[The king’s heir apparent, the jet-setting crown prince, has a reputation as a playboy and faces an uphill battle to win the trust and adoration his father has achieved. Many Thais hoped that Princess Sirindhorn, the crown prince’s sister, who has won hearts through her charitable causes and dealings with the poor, might succeed her father, but palace law bars women from the throne.]
By Thomas Fuller
An image of the king outside a shop in
The New York Times
Worries over the king’s health have cast a pall of anxiety across the country, which has one of the worst performing economies in
Asia and isruled by a military junta that seized
power last year.
While reverence for the king was once the only thing that this fractured country could agree on, today the future of the Thai monarchy is uncertain.
The king’s heir apparent, the jet-setting crown prince, has a reputation as a playboy and faces an uphill battle to win the trust and adoration his father has achieved. Many Thais hoped that Princess Sirindhorn, the crown prince’s sister, who has won hearts through her charitable causes and dealings with the poor, might succeed her father, but palace law bars women from the throne.
Worries over the transition have accelerated an extremely delicate debate over what kind of monarchy
should have. Delicate because not only is
Bhumibol still living, but any open discussion of the subject is severely
circumscribed by a strict lèse-majesté law that makes it a crime to defame, insult
or threaten the king, queen or heir-apparent. Thailand
The law is interpreted broadly, and barely a month goes by without someone being convicted under it and sent to jail for up to 15 years.
Still, the Internet churns with anonymous social media commentary and videos deriding the monarchy, and a growing underground republican movement is challenging its very premise.
“The current anti-monarchy movement is due to the very fact that the monarchy is now made into almighty god,” said Sulak Sivaraksa, a social activist and scholar who has been charged or arrested five times for his outspokenness about the king. “The more you make the monarchy sacred, the more it becomes unaccountable and something beyond common sense.”
The support for such views is impossible to gauge. How popular is Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, who has divorced or separated from three wives and in recent years spent half of his time in
No one knows, because you cannot have a poll on the subject. Would Thais prefer
some other system? Other than anonymous Internet posts and expatriate critics, it
is not up for discussion.
Even efforts to talk about having such a conversation have been quickly shot down or retracted. In 2010, Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, speaking at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in
, said that Thais should discuss the “taboo
“I think we have to talk about the institution of the monarchy,” he said. “How it would have to reform itself to the modern globalized world. Like what the British or the Dutch or the Danish or the
Liechtenstein monarchy has gone through to adjust itself
to the modern world.”
A government spokesman quickly distanced the government from the comments, saying they were “personal” and not official policy.
One way to assay the strength of the anti-monarchy movement might be by sizing up the military government’s efforts to counter it. The junta, which claims legitimacy from the king’s blessing, has positioned itself as the institution’s ultimate defender.
The ruling generals have been aggressive in jailing critics of the monarchy and this year alone are spending $540 million, more than the entire budget for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on a promotional campaign called “Worship, protect and uphold the monarchy.”
The campaign includes television commercials, seminars in schools and prisons, singing contests and competitions to write novels and make short films praising the king. The military also erected giant statues of past kings in the seaside town of
, but said they were financed by private
donations. Hua Hin
“This is not propaganda,” Prayuth Chan-ocha, the leader of the junta, said several months after seizing power last year. The youth, he said, “must be educated on what the king has done.”
In recent months the military has also appeared eager to burnish the reputation of the crown prince. Last month, Mr. Prayuth spent hours with the crown prince touring
by bicycle in a nationally televised event
honoring Queen Sirikit, who is also in failing health. Bangkok
The crown prince, 63, has been shown in Thai media and YouTube videosas youthful, athletic and a doting father, a contrast to the “Don Juan” the queen once called him.
Mr. Kasit, the former foreign minister, said the bicycle tour was a “turning point” for the prince.
“There are no more doubts inside the military establishment as to who will be the next monarch of
,” Mr. Kasit said. Thailand
The military’s backing of the prince, indeed its alliance with the monarchy, is seen as mutually beneficial. The king is the head of the Thai armed forces and must endorse all new governments and major appointments. Critics say the military and
establishment are leveraging the king’s
power to bolster their own. Bangkok
The absolute monarchy was abolished in
in 1932. But King Bhumibol is treated like a
demigod, and since he ascended the throne in 1946 the monarchy has grown into a
bastion of prestige and wealth. Thailand
Those who regard it as atavistic need not look far for potent symbols. In rituals that seem to hark from a different era, Thais humbly crawl or kneel before the king, a tradition abolished in the 19th century and resurrected during Bhumibol’s reign. His subjects refer to themselves as “the dust under your feet.”
Although rarely seen in public because of his age and illness, he is everywhere. His portraits hang from the facades of government buildings, crown the entrance to airports and are de rigueur in offices and schools.
In a country where average household income is less than $9,000 a year, Bhumibol is almost unfathomably rich. In addition to the king’s personal holdings, the Crown Property Bureau, a royal trust, controls more than $37 billion in assets, which produce hundreds of millions of dollars in annual income that, according to Thai law, can be spent “at the king’s pleasure.”
The republican movement was precipitated in part by the rise of Thaksin Shinawatra, a business tycoon turned populist politician whose influence and popularity in rural areas were seen as threats to the royal establishment and
’s urban elite. Bangkok
The military ousted Mr. Thaksin as prime minister in 2006, and overthrew a government led by his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, last year, but his followers remain the core of the most powerful political movement in modern Thai history. The king sided with the military in both coups.
Military rule has papered over those divisions, silencing critics and jailing former members of the government. But unifying the country remains the most pressing challenge for both the junta and the future king.
The royal succession presents the monarchy with an inflection point, and possibly an opportunity.
“The situation of the Thai monarchy will not remain like this for many more years,” Somsak Jeamteerasakul, one of the leading experts on the monarchy, wrote in a Facebook post last December. “There are two options for the future. Either transform to a modern monarchy like in
Europe or or don’t change and become definitively
demolished (a republic). There is no third choice.” Japan
Some Thais cite the wisdom of a venerated 19th-century king, Chulalongkorn, who wrote an open letter to his son outlining the requirements for a monarch.
Be humble and avoid vengefulness, he advised. “Being a king means not to be wealthy. It means not bullying others.”
Failure to follow this advice, he said, might lead “our clan to disappear.”