As Thailand's troubles grow, the King moves to bolster his image

King Vajiralongkorn automatically inherited vast power and wealth when he ascended the throne in 2016.
King Vajiralongkorn automatically inherited vast power and wealth when he ascended the throne in 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG) - After political and economic instability saw unprecedented demands for reform of the Thai monarchy, King Maha Vajiralongkorn is seeking to burnish his image in what is shaping up as another year of tension in the country.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha oversees an economy with tourism decimated by the coronavirus pandemic, factories shedding workers and exporters slammed. Farmers have struggled under the worst drought in four decades. Gross domestic product contracted an estimated 6.6 per cent last year.

While some recovery is forecast for 2021, it's set to be relatively anemic for an economy that's been sluggish for years. A new wave of coronavirus infections has seen an extension of a state of emergency until the end of February.

Meanwhile, Thailand's biggest opposition party plans to pursue a no-confidence vote against the government for its alleged "mismanagement" of the country, including the Covid-19 response.

Looming over everything is the months of rallies where protesters have openly criticised the monarchy, Thailand's most powerful institution. Right now the streets are relatively quiet - with small protests over the weekend - but student leaders have vowed to return until their demands are addressed: Less royal power, a more democratic constitution and the resignation of Mr Prayuth, a former army chief who staged a coup in 2014.

King Vajiralongkorn has boosted his presence in Thailand since the unrest broke out. He returned in October from Germany, where he had spent much of his reign. The king and his entourage have since attended religious ceremonies, handed out diplomas to graduates, greeted kneeling supporters clad in yellow shirts, and even swept the floor at one of his charity projects.

While King Vajiralongkorn automatically inherited vast power and wealth when he ascended the throne in 2016, many Thais also subscribe to a concept of informal authority - what Buddhists term "barami," or virtue - that must be earned rather than bequeathed. Over the course of his 70-year reign, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej accumulated and demonstrated his own barami.

"The moral authority and informal power of King Bhumibol was not transferable," said Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. "There is not the same kind of ability to summon the different sides to put an end to conflict. In fact, the opposite is happening - the monarchy has become a party in the conflict. This is something that is very alarming."

During one appearance in early November, King Vajiralongkorn called Thailand "the land of compromise" in a rare public comment to foreign reporters. The Bureau of the Royal Household did not respond to a request for comment and subsequent calls to the Bureau went unanswered.

Unlike past tumult - Thailand has had about a dozen coups in the last century - the protesters aren't seeking power for themselves: They want the military and monarchy to become more accountable to the country's 70 million citizens.

The stakes both politically and economically are high: Even before the unrest, Thailand's wealth gap had widened, while poverty was on the rise. A 2019 study by the Bank of Thailand's research institute found about 36 per cent of corporate equity is concentrated in the hands of just 500 people.

The government has so far avoided a bloody crackdown like those during some past demonstrations, although at least a dozen protest leaders face charges of insulting the monarch, which carry prison terms of as many as 15 years.

Mr Prayuth's administration is enforcing existing laws and hasn't focused on using one particular statute to target protesters, government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said when asked about use of the lese majeste law.

Mr Sulak Sivaraksa, a Buddhist activist who has studied the monarchy for decades, said King Vajiralongkorn already has moral authority among royalists and is attempting to now burnish his image with the rest of society. He noted the king was "very shy" compared with his father, even though he similarly carries out charitable activities.

"A lot of people criticise the king because he spent too much time abroad and too little time within the kingdom - I think he realises that now," Mr Sulak, 87, said. "People used to be afraid of him you know, but now he walks around and talks to people, allowing people to photograph him and his royal family and having a good chat with them. I think that earned him a very good reputation."

Traditionally the level of esteem of a Thai monarch has depended on adherence to ten virtues of kingship, including generosity, self-sacrifice, honesty and integrity.

During his lifetime, King Bhumibol was careful to appear in step with ordinary Thais even as he oversaw a fortune worth an estimated US$40 billion (S$53.08 billion). He met often with hill tribesmen and farmers, sponsoring programmes aimed at cutting opium production and bringing irrigation development to far-off regions.

King Bhumibol preached a lifestyle of moderation befitting his semi-divine status and spiritual role within Buddhism, the religion of more than 90 per cent of all Thais. In the last four decades of his life, King Bhumibol travelled outside Thailand only once to preside over the opening of a bridge crossing into neighbouring Laos.

At the apex of his power in 1992, King Bhumibol intervened - despite limited legal authority - to end deadly clashes between the military and protesters, Mr Paul Handley wrote in his 2006 book, "The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand's Bhumibol Adulyadej."

"King Bhumibol had accrued the authority to summon the country's most powerful men to his feet and, with a few deliberately spoken words, expel them from politics," Mr Handley wrote.

Married four times, his son's personal life has for years been the subject of gossip. In July 2019, he designated an official royal consort for the first time in almost half a century, three months after he announced his fourth wife Suthida Bajrasudhabimalalakshana as queen. Shortly afterward he stripped the consort of her titles, only to reinstate them again last year.

Since taking the throne, King Vajiralongkorn has spent most of his time out of the country while taking command of some army units and gaining greater control of the Crown Property Bureau's assets worth tens of billions of dollars through legal changes he approved. He also intervened in politics, rebuking a popular ex-leader who is now in exile but still holds sway over the country's main opposition party.

While the previous king's interventions brought stability, they also often validated the military's role in politics, said Dr Michael Montesano, coordinator of the Thailand studies programs at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

"The variant of stability that King Bhumibol's moral authority allowed him to enforce is part of what's led Thailand to this dead end, and part of what's created the order that these young people find so unacceptable," he said.

Student Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, a 22-year-old protest leader, said King Vajiralongkorn must do more to attain the "barami" of his father.

"If they want people to love them and have popularity, they have to work and let people see what they are doing for them," she said. "If the monarchy could do its job and gain respect that way, I will respect it."