Reorienting the palace-military partnership

If the palace propaganda machine has had to re-vamp itself to deal with the new king, spare a thought for the pundits. For those guessing what’s going on inside the palace or even in the king’s head, the current situation must seem quite at odds with some of the predictions made.

Reuters reports on the new reign. Its point is that the new king “is putting an assertive stamp on his rule.” They mean “reign,” but some might think there’s a move to make a reign a “rule.”

The report says that “King Vajiralongkorn has made it clear to the generals running the country that he will not just sit in the background as a constitutional figurehead…”.

Given Vajiralongkorn’s past actions, reorganizing the palace, being open in promoting favorites and his propensity for headstrong actions, as well as the long period of the old king’s ill-health, we doubt the generals have been surprised. If they were, this indicates their political incapacity.

The king’s father was in incessant political player, so the mold was set for another interventionist monarch. In addition, the deals the junta has done with King Vajiralongkorn show that this king will have more legal powers to intervene.

That matters in Thailand, where relationships between monarchy, army and politicians have long determined the stability of Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy and America’s oldest regional ally.

Academic Paul Chambers reckons the king “has proven himself to be very adept at managing the junta and the military…”. Another academic, Eugenie Mérieau states that the relationship between the king and junta “is at least one of obedience…”.

We kind of get what that means. In fact, we guess that, as was the case with his father, Vajiralongkorn is in a partnership that involves mutual back-scratching that maintains society’s hierarchical social order that pours wealth into the purses of the loyalist and royalist elite.

That does not mean there won’t be tensions. For example, the king’s call for changes to the draft constitution may have been something of a surprise for the junta. Yet the process has publicly demonstrated a new king’s real political power and an important piece of political theater as the junta showed obedience. That’s good  for both sides of the partnership, especially as the junta looks to its political longevity.

It’s also risky for the palace if the political winds shift.

At the moment, though, with former junta members on the Privy Council, the links with the junta and the tools for the “management” of the relationship are in place.

That’s why the Reuters report can state:

None of more than two dozen serving or former officials, military officers, parliamentarians, diplomats or analysts that Reuters spoke to for this story saw any immediate threat to that balance of power.

The report notes that King Vajiralongkorn “started from a very different place to his father.” Mentioning his erratic and turbulent “private” life, it is noted that Vajiralongkorn has a strong military background, having had military training and involvement since he was 18 years old. Some of his military “service” was with the King’s Guard, which now has considerable clout in government and in the palace.

All of this should mean he feels very comfortable with the military running the country’s politics. But the king is erratic, headstrong and conspiratorial, so nothing is permanent for him. And, his reputation for strong-arm tactics means it is walking on eggshells for those close to him.

As the report observes, the king has been quick to rearrange the palace:

Over 20 appointments and promotions have been made by the new king and published in the Royal Gazette.

This includes reshuffling senior members of the household, many of whom had held posts for decades under King Bhumibol, and promoting military officials with ties to the new king.

Among other notable military promotions was Suthida Vajiralongkorn na Ayudhya within the King’s Own Bodyguard. Often seen at the king’s side, though not publicly designated as his consort, she became a general on the day he took the throne.

All of this means that the pundits have a new lease on life as palace tasseographers.

Already some of them read royalty into too much. The example in the report is of former reporter turned reconciliation guru Michael Vatikiotis of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. Some of his history of consulting on “reconciliation” is here and here.

He reckons that he sees “sense of urgency with regard to reconciliation that some politicians say stems from the new king’s call for peace and unity…”. He states: “The military government is under some pressure to deliver on the king’s request, which may even speed up the transition back to civilian government.” That sounds so last reign….

Monarchies have several weaknesses. One is that they are surrounded by hangers-on who are afraid to comment on the king’s lack of clothing. Another is the hangers-on to the hangers-on who try to manufacture outcomes by using “signs” from the palace. And another is the personality of the monarch which means that for good or ill, all reigns are highly personalized.

All of these challenge the Thai king and his relationship with the generals.

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