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Thailand 2015: Anxiety over the royal succession in the post coup 2014

The military staged a coup on 22 May 2014, overthrowing the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Outwardly, the military justified its political intervention with the classic claim that corruption was the rot of Thai politics and the coup was needed to purify the political domain. At a deeper level however, the military intervened at a time when a critical transition in Thai politics is on the horizon: the imminent royal succession. For decades, the traditional elites, of which the military is a part, have long dominated Thai politics. This changed with the arrival of the Shinawatras who set huge socio-economic changes in motion. They then took advantage to empower themselves politically, and in doing so, shook the old political structure. In today’s Thailand, the power struggle between elective and non-elective institutions is now reaching its peak because the era of King Bhumibol Adulyadej is closing. Haunted by anxiety over a future without the charismatic King, the traditional elites are vying to manage the royal succession and maintain their power position. The paper argues that the military government led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha is seeking to accomplish three missions: to reconstruct the electoral system that will benefit the traditional elites; to eliminate political enemies though the legal system, particularly the lèse-majesté law and other non-legal means; and to reinforce the position of the palace to ensure that the monarchy will continue to be at the centre of power in the post-Bhumibol days. It is unlikely that these undertakings will stabilise Thai politics, and as voters become alienated in the political process à la Prayuth, large-scale violent protests may be seen as unavoidable in order to restore democracy.

  1. Introduction

The Thai military staged the latest coup on 22 May 2014, overthrowing the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who won a landslide election earlier in 2011. Months of relentless protests led by former members of parliament from the Democrat Party, Suthep Thaugsuban, which formed an anti-Yingluck movement under the name, PDRC (People’s Democratic Reform Council), successfully created a violent context for the military to intervene. The discontentment against the government derived from the fact that the ruling Pheu Thai Party attempted to push through the parliament a blanket amnesty bill, which, if successfully approved, could emancipate former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from corruption charges.[1] Although the blanket amnesty would also allow the military to walk free from its involvement in the mass killings of the red-shirt protesters in 2010, the military top leaders seemed to be more interested in interfering in politics as a way to eliminate the Shinawatras’ political influence. Prime Minister Yingluck called for dissolution of the parliament and an election was held on 2 February 2014. But the Constitutional Court intervened and ordered her to step down over her role in the controversial transfer of a senior security officer in 2011.[2] In May 2014, the military finally staged a coup, while leading many Thais to believe that it was just another «normal coup», primarily to get rid of so-called corrupt politicians.

In reality, the objective of this latest coup went beyond the mere overthrowing of the Yingluck government. The electoral successes of Thaksin’s political parties, from the Thai Rak Thai [Thais Love Thais] in 2001, the Palang Prachachon [People’s Power Party] in 2007 to the Pheu Thai [For Thais] in 2011, serve as a justification for the royalist elites to find ways to constrain majoritarian democracy. Andrew Walker asserted that they wished to condemn Thailand’s new «electocracy» championed by Thaksin and his proxies.[3] This is particularly crucial during which time the royal succession is imminent. This article argues that the coup was staged primarily for the military and the traditional elites to take control of the royal transition. In so doing, they aimed at eliminating the Shinawatras before the succession takes place. In this process, it seems apparent that the military has attempted to stay in power for as long as possible, determined, once again, to be in charge of the royal succession. Should the military be forced to step down, perhaps due to domestic or international pressure, it wants to ensure that it would continue to dominate the political domain. During 2014 and 2015, Thailand witnessed military scheming to put in place an infrastructure, to allow itself and the royalist elites to manipulate the electoral game, which in the past decade had been comfortably controlled by the Thaksin faction. Alongside, the military has constructed and popularised the discourse of anti-majoritarian democracy, first crafted by the anti-Thaksin «yellow-shirt» movement, known as the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), and now the PDRC; it is adopted by the current military-appointed Constitution Drafting Committee in order to belittle the «electocracy» as a way to prevent the Thaksin faction from returning to politics too easily.

