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King’s death opens up opportunity for Thailand’s military

King’s death opens up opportunity for Thailand’s military

By Richard S. Ehrlich
Special to The Washington Times 
Sunday, November 13, 2016

BANGKOK — Hopes that the death of the longtime king might create room for political liberalization are quickly fading as the military-dominated government moves swiftly and skillfully to consolidate its grip on power.

Since the death of 88-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Oct. 13, hundreds of thousands of people have been offering Buddhist prayers in front of the golden royal coffin in Bangkok, and more mourners arrive from the countryside every day.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the onetime army chief and staunch royalist who seized power in a bloodless 2014 coup, has taken firm charge of the elaborate funeral arrangements and extensive public security amid the nation’s grief-stricken confusion. Analysts say there are few signs of political vulnerability for Mr. Prayuth, despite the loss of a monarch who was a key backer of the military over his 70-year reign.

The widely revered constitutional monarch headed an influential institution that supported the military. In turn, the armed forces proudly and consistently protected Bhumibol through numerous periods of turbulence and factional fighting among Thai politicians.

The military also appears to be firmly in charge of the timing and imagery of the transfer of the monarchy to Maha Vajiralongkorn, announcing last week that the 64-year-old crown prince will ascend to the throne early next month.

“We are making preparations. Everything is being prepared for Dec. 1,” a senior military source told the Reuters news agency.

Shoring up his standing with conservatives and monarchists, Mr. Prayuth’s postcoup policies have largely focused on defending Thailand’s “old money” elite against social climbing “nouveau riche” rivals while expanding the government’s powers through a rewrite of the constitution.

Those quashed rivals are led by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whom Mr. Prayuth helped topple in a 2006 coup, and Mr. Thaksin’s sister, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was ousted by the 2014 coup that brought Mr. Prayuth to power.

Fortunately for Mr. Prayuth, his supporters appear to be sticking with him in the aftermath of the king’s death. They expect him to maintain Thailand’s stability and investment worthiness during the monarchical transition. Mr. Prayuth has used the final years of the late king’s reign to consolidate his own political base.

During the past two years, his regime moved supporters into top positions within the military, police, bureaucracy, judiciary and legislature to ensure the military’s leverage over future policies and governments.

Pro-democracy opponents, meanwhile, have decided to respectfully mourn the king’s death and temporarily halt their public political activity. As a result, no organized challenge to the government’s rule has surfaced during the period of uncertainty.

“It seems Prayuth has been able to work with the upcoming king. For one thing, [the prime minister] already came out to endorse the kingship of Vajiralongkorn,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. “The fact that the king will not be cremated [until one year from now] also guarantees the position of Prayuth in the premiership.”

The junta issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Pavin, who left the country 13 years ago, and revoked his passport for his anti-coup opinions, but he has applied for refugee status in Japan.

“The political situation remains calm, and perhaps more stable, because most Thais are now in a mourning period,” Titipol Phakdeewanich, political science faculty dean at Ubon Ratchathani University in eastern Thailand, said in an interview.

“During this mourning period of King Bhumibol, I think all political factions and parties are fully aware that making any political movements will not be in their interests, and it is not strategically clever to do so,” Mr. Titipol said.

Government warning

The government has also played on the widespread affection Thais have for the late king, arguing that any political unrest now would be an affront to his legacy.

“Don’t try to provoke any conflict at the moment, and don’t get the monarchy involved in any conflict,” Lt. Gen. Sansern Kaewkamnerd, a government spokesman, told the nation after the king died. “Now is the time for all of us to unite.”

Nigel Gould-Davies, a Thai political scholar and fellow at London’s Chatham House, said in an analysis that the domestic reaction has been muted in what is “a highly significant but inherently uncertain time” for Thais. He said the political impact of the king’s death should not be underestimated.

“King Bhumibol’s 70-year reign was the one fixed point in an era of economic transformation, political turbulence and regional conflict,” he wrote. “He provided a source of national legitimacy and stability during a record number of coups and constitutions. As ‘Father of the Nation,’ he became an important part of modern Thai identity.”

Having won a national referendum on a new constitution this summer, Mr. Gould-Davies noted, the government has promised to follow up with elections late next year. Whether it feels confident enough to stick to the timetable will be a key barometer of change.

The widespread adoration and emotional dependence Thais feel toward the only monarch most have ever known have engulfed this Buddhist-majority country, producing a mood of overwhelming sadness mixed with personal anxiety.

The king’s body is inside an ornate golden royal urn that stands upright on a raised platform inside the Grand Palace’s Throne Hall.

Buddhist monks chant prayers while up to 30,000 members of the public, dressed in black, are allowed each day to solemnly pass through the hall.

Mr. Prayuth’s 2014 seizure of power abolished parliament, but he quickly replaced it with a hand-picked National Legislative Assembly, which can oversee the succession process, officials said.

Mr. Prayuth, meanwhile, continues to strengthen his forces against his two biggest political threats: the Shinawatra siblings.

Yingluck Shinawatra is being prosecuted on charges of negligence while administering rice subsidies from 2012 through 2014. She must pay $1 billion in compensation to the government for financial losses as a result of what has been called mismanagement, including shoddy storage facilities, suspicious invoicing and other activities by officials under her administration.

“The legal officers confirmed this is not a violation of the law’s spirit,” Mr. Prayuth said on Oct. 25, defending his regime’s administrative order demanding the $1 billion.

Ms. Shinawatra denied the charges and can appeal in an administrative court.

Her wealthy brother remains in self-imposed exile abroad, dodging a two-year prison sentence for corruption during his own administration.