Vajiralongkorn's Controlling Style

King Maha Vajiralongkorn's Controlling Style Belies a Weak Monarch

Pavin Chahcavalpongpun's latest op-ed co-written with Josh Kurlantzick at the Council of Foreign Relations ia on the weakness of the Thai monarchy. There is a discussion on Article 112 in this article too.

June 18, 2024

King Maha Vajiralongkorn of Thailand has reverted from the quieter, behind-closed-doors style of his much-loved father and directly involved himself in Thai domestic politics and the economy.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn of Thailand has been on the throne for over eight years. There seem to be contrasting analyses of his reign and governance. (In theory, he is a constitutional monarch, like King Charles III of Britain. But he operates more closely to a Persian Gulf monarchy, with powers well beyond a constitutional monarchy.) On the one hand, Vajiralongkorn has actively interfered in Thai domestic politics much more openly than his father, suggesting the current king’s growing strength in the Thai political system. On the other hand, the rise of a more open anti-monarchy movement in Thailand, which has gained momentum and the willingness to be public despite harsh laws against criticizing the monarch, suggests that the monarchy is weaker than it appears.

Consider the first analysis of the Vajiralongkorn reign, which asserts that he is a strong leader, as shown by his open willingness and confidence to intervene in politics and the economy. Soon after his enthronement, Vajiralongkorn flexed his power by requesting an amendment to the newly approved Thai constitution, a provision related to royal power. He asked for a change that would allow him to have the same powers even if he lived abroad—he spends a lot of time in Germany—instead of having to appoint a regent to oversee royal affairs on his behalf while abroad. This amendment allowed him to wield influence from Germany and diminished the power of the Privy Council, a group of senior advisors to the monarch who make recommendations and sometimes exercise power on his behalf. With the amendment, the king could live in Germany most of the time, not have to spend much time with the Privy Council, and make any decisions himself.

Other more open royal interventions in politics have included annexing certain military regiments under the direct control of the Royal Household, giving the king more open power over the armed forces, the other historically most important Thai institution. He was also confident enough to intervene in military affairs by handpicking the army chief.

In 2017, he also began to take personal control of the Crown Property Bureau (CPB), a state institution in charge of managing royal wealth. In the past, a team of skilled economic technocrats had managed the wealth, and the king’s father usually did not meddle in the CPB and allowed advisors to make the best investments possible. The CPB was controversial, but the king’s father minimized the controversy by making it seem like it was not the king’s personal wealth but rather a kind of investment vehicle more broadly held for the state. That is not the case under Vajiralongkorn. By 2018, the CPB, worth $60 billion with vast investments in real estate and many of the biggest blue-chip Thai companies, was now under the sole possession of the king. The move allowed the king to make economic decisions for which he had no training and dropped any façade that the CPB was a state institution rather than a royal slush fund.

"It might seem like the king enjoys growing strength in an era in which monarchies elsewhere, such as Bhutan, Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain, and Oman, have had to make concessions reducing their power."

However, this analysis fails to acknowledge how he has sparked growing anger and distrust of the monarchy, weakening the institution in the long run. In 2020, Thai youths launched months-long protests calling for immediate monarchy reforms, marking the first time issues with the monarchy were aired so publicly. Again, this is a country where criticizing the monarchy is considered lèse-majesté and thus punishable by many years in jail. In response to this open criticism, there has been a dramatic surge in lèse-majesté cases, suggesting the palace is much more afraid of the groundswell of anger than it lets on. After all, this type of open, more considerable dissent aimed at the palace would not have occurred under the king’s more beloved and politically agile father.

The successful formula of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, father of Vajiralongkorn, in leading an authoritative reign for seven decades did not rely solely on his institutional networks and the powers he had in Thailand’s constitutional-but-not-really constitutional monarchy. Bhumibol’s authority and enormous respect among Thais helped secure his throne and gave him the confidence of a loved and respected leader. He achieved this through effective propaganda, constantly showing him to be a caring monarch related to average Thais. He also took a people-centric approach and used his powers humbly in public. He demonstrated himself working hard across the country and launched thousands of royal developmental projects primarily aimed at helping the poorest Thais. Even the United Nations extolled Bhumibol for his sustainable development initiatives designed to protect the environment and reduce poverty.

Vajiralongkorn is maneuvering in a much more challenging terrain. He is weak and has weakened the monarchy. His disinterest in interacting with the public or working hard on development projects leaves him with no earned popularity, authority, or charisma. Instead, he has issued orders, sown fear among the public and elites, and punished dissenters with lèse-majesté cases. Increasingly, anti-monarchists in Thailand’s neighboring states are being abducted and killed.

"Fear cannot keep the monarchy strong, and the signs are piling up that Thais are far less invested in their monarchy and more willing to stand up for a shift to a more constitutional regime."

Despite the threat of heavy punishments, many young Thais continue to challenge royal power in public and on social media. For the first time, the Move Forward Party crossed the third rail of Thai politics. It ran on a platform in last year’s national elections that included a call to revamp the lèse-majesté laws and possibly reconsider other aspects of the monarchy. Move Forward won the largest number of seats in the Lower House of Parliament but was prevented from leading the new government by a wide range of obstacles set up by Thai political elites. Move Forward’s success at the voting box was a breakthrough and a sign of the monarchy’s weak appeal. The party could be banned; but another party will surely take up the same causes, increasingly popular with voters, and it will become more complex and more challenging for political elites to stop them.

A generational shift is taking place in Thailand, as evident in the results of the last elections. Vajiralongkorn’s seizures of power, which he may perceive as strength, has sped up that generational change. Young Thais (and many older Thais, as shown by the votes given to Move Forward) demand a fundamental shift in the nature of the monarchy. Monarchies endure because of popular support. As Vajiralongkorn’s reign disregards the public, it may be more difficult to defend its legitimacy. Even with the support of all state institutions, the reign could have difficulty surviving and struggle to pass on much power to the next monarch.




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