from Asia Unbound

Thailand’s Dangerous Political Interregnum

A car of the royal motorcade drives past a Thai antigovernment mass protest, on the 47th anniversary of the 1973 student uprising, in Bangkok, Thailand on October 14, 2020.
A car of the royal motorcade drives past a Thai antigovernment mass protest, on the 47th anniversary of the 1973 student uprising, in Bangkok, Thailand on October 14, 2020. Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

January 12, 2021
2:23 pm (EST)

A car of the royal motorcade drives past a Thai antigovernment mass protest, on the 47th anniversary of the 1973 student uprising, in Bangkok, Thailand on October 14, 2020.
A car of the royal motorcade drives past a Thai antigovernment mass protest, on the 47th anniversary of the 1973 student uprising, in Bangkok, Thailand on October 14, 2020. Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters
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Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center of Southeast Asian Studies.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn ascended the throne in October 2016, ending the authoritative and long reign of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. But in the period since Thailand’s 2014 military coup, the death of Bhumibhol in 2016, and the current day, the kingdom has entered a period of precarious political transition—an interregnum between the prior political status quo and an as-yet-unknown new political reality. In this precarious interregnum Thailand has undergone massive upheaval.

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Thailand’s prior political system was one in which King Bhumibhol was invested as the central source of political legitimacy—a source of legitimacy above elected politicians. That system now is dying. Meanwhile, a new political system in which the king would not provide such a source of legitimacy above elected institutions, experimented with in the past decade during a series of Thai elected governments, remains basically unborn. Indeed, a new Thai political model, and what role the monarchy might play in such a model, has not been fully formed or even envisaged.

In this critical moment, the key players in Thailand’s prior political system are trying to block any transition. Meanwhile, the protest movement that has built in the streets in Thailand in recent months is calling for constitutional changes and reforms to strengthen democracy and questioning the power of the king. This protest movement has broken the taboo of openly discussing and even criticizing the monarchy, and the current government has struck back by reviving the use of the lèse-majesté law and arresting multiple protest leaders.

Meanwhile, the new monarch lacks the moral authority that his father, Bhumibhol, amassed during his decades-long reign, which made him genuinely popular and respected among many Thais.

With the new king lacking such moral authority, royalist and military elites in Thailand are able to hold onto power through force, like the arrests of protestors, and by empowering unelected, politicized institutions like the judiciary to harass and disqualify political opponents.

The interregnum has produced a legitimacy crisis both in the current Thai government and also likely will produce a legitimacy crisis in any more democratic government in the future. Indeed, the interregnum has triggered a myriad of crises in Thailand.

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First, there is a crisis of institutions that can determine the fate of Thai politics. The two institutions of the monarchy and the military, seemingly inseparable politically, have been greatly affected by the death of King Bhumibol.

Bhumibol’s death brought instability in the monarchy and the armed forces, and despite laws restricting media coverage of the monarchy, Thais are aware of the growing instability within the monarchical institution. One problem with the monarchy is that the institution was immensely personified during Bhumibol’s reign. This personification of the monarchy in Bhumibhol’s person was effective in promoting the monarchy, as the king was personally popular, but royalists disregarded the danger of the interregnum in which the new king would likely fail to match up with the revered charisma of his father. And that is what has happened. The new king cannot match his father’s charisma, yet the monarchy remains enormously powerful and highly personalized—except now in a person lacking the charisma and moral authority. Worse, since the coup of 2014, Vajiralongkorn has actually played a part in sustaining this volatile interregnum, undermining democracy, and trying to restore older, greater royal powers. Meanwhile, the military has continued to exploit the royal institution for its own political benefits, potentially causing severe tensions between these two institutions.

Second, there is a crisis of the state, broadly characterized by corrupt systems and a lack of good governance. The royal transition from Bhumibol to Vajiralongkorn has impacted a range of state and quasi-state systems, including the Buddhist Sangha, the judiciary, and the management of the Thai economy.

Third, there is a crisis of Thai politics, impacted both by the transitional period and also by Thailand’s persistent economic and political inequality; despite being the wealthiest country in mainland Southeast Asia, Thailand is one of the most economically unequal states in the world. The divisions in Thai politics between “red shirts,” who backed the earlier populist, Thaksinite governments, and the more traditionally conservative and anti-Thaksin “yellow shirts” has morphed into another kind of division now best characterized as between “royalist” and “anti-monarchist.” The gulf between these two sides has widened since the 2014 coup, the repressive period after, and the 2019 election. Civil society, meanwhile—from the media and social media users to nongovernmental and civil society organizations—also has been immeasurably affected by the increasing polarization in Thai society in the period since Bhumibhol’s death.

Consequently, Thailand is trapped in a political crisis that has already damaged its prospects for democracy. The crisis has sparked the on-going street protests, and there is no end in sight for how the kingdom could resolve these problems.

This post is adapted from the book Coup, King, Crisis: A Critical Interregnum in Thailand.

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