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For Thailand in 2018, newly crowned king, general elections and national integration? — Michael J. Montesano

JANUARY 1 — Thailand will begin 2018 with two significant events on the horizon.

The first is the coronation of King Vajiralongkorn, Rama X in the 236-year-old Chakri dynasty.

The second is the elections for the lower house of the Thai parliament that the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta has indicated will take place by November.

Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn takes a part in the royal cremation procession of late King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Grand Palace in Bangkok on October 26, 2017. — Reuters pic
Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn takes a part in the royal cremation procession of late King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Grand Palace in Bangkok on October 26, 2017. — Reuters pic

On one level, the significance of each of these events seems clear. While the precise date of King Vajiralongkorn’s coronation remains unknown, the elaborate ceremony that marked King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s cremation last October suggests that ritual and spectacle intended to reaffirm the centrality of the monarchy to Thai life will accompany this event.

And, if held, the polls promised for late 2018 will return the country to parliamentary democracy more than four years after the May 2014 coup d’état.

On another level, the significance of these two events and their role in making 2018 a year of consequence for Thailand may not be so straightforward.

The long reign of King Bhumibol played an integrative function for Thailand. Activities undertaken during that reign knit into the Thai nation a countryside characterised by relative poverty, poor communications and insecurity related in part to communist insurgency.

During decades of rapid economic growth, it integrated Thais of Chinese ethnicity into the country’s social mainstream as the core of its new urban middle class.

In meeting the challenges of the times, these achievements earned the monarchy the centrality that the planners of King Vajiralongkorn’s coronation will seek to reaffirm.

What that coronation cannot do, however, is define the function of the Thai monarchy during the new reign, a reign whose challenges will be different to those of the past.

Since the demise of his father, King Vajiralongkorn has been far from passive. But he has devoted his attention above all to matters relating to the management and reordering of royal affairs and to the relationship of the monarchy to the government.

He has not yet begun publicly to define an overarching mission for his reign.

Observers of the country will therefore do well during the year ahead to look past the spectacle of the approaching coronation for indications of what that mission may be.

Will the king and his advisors move to address the social and political divisions that precipitated the deep crises of 2006, 2010 and 2014? Will King Vajiralongkorn thus stake out an integrative role of his own? Or is it possible that, in the wealthier and more complex Thailand of today, such an overarching national role for the monarchy is no longer feasible, and that the monarchy would do best to focus on different, narrower challenges?

One wonders, for example, if a physically active man who is coming to the throne in the middle of his seventh decade of life might not have a unique opportunity to motivate the country to confront the challenges of a rapidly aging population.

Of course, narrowing the scope of royal activity to focus on such issues, as do the constitutional monarchies of Europe, would also create a vacuum for other institutions and ideologies to fill.

That possibility introduces another matter on which the approach of King Vajiralongkorn’s coronation in 2018 ought to concentrate our attention.

Among the aspects of royal affairs to which the new king has turned his attention is the spectacularly wealthy Crown Property Bureau, over which a law introduced last July gave him effective control.

Two of the firms in which the bureau has substantial holdings, Siam Cement and the Siam Commercial Bank, number among the dozen Thai private-sector giants participating in the NCPO government’s “Pracharat” or “people’s state” scheme.

This scheme gives these corporate giants an unprecedented formal role in supporting, stimulating and guiding economic activity in provincial Thailand. It is an unmistakable indication that the NCPO has approaches to national integration of its own very much in mind.

If the novel “Pracharat” scheme is meant to give Thai big business an integrative role in the Thailand of the future, then another of the NCPO’s approaches to national integration owes more to the past.

The period since the 2014 coup has seen remarkable quiescence replace the extreme politicisation and turmoil of the previous eight years.

As a recent paper prepared for the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute by the influential Thai scholar Puangthong Pawakapan notes, those same years witnessed the revival of the military’s Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC)—a crucial component of Thai counter-insurgency campaigns between the 1960s and the 1980s.

The activities of ISOC have enabled the NCPO to monitor and constrict opposition political forces during the past three and half years. Those activities help account for the apparent political quiescence that has overtaken Thailand since the most recent coup.

To view ISOC as primarily a tool of political control is a mistake.

It is, rather, a tool of depoliticisation, the embodiment of an ideological orientation on the part of the Thai military that seeks to integrate Thai citizens into national affairs without reference to political parties and elections.

The parties that contest any Thai elections held in 2018 will operate under onerous new legal restrictions. Voters will elect their Members of Parliament through a complex “mixed-member apportionment” system designed to prevent any single party winning a dominant share of seats in that house.

MPs will share power with a senate whose members will initially be appointees of the NCPO. The consequent relative weakness and perhaps limited relevance of parliament will reflect the depoliticising agenda of the junta.

Do the national elections possibly on the horizon in 2018 then even matter at all?

Yes, they do, and they matter precisely because they will represent an important element of the NCPO’s effort to introduce a political order of lasting quiescence in Thailand.

The outcome of those elections and the functioning of the parliament that results will put that effort to the test.

Of course, with polls anticipated only in the last few months of the year, we must also bear in mind the possibility that a popular mood increasingly focused on economic woes and official corruption will bring an ever earlier test to the regime of quiescence and depoliticisation that the NCPO would foist on Thailand. — TODAY

*Michael J. Montesano is co-coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

**This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

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