Five Ways Thailand's New King Has Made His Mark

Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn's has made his presence keenly felt since ascending the throne in 2016.
Monday 6 May 2019
What the Thai King is bringing to the table. Photo: AFP

From taking direct control of a fortune to purging the palace to tweaking the constitution and issuing commands before a key election. The moves have given Thais a rare window into a highly secretive palace, whose backroom politics and views on the direction of the kingdom are more often relayed to the public through symbolism and conjecture.

Elaborate Buddhist ceremonies began Friday in preparation for the 4 May coronation of the 66-year-old king of Thailand – known as Rama X of the Chakri dynasty. Here are five ways royal power has been felt under Thailand’s new king so far:

Taking back the bank.

King Vajiralongkorn inherited one of the world’s richest monarchies from his beloved father Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in October 2016. Among his successor’s earliest moves was to assert full, personal control over the Crown Property Bureau (CPB), which has billions in assets in banks, companies and prime real estate.

The CPB committee was previously headed by the finance minister in an arrangement that gave a sheen of public oversight of a trust some experts estimate to be worth US$30 billion to US$60 billion. The CPB’s full assets are privately held and remain a closely guarded secret.

Purging the palace.

Several long-standing palace aides were swiftly removed or replaced as the new king ascended the throne. He also appointed several new members to the influential privy council as well as a new lord chamberlain – the point man for all palace affairs.

Thailand New King (5)
Photo: AFP

“One of the most striking changes has been the reorganisation of the royal house,” Michael Vatikiotis, Asia director of NGO Centre of Humanitarian Dialogue.

Some palace grandees were stripped of ranks and punished for alleged misdemeanours. Those included a former deputy chief of staff Chitpong Thongkum, sacked and sentenced to five and a half years for royal defamation for making “false claims” about the king for personal gain.

The monarchy, considered sacred and untouchable in Thai society, is shielded from criticism by some of the toughest royal insult legislation in the world. Media must self-censor, even when reporting on allegations of lese-majeste.

In 2014, several relatives of his third wife were jailed after being convicted under the royal insult law. But the law has not been widely used since his ascension to the throne, a softer line that has been picked up by the public.

Above politics.

A 2014 coup ousted then-premier Yingluck Shinawatra’s administration. The generals introduced a new constitution three years later.

The military said the charter would end political unrest and corruption, though critics say it offers Thais a form of neutered democracy. Any major legal chances in Thailand require the king’s signature.

King Vajiralongkorn ordered rewrites to articles that enhance royal powers. The changes include a vaguely worded clause that says any unforeseen issues should be handled based on “tradition”. They also scrap the need for the king, who spends much of his time in Germany, to appoint a regent when abroad.

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Photo: AFP

While Thailand’s constitutional monarchy is nominally above politics, Vajiralongkorn has taken actions that many see as smudging the line. Before the 24 March election, he torpedoed a bid by his older sister to become prime minister at the head of an anti-junta party, calling it “highly inappropriate” in a rare royal command.

And hours before polls opened, another palace statement urged the public to vote for “good people” – a phrase most often attached to the arch-royalist political elite and their allies.

Haircuts, salutes and vows.

Discipline, protocol and loyalty are virtues state officials say the king insists upon, especially among the security agencies he now controls. Vajiralongkorn reminded members of his beefed-up royal guard in April that their duty was to “preserve the nation, country, and monarchy”.

The army introduced a new salute under Vajiralongkorn in which soldiers must puff out their chests and jerk their heads to the side. And the country’s entire police force has adopted a uniform crew-cut at the king’s request.

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Photo: AFP

But the physical control of state security has been backed up by an adroit strategic play. King Vajiralongkorn, a pilot who served in the armed forces, has shown he is “very adept in the management of the junta and the army”, according to Thai politics expert Paul Chamber from Naresuan University.

Whither democracy?

Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932 during a bloodless coup. The years since then have been punctuated by coups and instability.

For decades a plaque commemorating the uprising ending the king’s absolute power was embedded in Bangkok’s Royal Plaza. But six months after Vajiralongkorn succeeded his father, the plaque went missing.

Though no official explanation has ever been given, the plaque was later replaced with words of blessing to the kingdom and reminding Thais to remain loyal to the “nation, religion, king”. But it omitted references to the revolution itself.

Source: AFP

Related: How Free and Fair are Thailand’s Elections?