The military government of a self-proclaimed Prime Minister, General Prayuh Chan-ocha is now concentrating on drafting the constitution, which is seen as part of the traditional elites putting such an infrastructure in place. Instead of working to win the electorate by introducing popular and positive policies, the royalist elites have chosen to control the electoral system through rewriting the constitution. Almost two years now after the coup, key figures in this military government have revealed their ideas for the new constitution, which will be similar to the semi-democracy model that was seen in Thailand a few decades ago – a model that seemed to embrace democracy on the exterior but essentially the government was under control of extra-constitutional institutions. However, an earlier version of the drafted constitution was disapproved by the military-dominated parliament, possibly as a result of a split in the ideas among the parliamentarians. Some seemed to be keen for the elections to be organised soon, so that Thailand would eventually get out of the political mess. Meanwhile, some wanted to prolong the life of the Thai military junta and therefore rejecting the constitution would be a way for the military government to stay on in power. Currently, a new set of the Constitutional Drafting Committee, led by Meechai Ruchupan, a legal expert and former politician with intimate ties with the military, is working on redrafting the charter. The structure of the new constitution that is being discussed, when implemented, will certainly prevent an emergence of a strong and popular elected government, as will be shown/demonstrated in the next paragraphs. It is also likely that the appointed Senate will be the agent of the conservative elites and will play a vital role in that capacity. Moreover, the new constitution will provide the military with some legitimacy to intervene in politics whenever it sees fit. Even if the junta goes ahead with the elections, now set for 2017, the top brass will continue to exert major influence over Thai politics – a strategy necessary in coping with the uncertainties in the post-King Bhumibol Adulyadej period.

  1. New political structure

Political Scientist Puangthong Pawakapan of Chulalongkorn University wrote succinctly:

Thailand’s pro-coup entrenched royalists distrust electoral democracy, politicians and rural-voters. The anti-rural voter discourse was in fact central to the Yellow-Shirt campaigns led by the People’s Democratic Reform Council (PDRC) and its predecessor the People’s Alliance for Democracy. The coup is an opportunity for them to put construct [sic] a new political game where the electoral power of majority voters is reduced.[4]

And indeed, the Prayuth government has striven to promote a new political structure whereby future civilian governments would be deprived of their actual power. In the first draft of the constitution, it was evident that the members of the Constitutional Drafting Committee moved toward that end to limit the power of the future executive branch by allowing a non-elected member of parliament to become prime minister. In other words, the new constitution would not require a prime minister to be a member of parliament or a member of any political party. Purportedly, this would allow an «outsider», like those from the military, to take the premiership – a move perceived to be a step backward for Thai political development. According to the 1997 constitution, still known to be the most «liberal» constitution Thailand ever had, it was stipulated clearly that a prime minister must be an elected member of parliament. This requirement reflected one of the major demands of the democratic movement in the aftermath of the Black May incident of 1992 as part of the public’s push for a greater democratisation and as a way to prevent the military from its interference in politics.[5]

Puangthong also emphasised that the new constitution will likely grant the Senate more power. Senators are to be assigned greater responsibilities, such as in proposing reform bills and even scrutinising the profiles of nominated cabinet ministers before the prime minister submits the list for royal approval. Moreover, senators could be given some authority to vet the profiles of heads of all governmental organisations. In effect, the Senate will be a dutiful agent of the conservative powers in their attempt to control the new political structure. The set-up of the Senate proposed by the Constitutional Drafting Committee reiterated the conservative elite’s determination to consolidate their power over parliamentary politics.[6] The move to constrain the parliamentary politics has been noticed since the coup of 2006, which was primarily staged to topple the Thaksin regime and its enduring power. At the peak of Thai democratisation in the 1990s, as reflected in the 1997 constitution, all senators must be directly elected by the people. Seen as an important instrument of the traditional elites, the Senate underwent a serious transformation to serve the political purposes of those elites. In 2007, as the new constitution was drawn, the Senate was divided into two parts – some members were elected, some appointed. This model of a partial election of the Senate will lend itself to the latest constitution drafted by the Prayuth regime. But the empowerment of the Senate will not be the only tactic adopted by the Thai junta. It is also possible that the Constitutional Drafting Committee would permit independent candidates to run for seats in the parliament. The emergence of a large number of independent candidates would function to break up the parliamentary domination of powerful political parties, like that of Thaksin. The end result could see the forming of small or medium sized parties together with some independent members of parliament – a recipe for a coalition government seen vividly during the 1980s and 1990s. Coalition governments are usually weak, as they consist of several individuals with diverse interests; they would thus be easily manipulated from the perspective of the traditional elites. Apart from the encouragement for independent members of parliament, it is highly likely that the constitution would give more power to independent organisations – most of which are not really independent but operate at the behest of the traditional elites. These organisations include the National Anti-Corruption Commission, the Human Rights Commission and the Constitutional Court. They successfully proved in the past to have worked to weaken the government of Yingluck. For example, the Constitutional Court was responsible for undermining three prime ministers in the Thaksin camp, from Samak Sundaravej (2008), Somchai Wongsawat (2008), to Yingluck (2014).[7] This is testament of how independent institutions, like the Constitutional Court, have become largely politicised.

