Pavin Chachavalpongpun For The Straits Times

Thai Prince cleans house with eye on throne

The steps taken by Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn to replace Princess Srirasmi (right) with a more acceptable royal consort may be part of a deal the Prince has entered into with the traditional elite. Significantly, it appears to be part of the "h
The steps taken by Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn to replace Princess Srirasmi (right) with a more acceptable royal consort may be part of a deal the Prince has entered into with the traditional elite. Significantly, it appears to be part of the "housecleaning" in preparation for the Prince's royal transition. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

King Bhumibol Adulyadej celebrated his 87th birthday on Friday last week.

Enthroned in 1946, the King is currently the world's longest-reigning monarch.

For many decades, King Bhumibol was successful in reinventing himself and the royal institution, which was once unpopular and at risk of being overthrown.

Today, the King is much revered and well-respected. And the monarchy has emerged as the most powerful institution dictating the fate of the country.

But the King is frail and, since 2009, has been intermittently hospitalised. This signals the close of King Bhumibol's magical era.

For a long while, the traditional elite - made up of palace representatives, the military and influential bureaucrats - have indefatigably worked to consolidate the institution of the monarchy, as a way to protect their own political interests. Therefore, they are immensely worried in the twilight of King Bhumibol's reign. They lack confidence in the only heir apparent, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn.

Prince Vajiralongkorn has never been a favourite choice for the traditional elite because of his unconventional lifestyle. He is the opposite of his father.

Whereas King Bhumibol is seen as sacred and admired by the people, Prince Vajiralongkorn is viewed as scary and unpopular. These undesirable qualities effectively negate Prince Vajiralongkorn's moral authority - something that King Bhumibol has long enjoyed and has used to buttress his position of power.

Alienated by the traditional elite, Prince Vajiralongkorn formed a loose alliance with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. But as Thaksin's electoral successes increasingly posed a threat to royal prerogatives, he was eventually toppled in a coup in 2006. Yet, Prince Vajiralongkorn continued to assume that he could lean on the popular support derived from Thaksin's loyal "red shirt" members in the rural constituencies. In response, some red shirt members began to remould Prince Vajiralongkorn into a "democratic prince" against the authoritarian wing of the palace.

But the coup in May this year that deposed Thaksin's sister and former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra caused a shift in the Thai political order, which is now dominated by the military.

The coup was staged so that the traditional elite would be able to take charge of the looming royal succession. Because the monarchy has represented a key pillar of Thai politics, their fear is that the intimate ties between the heir apparent and the Shinawatras could curb their political hold.

Post-coup rapprochement

THAT post-coup new order in part compelled the Prince to switch his political loyalties. Indeed, in the past few months, there have been signs of rapprochement between the military and the Prince.

He presided over the inaugural session of the National Legislative Assembly in August, an act that seemed to legitimise the military government of General Prayuth Chan-ocha. So far, Prince Vajiralongkorn has never condemned the coup. This has caused much disappointment among the red shirts, who expected him to adopt a defiant stance against the military.

Last week, close relatives of Prince Vajiralongkorn's wife, Princess Srirasmi, were arrested in a purge of officials allegedly involved in corruption. Her uncle, former Central Investigation Bureau chief Pongpat Chayapan, was charged with graft involving alleged extortion and oil smuggling as well as lese majeste, while her three brothers, Natthapol, Sitthisak and Narong, were similarly accused of defaming the monarchy.

Soon after, Prince Vajiralongkorn requested the government to strip his wife's family of their royally bestowed name.

The BBC reported that the move was widely seen as a first step to divorce and that they were estranged, although they have continued to attend official functions together.

Significantly, this was a part of the "housecleaning" in preparation for the royal transition for Prince Vajiralongkorn.

It also meant that the Prince was keen to elevate his new companion, rumoured to have recently given birth to a boy, to become an official royal consort, and eventually queen of Thailand.

Inside the palace, Princess Srirasmi was never fully accepted as a royal consort due to her commoner roots and undignified past. Replacing her with a more acceptable choice may represent a part of a deal the Prince has entered into with the traditional elite.

But in so doing, he has further tainted his reputation as an indulgent prince. In 1996, he abandoned his second wife, Ms Yuvadhida Polpraserth, in the same way. She was accused of committing adultery with a palace officer and was forced to leave Thailand.

Succession planning

WHY does Prince Vajiralongkorn's personal life matter for the country? In the political context, the elimination of Princess Srirasmi does not only reflect the changing strategy of Prince Vajiralongkorn in his relations with the traditional elite, obviously for his own survival, but also the necessity of getting their backing for his enthronement.

More importantly, it also reaffirms that Prince Vajiralongkorn is ready to enter the succession process, and has assigned himself as the sole contender for the throne.

With the backing of the traditional elite, the royal succession could be more predictable, and the elite will be able to manipulate the next king for their own political purposes. Unfortunately, it could also mean that this fresh collaboration will continue to place the monarchy at the heart of Thai politics at the expense of the democratic process. The elite have striven to preserve the old kind of politics where the power of the monarchy overrules elective institutions. And Prince Vajiralongkorn, in tilting towards the current military government, helps materialise such an attempt.

Out of the royal spectacle have come some positive developments at the people's level.

Normally, speaking of issues related to the Thai monarchy is strictly prohibited under draconian lese majeste laws. Thais are not allowed to discuss royal matters, even when it directly affects their lives. But with the proliferation of social media, the people can no longer be gagged. Evidently, Thai media has made sensational reports on the incident.

Prince Vajiralongkorn's decision to strip his wife of her family name has thus gained much attention among the Thai public. Some feel sympathetic towards Princess Srirasmi, while some voice their concerns over the suitability of the Prince to become king.

But the latest palace drama has gradually normalised discussions on the monarchy, which in turn could help conform the behaviour of the royal family towards a more responsible and transparent path.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is associate professor at Kyoto University's Centre for Southeast Asian Studies and associate fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.