Two months ago, I wrote about Thailand’s referendum on a draft constitution that effectively sealed the military’s control of the country. The draft constitution was approved and whenever elections happen next, the military and their sponsored candidates are sure to win. As such, challenges to the military’s rule are unlikely to come through the ballot box. But challenges remain. One of the greatest strengths of the Thai military has been the support it received from the Palace. It is difficult indeed to overstate the influence that the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej exercised over the country. He was revered, semi-divine, the people’s king, a unifying figure in a divided country. His endorsement of the most recent military coup in 2014 made opposition to the military an untenable position for most.
Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, whose coronation date has not yet been set, is not his father however. He is largely unknown to many Thais, but what is known is generally not admired. Seen as having a too “colorful” lifestyle he is not a “People’s King”. Palace statements will have much less weight coming from the new King than from the old. Thus a central pillar of the military’s rule has been eroded, and as the bombings two months ago showed there are many who would seek to challenge the military’s grip. But the lack of knowledge about the new King may also prove to be a strength. Most Thais know little about him, giving him an opportunity re-invent himself and introduce himself to the country as he sees fit. His lack of a real reputation one way or the other allows him a blank slate to build upon.
The new King has an unenviable task ahead of him as he seeks to hold a divided nation together. The powerful Thai military has been one of the biggest supporters of the monarchy for decades and is a relationship the Palace will seek to maintain. The military has its own vested interest however, and will undoubtedly pressure the new King to support those interests. But, given the large desire for a return to democracy and an end to military rule in the country, such a position may not win the King much support in the countryside. The new King has a tough act to follow, and should he falter, what next?