From this view, the new constitution and the election that will follow will not solve the Thai crisis, which was brought about by the elites’ attempt to maintain their power position in the first place. The election, in particular, will not guarantee that Thailand’s democracy will return and be strengthened. At the critical period of the royal transition, the control of the military over the parliamentary process will further complicate Thai politics.

  1. The military–monarchy nexus

Realising that the military will continue to exert its influence in politics through the carefully designed constitution, it is imperative to explore the role of the army, now and in the post-election period. It should not be unexpected for Thailand to have a senior/retired military leader as a prime minister after the next election, since the new constitution would likely allow a non-member of parliament to take up the top political position. It is not unexpected either for the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – the governing body of the coup makers – to continue to exist and Article 44, known as the «dictator law», which gives the prime minister unchecked authority over all branches of government, to remain in place after the election.[8] Re-establishing military power in politics is essential for the future of the monarchy, as much as for the military itself. This is simply because the intervention in politics of the army has long been carried out under the pretext of the military’s need to defend the monarchy from all kinds of threats. From communism in the old days to modern-day anti-monarchism supposedly driven by Thaksin’s supporters, the military has exploited the position of the monarchy to give itself legitimacy in playing politics. As this paper argues, the 2014 coup was staged in order for the traditional elites to oversee the royal succession, the military has, in this process, assigned itself a task of eliminating threats and enemies. But why is the royal succession so crucial for the traditional elites?

King Bhumibol Adulyadej is today the world’s longest reigning monarch. Crowned in 1946, Bhumibol was able to transform the monarchy from an unpopular establishment into the country’s most powerful institution. But his era is coming to a close. He is frail and has been intermittently hospitalised since 2009. He did not appear on national television on his birthday, 5 December 2015, to give his much-awaited speech, thus heightening the public anxiety over the future of Thailand without the charismatic king. Andrew MacGregor Marshall even predicted that while it is highly possible that violence will erupt in the days and weeks after Bhumibol dies, it is likely to lead to a period of greater stability.[9] Ironically, the anxiety is derived mainly from Bhumibol’s successful reign. In the past several decades, royal elites and the military embarked on recreating the authoritative persona of Bhumibol to strengthen the monarchy. They elevated the king to a semi-god status, while simultaneously celebrating his reputation as the people-centric monarch. Pictures of the king travelling through remote regions, with maps, notebooks, and binoculars in his hands, were popularised. He initiated a series of royal projects to inmprove the living standards of the underprivileged. The trickle of sweat from the royal brow captivatingly symbolised a hardworking monarch. Bhumibol was also extolled as a democratic king. His periodic interventions in politics – most recently in 1992 and 2006 – were interpreted as a necessary step to prevent or end political violence. This kind of interpretation provided a legitimate pretext for his political involvement against the constitutional rule of the king being «above politics». Thai historian Thongchai Winichakul asserted:

The more it [monarchy] is believed to be outside politics, the higher moral authority thus more influence it earns because, in the logic of Dhammaracha, non-partisan and disengagement means cleaner and more virtuous, hence more power, which does not corrupt. Over time, people look «up» to the royal authority when they are dissatisfied with the normal political system.[10]

But the royal transition is happening and far from being a trouble-free process. The construction of a perfect Bhumibol will prove to be a dangerous entrapment for the only heir apparent, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. Vajiralongkorn is an opposite image of his father. The inability of Vajiralongkorn to fit into that perfect mould crafted by the palace triggers public anxiety regarding Thailand under his future reign. Unfortunately, palace propaganda based around excessive glorification of Bhumibol through national education and the mainstream media has been in recent years more aggravated. This led to a rigid perception of an immaculate monarch – anything less than this will not be accepted. Certainly, this poses a serious challenge for Vajiralongkorn to follow in the footsteps of his father. Matching Bhumibol’s divinity, popularity and shrewd political manoeuvrings represents a formidable obstacle for Vajiralongkorn. These are non-transferable traits and personal properties. The circumstances surrounding the royal transition offer few choices for Vajiralongkorn – one of which is to promote the reform of the monarchy should he wish to prolong his reign. With his lack of sacredness and popularity, Vajiralongkorn – who also lacks the necessary qualities to reign – may find expedient to detach himself from politics. Depoliticising the monarchy is a crucial approach for the survival of throne.

