Giles Ji Ungpakorn
For years many Thai and Western commentators incorrectly claimed that King Pumipon was a powerful monarch who controlled the military, the judiciary and the civil service. If this were true, then there would be a serious power vacuum in the country today, months after the king’s death.
The fact of the matter is that no such power vacuum exists.
This important fact should be a wake-up call for academics and commentators to reassess their flawed analyses. Yet there has been total silence from those who once claimed that Pumipon was an all-powerful monarch.
Why is there no power vacuum today in Thailand?
It cannot be that Pumipon is still controlling things from the grave!!
No one with any intellect would try to explain it by saying that Wachiralongkorn had stepped in as the new King and was now exercising power instead of his dead father. As a clueless playboy, Wachralongkorn has the unenviable task of trying to behave in a regal manner. He was put on the throne by the military and conservative elites and he is totally beholden to them in every way, just as his father before him was beholden to them.
Of course the powerful elites have to throw Wachiralongkorn a few expensive bones to keep him sweet, including pandering to his vicious and demented whims, when it does not affect their power, and also giving him an enormous amount of wealth which was originally created by poverty stricken working people.
One of his whims is to spend most of his time outside Thailand, in his palace in Munich. This is what lies behind his demand to change the junta’s constitution so that he has flexibility in appointing others to sign laws on his behalf (or not) while he has a fun time abroad. Yet some misguided folk try to paint this as “royal meddling in politics”. The truth is that demanding to amend the military’s awful and authoritarian constitution to suit his personal lifestyle, is of little overall significance to the present state of democracy. It merely reflects the fact that he cannot be bothered with the tedious ceremonial duties of kingship and doesn’t want to live in Thailand. He wants the Crown, but not the job.
In some ways, the intermittent “exile” of Wachiralongkorn may be a good thing for the military and the elites. He can be out of the lime light when he lives abroad, causing less scandal, while the military can keep on using the monarchy for their own legitimacy.
To understand why there is no power vacuum in Thailand today, we have to understand the nature of the Thai ruling class and the source of its power.
Power at the top of society comes in two major forms: naked coercion and ideological legitimisation. Examples of naked coercion are the actions of the ruling class’ security forces. In Thailand this has included gunning down pro-democracy activists in the streets, numerous military coups and the use of the courts, the lèse majesté law, and the prison system to muzzle dissidents.
The Thai ruling class is a poisonous and vicious patron client network which draws in new recruits to its “elite feeding trough”, where fortunes are to be made at the expense of the hard-working poor. During Pumipon’s life, this vast parasitic organism maintained its legitimacy by creating a false image of the King as an all-powerful god and benefactor to “his people”.
The high profile ideological status of the King started from his systematic promotion by the military dictator Sarit Tanarat. Therefore the increasing importance of the monarchy after its initial overthrow in the 1932 revolution was closely connected to the need have an ideology to counter Communism in order to protect the status quo.
The use of “Nation, Religion and King” as a conservative ideology, where the King symbolised the “heart of the nation”, the head of religion and the embodiment of “all that is Thai”, has remained central to Thai ruling class ideology to this day. Socialisation of the population using this ideology is an attempt to create a population loyal to the generals, the top officials and the rich. Gross inequality is an integral part of this ideology.
The Thai ruling class, which is made up of the army, the capitalists and high-ranking officials, are a modern ruling class: conservative, anti-democratic and barbaric. It is not the King who is in charge of this bunch of thugs. It is they who use the symbolic role of the King to protect their interests. Therefore army generals, politicians, businessmen and privy councillors prostrate themselves on the ground and pay homage to the monarchy in order to protect the vital false images which underpin their ideology. Many have mistaken this play act as a sign of royal power. But this is only a shallow analysis.
There is no power vacuum today because the ruling class, especially the generals, have not lost their naked power of coercion in any way. In fact the demobilisation of opposition to the dictatorship by the Red Shirt leadership has only strengthened the power of the junta. In addition to this, the ruling class are still coasting along, using up the reserves of their royalist ideology left over from Pumipon’s time. However, at some point they will have to recharge their legitimising ideology. How they actually achieve this will be an important question on their minds given the real nature of the new king. For now they are hoping that fixing the political system into a 20-year straight jacket will ensure that their interests are protected.