“And now for something completely different” – Monty Python
Recent news reports from Thailand revealed that Royal Princess Ubolratana—a sister of King Vajiralongkorn—had accepted the nomination of a political party to be its candidate for Prime Minister in upcoming elections. A few hours later, the candidacy was terminated when the King announced that his sister’s proposed foray into electoral politics was “highly inappropriate.” For most Americans, this bit of news sounded like a bit of exotic trivia. Exotic, yes—but not trivial. The story provides a window into the complex political and cultural dynamics of another country—one where the U.S. has significant strategic equities.
Thailand was ruled by an all-powerful monarch for centuries. Some of those kings were quite remarkable. The Broadway musical (and movie), “The King and I,” describes the efforts of a 19th century Thai monarch to educate himself and his court in the ways of the modern world. In 1932, a military coup stripped King Prajadhipok of his absolute power and installed a constitution that left the Royal family in place with only ceremonial roles. In 1935, the Thai King abdicated, and the throne passed to his 10-year-old nephew, Ananda Mahidol.
At the outset of World War II, the Japanese imperial army swept across Southeast Asia. Thailand’s military leader at the time cast his, and his country’s, lot with Japan. The Thai Ambassador in Washington was instructed to deliver a letter to the State Department declaring war on the U.S. However, the Ambassador somehow “lost” the letter. Instead, Thai students in the U.S. organized an anti-Axis, pro-Allied, “Free Thai” movement. With the defeat of Japan, the U.S. transported the Free Thai leaders to Bangkok, where they installed a postwar, pro-American government.
In 1946, the young king died of a gunshot wound in the palace under circumstances that remain obscure. Suddenly and unexpectedly, his younger brother, Bhumibol, born in Boston and studying in Switzerland, became King. The throne that Bhumibol ascended had lost not only power, but with it, much prestige and respect. The young King, with a beautiful Queen, a son and three daughters, set out to make the monarchy relevant to modern Thailand. He did so by devoting himself to the welfare of the Thai people through myriad charitable projects. In the process, he became an important rallying point against communist appeals, particularly in the rural countryside.
As communist guerrilla movements spread across Southeast Asia, the U.S. and Thailand became close allies in the anti-communist campaign. Thai troops served with Americans in both Korea and Vietnam. Through the Cold War, working relations between the Pentagon and CIA and their Thai counterparts remained very close.
In time, King Bhumibol became a deeply revered figure across the entire spectrum of Thai society. Recurring military coups (usually bloodless) displacing elected governments were a familiar part of Thai politics during this period. On more than one occasion, the King intervened to persuade the generals to return to their barracks earning the monarchy a paradoxical reputation as a guardian of Thai democracy.
By the late 1990s, circumstances began to change. The King’s health was failing, and a new force arose on the Thai political scene in the person of Thaksin Shinowatra, a telecom tycoon who entered, and soon dominated, Thai politics. First elected Prime Minister in 2001, Thaksin mobilized the economically disadvantaged (and politically marginalized) peasantry into a force—one that seemed like a mortal threat to the privileged, traditional elites centered in Bangkok. Those same elites saw the monarchy and the military as guardians of a traditional order—and Thaksin even seemed to be challenging the authority of the King. The result was a decade-long civil confrontation pitting pro-Thaksin “Red Shirts” against conservative “Yellow Shirts.” In 2014, a decisive military coup deposed an elected pro-Thaksin government and replaced it with Martial Law. Now, after almost five years, new elections under a revised constitution (written by the military) will take place next month.
In the meantime, on October 13, 2016, King Bhumibol died. The succession to his only son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, would seem to be a straightforward affair. But it was not. The personal reputation of the Crown Prince was deeply negative. Moreover, there were suggestions that, as Crown Prince, he had developed close ties to Thaksin. For the military and the Bangkok elites, this was disquieting in the extreme. Even before the King’s death, the military leadership took steps to draw the Crown Prince into their orbit. Nevertheless, there were real uncertainties as the Crown Prince became King Maha Vajiralongkorn—particularly as the new monarch has acted as though he intends to wield some real power. The Crown Prince surprised the junta by countermanding the publicly announced schedule for his coronation. He also reportedly forced some changes in language on royal prerogatives in the new constitution.
Against this backdrop, the sudden announcement that a member of the Royal family would be a candidate for Prime Minister on behalf of a pro-Thaksin party was nothing short of a bombshell. The King’s reaction has certainly come as a great relief to the generals and their supporters in Bangkok.
The Pentagon has watched all this closely. When the 2014 coup occurred, U.S. military sales and other support for Thailand were jeopardized by U.S. laws that require sanctions in response to coups that overthrow elected governments. The election will remove those requirements. The strategic stakes are real. Thailand sits at the very center of Southeast Asia and the growing contest for influence between the U.S. and China. Most of Thailand’s economic and political elite can trace their family origins back to China. Thaksin, as Prime Minister, was overtly pro-China. Thailand, today, is under heavy pressure to welcome Chinese military assistance and large-scale infrastructure projects. One of the most ambitious of these is a proposed canal to be cut across the Kra Isthmus in Thailand’s extreme south—to be built with Chinese money and Chinese companies for Chinese commercial (and military) use. Reportedly, the primary resistance to this proposal had come from King Bhumibol. Now, the Kra Isthmus may be an indicator of what to expect from King Vajiralongkorn.