By Grace Guo
The deteriorating health of the long suffering King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand may very well play a significant role in answering the question of whether or not some semblance of normalcy will return to the country in the upcoming year. And the King’s health is definitely a key consideration in the long-term plans of the ruling junta’s leader and “interim” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest reigning monarch, has spent most of the past six years in hospital, emerging on rare occasions to return to his home, Chitralada Palace. He is reported to be currently undergoing treatment for fever, lung infection, blood infection and knee problems. Although his role is largely ceremonial, the King is revered like a deity in Thailand and has historically played a key stabilizing role in national politics – a role he was unable to assume since 2014 coup d’état because of his increased frailness.
While the King is still alive, it is expected that the ruling junta is not likely to call, or permit, an election. Expectations are that they will wait until after Bhumibol has passed, and will no doubt oversee the succession to the throne. The succession and transition are anticipated to be tumultuous and will cause further major upheavals in the Thai political structure. His offspring and King-in-waiting, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, is disliked by the Thai people for his eccentric lifestyle and love of gambling, as well as for keeping close ties to deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
The western world may aloofly observe the events surrounding the impending death of a monarch and the subsequent backroom machinations of choosing a successor, and consider it all morbidly amusing. But in a country where the law of lese majesté holds great sway, it is a significant event capable of changing the future of the nation in a very real manner, not to mention the fact that it can trample on the rights of the citizens. Witness the reality of a law that holds that critics of the monarchy are subject to exorbitant fines and imprisonment. Prayuth Chan-ocha knows all too well the manner in which succession and the vagaries of the law can change the fortunes and history of those involved. The law is being employed successfully to silence those bold enough to be critical of the monarchy, as well as those who might be careless enough to say something in jest. Witness the case of a hapless factory worker who was reckless enough to mock the king’s dog in December. He was charged with sedition, and is now facing decades in prison if found guilty. The law has been employed so well that there is wide spread concern that freedom of speech is all but non-existent in Thailand.
In pursuit of what appears to be the junta’s goal of orchestrating Thailand’s political future, the second part of its agenda involves the minimization and marginalization of the political power and influence of recently deposed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother, Thaksin, himself a deposed Prime Minister, who was ousted during a bloodless coup in 2006. He is now living in self-imposed exile.
Yingluck had been expected to appear before the European Parliament, where she was to address Eurocrats on the state of affairs in Thailand, after the European political body expressed concern for the future of democracy in Thailand. Her wings were clipped and her voice silenced however, when she was denied the right to leave the country by the junta, who claimed, among other things, that the invitation was fake. The speedbump was thrown in by the junta after the coup, when, fearful of her potential political comeback, the powers that be banned her from politics for five years and forbade her from travelling overseas without permission.
In fact, Yingluck has been mired in legal battles since her ouster, facing criminal charges last year by Thailand’s newly formed parliament, largely composed of junta-approved military members. As for her brother Thaksin, he has had his own share of time in a courtroom, having had both his diplomatic and regular passports revoked. An attempt to petition for an injunction against the state’s revocation was denied. As well, he has been spending time battling the Privy Council in court, alleging the council was instrumental in the May 2014 coup and then defending himself for allegedly defaming the army. Legal counsel for the army characterized Thaksin as a danger to the country.
Since the coup, junta leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has repeatedly promised to restore democracy to the country and hold elections. The promises have proved to be hollow, and at present he is planning for an election sometime in 2017. However, should King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s health hold out long enough, it is reasonable to expect Prayuth to push the promise of a return to democracy out another year or two. Sadly, at this pace there won’t be much of Thailand’s democracy to save by that time.