Friends and neighbors,
As many of you know, the King of Thailand passed away peacefully on October 13 at 3:52pm, Thai time, following years of illness.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej reigned over the Kingdom of Thailand for seventy years. He has been on the throne since 1946, through twelve military coups and seventeen constitutions. Throughout the life of nearly every Thai alive today, he has been the personally beloved symbol of his country. An accomplished musician, composer, poet, inventor, and photographer, he often seemed a man interested in almost anything other than ruling a country.
After King Bhumibol’s death, I got a pile of emails from people asking me what I think will happen to Thailand now. Here’s the answer to that question: I have absolutely no idea, and neither does anyone else.
The King’s designated successor is his only son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who is now 64. It was widely assumed that the Crown Prince would assume the throne at the death of his father, but some confusion arose when he declined to do so immediately, citing a wish to grieve with the country for a period. He did not say what that period would be. No one knows what the delay means, or even if it means anything at all.
There are a lot of stories about the Crown Prince, few of them flattering and none of them ever repeated by the media in Thailand since any comment about a member of the royal family that isn’t filled with praise is harshly punished under the country’s draconian lese majeste laws. When the Crown Prince does eventually take the throne, no matter what kind of man he might be now, what kind of a king will he be then?
The real question, it seems to me, is whether that particularly matters.
Thailand calls itself a constitutional monarchy, although it certainly gives one pause that the country has had seventeen different constitutions during King Bhumibol’s reign and now has no constitution at all. To put this plainly, the constitutional monarchy label is intentionally misleading. Thailand has been ruled by the military since the end World War II except for a few very brief periods when it at least arguably had an elected civilian government no matter how questionable the election process may have been.
Regardless, none of those periods lasted very long since each civilian government was soon swept away by yet another military coup. It should be noted that the King endorsed all twelve military coups that occurred while he was on the throne. He never defended the civil government against the military, supported civilian control of the military, or spoke out for the right of the people of Thailand to select their own government.
The picture above was taken in Bangkok during one of the recent coups I experienced myself, and it seems to me to sum up pretty well the story of Thailand for the last seventy years. The King might be the symbol of nationhood, and but it is the military that holds the actual power.
The country is now under the thumb of the most repressive military regime in memory, one which overthrew an elected government by staging yet another military coup, and the revered monarch who many saw as the moral center of the nation is gone.
Paul Handley, the author of “The King Never Smiles,” probably the best academic study of the Thai royal family ever published, had a short op-ed piece in the New York Times about the King’s death that I commend to you. He has left his people to the generals, Handley concluded somewhat sadly, and clearly Handley is right. There is nothing to indicate that his son wishes to change that unhappy state of affairs or, worse, that he could even if he wanted to.
No, I have no idea what will happen to Thailand now, but I do know this: my heart breaks for the people of that poor, benighted little country. The most fundamental right of any people is to freely chose those who govern them. The Thai military has denied that right to the Thai people throughout almost the entirety of the country’s existence, and it continues to deny that right to them today.