But Vajiralongkorn’s recent political interventions suggest otherwise. As a part of his search for a new role in the period leading up to the royal succession, Vajiralongkorn expressed concern about the potential political violence during the anti-Yingluck Shinawatra government protests last year. He summoned the Prime Minister, Yingluck, and the leader of the PDRC, Suthep, for a televised royal audience. Andrew Walker wrote:

Given the gravity of the situation he adopts a stern and disapproving tone. With the two protagonists kneeling before him, he emphasizes the dangers of national division and the importance of resolving differences through dialogue and democratic process rather than confrontation on the street. He urges Suthep to end his protests and firmly demands that the king’s role not be invoked in campaigns against a democratically elected government. To display his even-handedness he also reprimands Yingluck, encouraging her to deal respectfully with the constitution and avoid unnecessary provocation of opposition forces. Possibly a defining moment?[11]

However, talks about a political alliance between Vajiralongkorn and the Thaksin camp, as a result of the former being isolated from the inner circle of the palace, deepened a suspicion of the Crown Prince becoming more sympathetic toward the Yingluck government. That suspicion served as a factor behind a decision of the PDRC to ignore Vajiralongkorn’s plea for the conflict to end. The test of his leadership was thrown into jeopardy.

The role of the military is traditionally crucial in the support of the monarchy. Vajiralongkorn had long been isolated by the military although he holds many top ranks in the army. To empower his position, Vajiralongkorn set up his own praetorian army – the Royal Guard 904 Corps, or Ratchawallop, an infantry regiment under his command since 1978. In April 2014, a month before the coup, Vajiralongkorn announced a new recruitment to his army, hoping to attract those in Thailand’s rural north and northeast regions – the heartland of the Shinawatra clan. However, the Ratchawallop unit, now consisting of 5,600 members, has been unpopular, partly because it was seen as hostile to the national army.[12] Without support from the military and the palace, Vajiralongkorn, as mentioned earlier, viewed his alliance with Thaksin as strategic. Since Thaksin commanded a popular mandate through successive electoral triumphs, leaning toward Thaksin could mean gaining that same popular support. The evidence was reflected in the gradually growing admiration of Vajiralongkorn among the red-shirt supporters of Thaksin. But the 2014 coup has compelled Vajiralongkorn to shift his political alliance. He seemed to have reached out to the military government of Prime Minister Prayuth to ensure its endorsement of his succession. For example, Vajiralongkorn agreed to preside over the inauguration ceremony of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) in August 2014, an act deemed to legitimise the coup and the military regime. On that occasion, Vajiralongkorn urged members of the NLA to bring Thailand back on a stable track.[13] So far, Vajiralongkorn has never publicly condemned the coup. Vajiralongkorn also divorced his wife, Princess Srirasmi, reasoning that her relatives had done some damage to the dignity of the monarchy. They were accused of exploiting his name for their own financial benefits, and were charged of lèse-majesté.[14] They were eventually jailed for two and a half years after pleading guilty to defaming the monarchy. His move was seen as a cleaning-the-house exercise before the succession. But were Vajiralongkorn’s efforts enough to earn the support of the royal and military elites?

Talks are ripe about an alternative to Vajiralongkorn should his lack of required qualities threaten the stability of the royal institution. His popular sister, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, has long been recognised as a more suitable candidate to the throne following her own successful makeover as a humble and down-to-earth princess à la Bhumibol. But a hurdle is how to overcome the constitutional constraint of prioritising male heirs over female candidates. A greater problem will rest on possible fallout within the royal family. As an heir apparent, it is unlikely that Vajiralongkorn will walk away quietly from his legitimate kingship. The selection of Sirindhorn over Vajiralongkorn will instigate a power struggle in the palace, thus deepening the vulnerable position of the monarchy at the twilight of the Bhumibol period. The implications of the royal succession, shown through the military’s seizure of political power, the politicisation of the monarchy and the power rearrangements within the palace, reaffirm the importance of the royal institution as an integral part of Thai politics. The real stake lies at the vision of the next monarch – whoever it will be – to ensure that the monarchy is compatible with democracy.

