King Rama X’s refusal to give royal assent to the junta penned constitution highlights the risk of a growing rift between monarch and military in Thailand.
Uncertainty has surrounded Thai politics ever since the country’s 2014 coup. The junta government has spent the last two years working on introducing a new constitution. With only weeks before its implementation, the military government has experienced an unexpected setback, namely in the form of Thailand’s new monarch. Specifically, King Rama X has refused to give royal assent to the new constitution, as he disagrees with several elements which aim to limit royal power.
This move has caught the government off guard as it expected the king to endorse the new constitution. While the possibility of a complete rejection was very unlikely, the government also did not expect the king to pick and choose elements to strike down. Consequently, the government announced on January 10th that it had begun tweaking the constitution following the king’s reservations.
Thailand’s new king refuses to approve constitution
This blunt check on the junta government by Rama X is an interesting development in Thai politics, and a significant departure in royal conduct. The late Rama IX long maintained the illusion that the monarchy was above politics, while exercising significant influence behind the scenes. This stance allowed the monarchy to remain a legitimizing and well respected force in Thai power dynamics. By ostensibly staying above the political fray, the monarchy avoided being implicated in popular discontent resulting from Thailand’s see-saw between military and civilian rule and the 19 constitutions and 20 accompanying coups which have come and gone since 1930.
Consequently, the new king’s public rebuke of the junta government upsets longstanding norms in which the monarchy acts as kingmaker, legitimizing the often short-lived regimes. The king’s public rejection of parts of the constitution directly undermines the legitimacy of the junta government, which has invested significant political capital in, as well as stymied criticism of, its new constitution.
Given the role of the monarchy in legitimizing successive Thai governments, there are concerns that the ascension of the new king will trigger a power struggle between the military and monarchy. This is important because the king is the nominal head of the military, which in turn has an explicit mandate to protect the monarchy against all threats both foreign and domestic, as well as to maintain the sovereignty of the state with the king as head of state.
Given the popularity of the monarchy, if tensions between the military and monarchy come to a head, a serious question of loyalty emerges – a question that many ordinary soldiers will be hard pressed to answer.
It is interesting to look at the clauses which the king objected to in detail, as these shed further light on Thailand’s power dynamics. The first objection surrounds giving the constitutional court final arbitration powers during a political crisis; this role has traditionally been filled by the monarch. Given the influence of the military and its patronage networks, transferring arbitrator status to the court would give the junta the deciding vote during crises. This is especially poignant, for if the monarchy becomes the military’s rival then the king’s final arbitration status puts the armed forces at a distinct disadvantage in any hypothetical showdown.
Another point of contention for the monarchy was the clause which would require some royal proclamations to be countersigned by a minister. This again would increase the government’s influence on royal proceedings. There is an interesting wrinkle in this face-off, as the king’s opposition to these two proposed amendments disappoints both the junta government as well as Thai democrats hoping for the new ruler to take a back seat in politics.
Can King Rama X rule in absentia?
The main objection raised by the king concerns the proposed requirement to appoint a regent when out of the country. This is an interesting element that deserves further elaboration. Firstly, while Thai monarchs have appointed regents in the past when away, these were very rare (and short-term) affairs. King Rama X on the other hand called for the language of the clause to altered to “shall or shall not appoint a regent” thus allowing him the option to forgo the procedure. This is of vital importance for two reasons.
Firstly, while the new monarch is flexing his muscles vis-a-vis the military, he is not foolish enough to totally alienate the junta government, and has filled the privy council with a raft of generals and other senior military figures.
Under Thai law, the president of the privy council becomes the regent should the monarch be absent or incapacitated. The current president is Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda (pictured), who already served as regent from October to December 2016 following the death of Rama IX.
What makes this situation unique is that King Rama X has already expressed his desire to send most of the year ruling from his residence in Germany, where his son is studying – indeed he has already made two trips to Germany since his father’s death. Under the proposed clause the new king’s choice of residence would necessitate a regent to rule throughout most the year in his absence, giving said regent enormous influence and clout.
Specifically, with the king away, regent Tinsulanonda would be able to wield the country’s harsh lese-majeste laws to stifle any dissent – be it anti-royalist or anti-military – as Gen. Tinsulanonda would have one foot in each sphere.
Other recent developments are already undermining freedom of the press in Thailand, with a new draft law set to mandate the acquisition of state approved media licenses prior to employment in the sector. Of particular concern for free speech advocates is the loose definition of “public interest, public morals or law and order” employed in the legislation to validate state intervention. This new law would augment existing barriers to press freedom in Thailand including nominally independent regulatory bodies wielding political influence, as well as burdensome and vague content requirement regulations. To further complicate matters, Facebook has begun censoring posts in Thailand, following a meeting between the junta government and Mark Zuckerberg in November.
A royal problem – what to do about the regent
The king is obviously concerned about empowering a regent, as have many monarchs throughout history. The additional element to this story is the fact that Rama X is said to be sympathetic to the Thai populists whom the military twice removed from power in 2006 and 2014. In both instances the country was ruled by members of the powerful Shinawatra business family. Both Thaksin and his sister Yingluck ruled the country, and both were ousted by the military. As a result the rivalry between the pro-Shinawatra populist Red Shirt movement which has strong rural support and the military has dominated Thai politics for over a decade.
If suspicions of the king’s sympathies are true, this adds another reason why the king does not want to further empower a regent. This is because Red Shirt leaders have claimed that Gen. Tinsulanonda sponsored the 2006 coup. This long-standing allegation has come to the fore yet again as several senior Red Shirt leaders were handed sentences on January 9th for their involvement in a 2007 demonstration against Prem Tinsulanonda: an upcoming appeal to the Supreme Court has been announced by the group.
Whether a serious rift between the military and monarchy will emerge remains to be seen; however, the king’s refusal to grant assent does have some concrete ramifications. The king’s objection will necessitate changes, delaying the general election scheduled for 2017. Prime Minister and junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha has already announced that elections will have to take place after the King Rama X’official coronation, which itself can only happen after his father’s elaborate cremation ceremony in October. This means the election will be pushed back to 2018, further delaying the long promised return to civilian government, leading to more uncertainty and instability in the short term.