As Thailand mourns the death of King Bhumibol, the ninth king of his line, the ruling junta has announced that the crown prince will eventually be enthroned as Rama X. However, it also announced that there will be a transitional period in which the monarchy is run by a regent, rather than the crown prince. The junta has announced that the regent will be 96-year-old former prime minister Prem Tinsulanonda, the head of the former king’s council and an archroyalist.
Although the news of the appointment of a regent surprised many Thailand observers, including myself, it should not be shocking that the person chosen was Prem. Prem’s time as prime minister is viewed by many Thais as a successful one, since he oversaw high economic growth, was believed to be personally free of corruption, and appointed capable technocrats to head up many ministries. Not a few Bangkok elites yearn to return Thailand to Prem-style rule, in which military and political elites manage the country, allowing a veneer of free elections but keeping most important ministries in the hands of unelected actors. But Prem is also widely disliked by many rural Thais, who view him as committed to maintaining Bangkok’s iron grip over the country, even if that means subverting democracy. Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, popular among rural Thais, has repeatedly made oblique allegations that Prem played a central role in the 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin’s government.
What’s more, the period of waiting for a new king, and the prospect of Prem as regent, suggests that there are deep divides within the palace and the military establishment about the next king. Having Prem serve as regent would allow Thais to accept the new king, who is not beloved, and might also allow the military to solidify its control over the next monarch. For a more extensive discussion of the royal succession, and the forces that led up to it, see one of my previous posts, a review of journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s important book on the Thai monarchy.