  1. A fragmented army?

As the royal transition has remained uncertain, the seemingly fragmented military may further complicate the succession. A rift is growing within Thailand’s military-royalist establishment, threatening the country’s stability and undermining prospects that the upcoming royal succession will unfold smoothly. On one side is an old guard of senior officers who gradually consolidated power during the long reign of Bhumibol. On the other is a new guard from a semi-autonomous elite military unit at the service of Queen Sirikit, which includes the leaders of the 2014 coup against the elected Yingluck government. The current Prime Minister, Prayuth, is a former commander of the 21st Infantry regiment, better known as the Queen’s Guard. Founded in 1950 to fight in the Korean War, it was later assigned to protect Sirikit. After rising to eminence within the regiment, in recent years Prayuth has sought to increase his political power, and now seems to challenge other military-royalist factions. It is known that the army has been an indispensable actor in Thai politics for decades, thanks largely to its close connection with the monarchy. Together the military and the royal family have worked to keep civilian governments weak in order to maintain more power themselves. During the Cold War, they joined forces to ward off Communist influence. Their alliance was reinforced in the 1980s, after Bhumibol appointed Prem Tinsulanonda, a general, to be prime minister. With that nomination, Prem became the head of what the political scientist Duncan McCargo has called the «network monarchy»: a political consortium of pro-monarchy groups that includes the military, conservative royalists, senior bureaucrats and big business.[15]

Prem stepped down in 1988, largely because of infighting within his government, but he remained influential behind the scenes. Notably, he advised Bhumibol during the turbulent period of 1991–92. After General Suchinda Kraprayoon, a member of the junta then in power, reneged on a promise not to become prime minister, there were pro-democracy protests, and then the military killed some demonstrators. Bhumibol stepped in, calling for a truce while keeping his distance from the army, and earning a reputation as a stabilising force and for being neutral. In 1998, Bhumibol appointed Prem to preside over the Privy Council, an advisory body that protects the monarchy’s interests and promotes its views. By that time, non-elected institutions like the Privy Council and the courts were exerting more and more influence in Thai politics. The power of Prem and his supporters in the network monarchy continued to grow until 2001. That year, Thaksin won the election by a landslide, thanks to a populist platform vowing to reduce rural poverty. Tensions between elected and non-elected institutions became an open conflict, as Thaksin threatened to recast the political landscape and challenge the domination of the monarchy and the military. He was ousted in 2006 in a coup widely believed to have been masterminded by Prem. Apparently, Prem has denied this.[16]

Thaksin was not the only loser, however. Soon the Prem faction found itself weakened by the emergence of an anti-coup movement, the so-called red-shirts, as well as anti-monarchist sentiment, which was growing as Bhumibol’s health deteriorated. Queen Sirikit, meanwhile, was becoming more politically active, partly to compensate for Bhumibol’s fading authority. Sirikit’s position has been reinforced in recent years with the promotion of men from the Queen’s Guard to key positions in the army. Prayuth was deputy army chief in May 2010 when the army cracked down on red-shirt protesters in Bangkok’s business district; a few months later, he became army chief. Most leaders of the 2014 coup are members of the Queen’s Guard.

Although Sirikit suffered a severe stroke in 2012, her loyalists remain powerful, and now seem ready to influence the royal succession. The Prayuth government apparently supports Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, whom Bhumibol designated as his heir apparent in 1972. Vajiralongkorn, for his part, seems to have endorsed Prayuth’s coup, as seen through his speech delivered at the inaugural session of the NLA in August 2014. The main reason was the fact that the Prince came to the realisation that to become the next king without support from the army would be difficult, if not impossible.

But the old guard within the network monarchy finds Vajiralongkorn lacking in gravitas. According to a 2010 U.S. diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks, Prem, the Privy Councillor Siddhi Savetsila and former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun expressed misgivings to the U.S. ambassador to Thailand about the prince becoming king. A note by the ambassador says Siddhi and Anand «implied the country would be better off if other arrangements could be made».[17] Siddhi suggested that Vajiralongkorn’s sister Princess Sirindhorn, who is well liked by the public, be made heir apparent instead.

