of his medical care and the determination of his doctors to keep him breathing at all costs even if he sinks into a vegetative state. Millions of Thais still revere — or at least respect — Bhumibol, and feel genuine grief at his disintegrating health and the prospect of his death, as well as fear of what will follow when his hand is no longer on the tiller. But for millions more who have lost their faith in the monarchy, the sadness comes from the bitter realization that they were lied to all their lives, and that almost everything about Thailand they were taught to take pride in — the uniquely wonderful monarchy, the saintly goodness and statesmanlike greatness of King Bhumibol, the royal family’s concern for the poor and support for democracy — turned out to be just fairytales. As Thongchai Winichakul has observed, the most common reaction when Thais start to find out the truth is not anger, but grief. Thais who had genuinely thought of Bhumibol and Sirikit as paternal figures have had to cope with the impact of discovering that the father and mother of the nation were not the stellar people they claimed to be, and had plenty of skeletons in the closet. Post-royalist Thais now describe themselves with bitter humour as “orphans”. When the end comes for Bhumibol, his obituaries will no longer tell the story of an unassuming but brilliant monarch who worked tirelessly to steer Thailand safely through perilous storms and towards democracy. Those versions were consigned to the trash after 2006. As The Economist said in a 2008 article on the Thai monarchy:
Bhumibol’s story is also that of a king who lost faith in democracy (if he ever really had it), who constantly meddled behind the scenes in politics and thus, in the twilight of his reign, risks leaving behind a country unprepared for life without “Father”, as Thais affectionately call him.
King Rama IX will be remembered as a tragic figure whose reign began with a shattering accident that haunted him for the rest of his life, whose good intentions were increasingly compromised by hubris, vanity and uncomprehending aloofness, and who reigned over a Thailand that — far from progressing steadily towards democracy — just went round and round in circles, cursed never to learn from its mistakes.
The annual Miss Thailand beauty pageant had to be suspended for a decade from 1954 because Sarit was notorious for forcing himself on the winner and runners up every year.