Conservative royalists have also become increasingly critical of the military government. Prem told the media in January, «This country does not belong to Prayuth».[18] Anand recently declared in public that General Prayuth should «not to extend his rule too long».[19] Rumours of a countercoup are growing louder in Bangkok. Prayuth has responded by placing more members of the Queen’s Guard in major positions and has reportedly been orchestrating military promotions without consulting the Privy Council, even though it traditionally has had a say in important military appointments. However, Prem is not yet out of the picture. When Bhumibol passes, it will be up to the Privy Council to formally recommend the heir apparent to parliament for approval and then appointment to the throne. At that point it could nominate Sirindhorn instead of Vajiralongkorn. Even if it did endorse the prince, simply delaying that decision by a day would do great damage to his legitimacy as king. Fragmentation within the military-royalist complex is complicating the upcoming royal succession in Thailand. With the factions of Prayuth and Prem apparently favouring different candidates to the throne, the two men’s struggle could translate into power plays within the government, the army and the palace itself. And should the camp of the Queen’s Guard prevail and Vajiralongkorn accede to the throne, both the military and the monarchy would become even more politicised. This means that Thailand could become even less democratic. The coup of 2014 was staged to ensure that the power holders will get to manage the royal succession and to ensure that their political interests will be preserved at all cost.

  1. Thailand in the region

The coup of 2014 caused a considerable impact on the Thai economy with exports and domestic consumption still lacking strength. Although the military government initiated a 360-billion-baht stimulus package in October 2015, it failed to boost local economy mainly because of the lack of confidence in the military and the general fear that the junta would stay longer in politics. The fact that the first draft of the constitution was not approved, thus allowing the military to extend the election deadline, was a testimony to the junta wishing to remain in power. This led to a state of economic inertia in Thailand. Meanwhile, the hope that foreign investors, like those in China, would offer something more substantial, such as through a joint long-distance rail project, continued to remain unrealistic. As a result, the government was unable to raise the level of domestic demand.[20]

In the area of foreign relations, Thailand under military rule implemented a foreign policy that sought to find the country’s new legitimacy providers in the region in order to legitimise its regime. Thailand reached out to China, Myanmar and Cambodia to seek their support for the existence of the military government. The visits of Prime Minister Prayuth to Nay Pyi Taw and Phnom Penh in 2014 were politically meaningful because they renewed Thailand’s friendship with old enemies in the region. More importantly, it was strategic for Thailand to strengthen its ties with two neighbours which are also members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In other words, while ASEAN might have mixed responses to the coup in Thailand, and often been criticised by the international community for tolerating the Thai coup, the Thai government strove to informally set up a mini-club of dictatorship endorsed by both Myanmar and Cambodia. Here, China also played an important part in giving the Thai military regime a source of confidence. The Prayuth government attempted to diversify its foreign policy choices, and thus moved closer into the orbit of China at a time when Thailand has been under sanctions from the West, particularly from the United States.[21] This new balance of power, with China acting as a new regional hegemon working to challenge the old power like the United States, allowed the military government in Thailand to hold on to its anti-democratic agenda. It is a negative sign for the future of Thailand.

The United States, arguably Thailand’s most important ally, implemented an «interventionist policy» shortly after the coup by suspending US$4.7 million in financial assistance to the Thai army. Washington also excluded Thailand from an international maritime exercise held in June 2014, and downgraded Thailand’s Cobra Gold event, the largest annual military exercise in the Asia Pacific region. Other democratic nations and organisations took tougher action against the junta. The European Union, for example, froze bilateral cooperation, suspended all official visits to and from Thailand, halted the implementation of a broad partnership and cooperation agreement, and shelved talks on a trade deal. As mentioned earlier, amid these punitive measures, the junta found some comfort in Chinese friendship. Shortly after the coup, Prime Minister Prayuth was photographed shaking hands with Chinese businessmen, illustrating the government’s apparent belief that China could be used to offset the impact of Western sanctions. So far, China has responded favourably to the Thai approaches. Presenting itself as impartial in Thailand’s internal conflicts, China makes no pretence of promoting human rights or democracy. This firm posture is helpful to the junta, which knows that China will not promote internal dissent by seeking political reforms.

Thailand and China established diplomatic relations in 1975. Throughout the latter half of the Cold War, the two countries formed a loose military alignment against the communists in Indochina. Since then, bilateral relations have remained healthy thanks to the absence of territorial disputes, firm ties between the Thai royal family and the Chinese leadership, and the influence of Thailand’s well-integrated ethnic Chinese community. A Sino-Thai trade agreement, the first between China and a member of the ten-country ASEAN, took effect on 1 October 2003. Thailand has since then developed a military relationship with China that is beginning to resemble its security ties with the United States. Since the early 1980s, Bangkok has purchased American armaments and military-related equipment under this partnership at «friendship prices». Sino-Thai military links, meanwhile, are among the most developed in the region – second only to those of Myanmar, China’s quasi-ally. Many cabinet ministers and powerful businesses in Thailand have significant investments in China. Thailand’s Charoen Pokphand Group, one of Southeast Asia’s largest companies, has been doing business in China since 1949. Thai and Chinese conglomerates regularly exchange high-level visits and share business information. Increasing numbers of Thai students are learning Mandarin, prompting Beijing to dispatch a large number of language teachers to Thailand.

Overall, US interventionism seems to have pushed Thailand further into the Chinese sphere of influence. China’s non-interference policy and its concentration on making money rather than enemies has helped it steal a march on Western countries in the wake of the coup, allowing it to pull ahead in the subtle but intensifying competition for increased influence in Thailand. As a result, China was invited to invest in Thailand’s high-speed train and other infrastructure projects, although amid intense lobbying from Japanese and other companies, the projects have since become something of a political football ground. China’s pragmatism has also proven effective in cementing its relations with Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.

The United States, meanwhile, continues to goad the Thai leadership with interventionist comments. In January 2015, US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel visited Thailand and urged the military government to lift martial law and to return power to the Thai people. Russel’s remarks infuriated the generals, who see the US focus on democracy and human rights as a departure from Washington’s Cold War support for the military, the bureaucracy and the royal family as allies against communism. However, the United States clearly understands that this alliance has weakened following changes in the Thai political landscape in recent years. Washington has recognised that there are new players in Thai politics who are not aligned with the traditional elite, and has diversified its policy accordingly, reaching out to the so-called «red-shirt» supporters of Yingluck and her brother Thaksin, also a former prime minister. In effect, the United States is betting that its interventionist stance in favour of democracy will be a better long-term bet in Thailand than Beijing’s pragmatic support of the militarised status quo.

This is a high-stakes game for both Washington, which risks «losing Thailand» to China, and Bangkok, which may in the end find that life as a client of Beijing is both less comfortable and less effective than its alliance with the United States. For example, there are question marks over whether China can provide the international legitimacy that the US has given Thailand; whether it can guarantee Thailand’s security; and whether it can sustain the appearance of neutrality in the Thai conflict while doing business with the military government. In a broader context, a closer Sino-Thai relationship may also affect regional stability, especially if it encourages the formation of an alliance of non-democratic regimes, which would represent a dark hole at the heart of Southeast Asia. Worse, Chinese support for the Thai junta may strengthen its position and instil a degree of confidence that could prolong its rule despite international condemnation. That would be both a perverse outcome of Western interventionism and a tragedy for Thailand.[22] The upcoming royal succession with a shift in the political dynamism in Thailand may further intensify the rivalry between China and the United States in their attempt to retain their political footholds in the country.

  1. Conclusion

The traditional elites, of which the military is a part, often resort to their old trick in undermining the threats against their interests – through a military coup. The 2014 coup achieved that purpose, on the surface at least – in eliminating the threat of Thaksin and his political proxies. However, at this critical juncture of Thai politics, with the royal transition coming up, the military has become even more anxious in re-organising political power, to ensure that those interests of the monarchy and the military itself would be defended. So far, the Prayuth government has seemed to reach out to the heir apparent, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. Meanwhile, the Crown Prince himself has become increasingly politically active, based on his numerous public activities as well as his apparent endorsement of the use of lèse-majesté to protect his name. But the involvement in politics of the Crown Prince does not seem to guarantee that the monarchy is willing to depart from political affairs even when in reality he lacks the necessary qualities enjoyed by his more charismatic leaders. The fact that the new monarch is interested in collaborating with the military will not help improve the Thai situation. The power re-arrangement in the hands of the military and royal elites, without a broader involvement of the Thai public, could stir up a sense of resentment among Thais. This could lead to inevitable political clashes in the post-Bhumibol era. The likely pessimistic scenario emerging from the royal succession will cause an impact on the region, particularly in the context of the competition between the United States and China to maintain their influence in Thailand and generally in Southeast Asia.


[1] Samuel Issacharoff, Fragile Democracies: Contested Power in the Era of Constitutional Courts, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. 266.

[2] ‘Yingluck, 9 Ministers Removed from Office’, Bangkok Post, 7 May 2014.

[3] Andrew Walker, Thailand’s Political Peasants: Power in the Modern Rural Economy, Wisconsin and London: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2012, p. 23.

[4] Puangthong Pawakapan, ‘The Thai Junta’s Interim Constitution: Towards an Anti-Electoral Democracy’, ISEAS Perspective, No 45, 12 August 2014
( accessed 15 December 2015, p. 4.

[5] The 1992 Black May incident is referred to a clash between a pro-democracy movement and the military government of General Suchinda Kraprayoon, who took power and declared himself as prime minister. The protesters roamed the streets of Bangkok calling for Suchinda to step down. In response, the Suchinda government ordered the killing of the protesters, leading to 52 deaths and hundreds injured.

[6] Puangthong Pawakapan, ‘Will Thailand’s New Constitution be a Return to Authoritarianism’, ISEAS Perspective, No 3, 27 January 2015, p. 5 ( accessed 15 December 2015.

[7] As an attempt to remove Thaksin’s proxies from power, the Constitutional Court ordered Samak, in 2008, to step down on the charge of conflict of interests, since he was also working as a television chief while serving as Prime Minister. Shortly after, the Court employed to same tactic to overthrow Somchai Wongsawat, a prime minister and also brother-in-law of Thaksin, because one of the executive members of his party, the PPP, was accused of committing electoral fraud. In 2014, Yingluck was also forced to leave office on the grounds that she transferred a senior security official unfairly.

[8] ‘Thai PM’s Plan to Lift Martial Law with «Dictator» Ruling Sparks Concerns’, The Guardian, 31 March 2015.

[9] Andrew MacGregor Marshall, A Kingdom in Crisis, London: Zed Books, 2014, p. 215.

[10] Thongchai Winichakul, ‘The Monarchy and Anti-Monarchy: Two Elephants in the Room of Thai Politics and the State of Denial’, in Pavin Chachavalpongpun (ed.), «Good Coup» Gone Bad: Thailand’s Political Development’s Since Thaksin’s Downfall, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2014, p. 89.

[11] Andrew Walker, ‘A Royal Intervention?’, New Mandala, 27 November 2013 ( accessed 16 December 2015.

[12] In an email interview with Paul Chambers, Director of Research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs, Chiang Mai University, 21 January 2015.

[13] ‘National Legislative Assembly Opened’, Bangkok Post, 7 August 2014, accessed 16 December 2015.

[14] Lèse-majesté, or the crime of injury to royalty, is defined by Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, which states that defamatory, insulting or threatening comments about the king, queen and regent are punishable by three to fifteen years in prison.

[15] Duncan McCargo proposed that Thai politics is best understood in terms of political networks. The predominant network of the period 1973–2001 was centred on the palace, and is termed «network monarchy» which involved active interventions in the political process by Bhumibol and his proxies, notably former Prime Minister and current President of the Privy Council Prem Tinsulanond, together with groups of traditional elite and powerful businesses. See, Duncan McCargo, ‘Network Monarchy and Legitimacy Crises in Thailand’, The Pacific Review 18, 4 December 2005, p. 499.

[16] Panya Thiewsangwan, ‘Prem Denies any Involvement in Sept 2006 Coup’, The Nation, 28 March 2008 ( accessed 10 February 2016.

[17] ‘Thailand: Ambassador Engages Privy Council Chair Prem, Other «Establishment» Figures on Year Ahead’, Wikileaks, 25 January 2010.

[18] ‘Khamtokham Pah Prem Yam Pratednee Maichaipenkhong Khun Prayuth Won Yahployhai Baanmuangbadmang Ruamha Kohyuti’ (Words by words, Prem emphasizes this country does not belong to Prayuth. Do not let our country fall further into the conflict. We must find an end to it), Manager Online, 29 January 2015 ( accessed 16 December 2015.

[19] ‘Anand Tuan Big Tuu Yahyooyao’, (Anand warns Prayuth, Do not extend his rule), Post Today, 16 June 2015 ( accessed 16 December 2015.

[20] Tamaki Kyozuka, ‘Thai Economy Slow to Recover after Political Crisis’, Nikkei Asian Review, 17 February 2015 ) accessed 10 February 2016.

[21] Pavin Chachavalpongpun, ‘The Politics of International Sanctions: The 2014 Coup in Thailand’, Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 68, No.1,  Fall/Winter 2014, pp. 173-76.

[22] Pavin Chachavalpongpun, ‘Thailand’s Military Government Plays a New Diplomatic Game’, Nikkei Asian Review, 15 June 2015 ( accessed 10 February 2016.


Giorgio Borsa

The Founder of Asia Maior

Università di Pavia

The "Cesare Bonacossa" Centre for the Study of Extra-European Peoples


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