News analysis

New Thai king makes presence felt with charter request

His intervention raises questions about ties with the military, future political landscape

Portraits of Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn now adorn government offices, alongside those of his parents. His flood relief kits have been distributed to affected families in the south. But the new monarch has asserted his presence most visibly through his recent request to amend the draft Constitution that was almost a done deal, having already sailed through a national referendum last August.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha broke the news on Tuesday, stressing that the changes requested had nothing to do with the rights of citizens, only the authority of the 64-year-old king. Deputy Premier Wissanu Krea-ngam revealed that the articles to be amended include those that detail what the government should do in a crisis, and the way laws are formalised.

The legal implications, even for a coup-installed government which grants itself absolute power, are more convoluted. The carefully worded draft Constitution is the second to be drawn up under this military administration and is set to expire on Feb 6 without the king's endorsement. To keep it alive, the appointed legislators convening tomorrow are expected to amend the interim charter in three consecutive sittings. This temporary Constitution, now in force pending the promulgation of a new one, is also expected to be amended to remove the need for the monarch to appoint a regent when he is not in the country, or unable to perform his duties.

In a kingdom where power negotiations are rarely made in public, the monarch's intervention has raised questions about relations between the palace and the military, and about the future political landscape of Asean's second-largest economy.

The celebrated 70-year reign of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, was buttressed by symbiotic relationships with key military leaders. One of them was 96-year-old General Prem Tinsulanonda, who headed the late monarch's Privy Council, and was similarly tapped by King Maha Vajiralongkorn to lead his council of advisers. The current monarch has also drawn several junta-linked men into his Privy Council - former justice minister Paiboon Kumchaya, former education minister Dapong Ratansuwan, former army chief Teerachai Nakvanich and former assistant army chief Kampanat Ruddit. But analysts, who decline to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter, say these appointments are no guarantee the status quo will be maintained.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha (in the back row, with head lifted) and Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanonda (with pink sash) prostrating before the newly appointed Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn in Bangkok on Dec 1 last year, following the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Public discussion about the royal family in Thailand is constrained by its lese majeste law, which allows for up to 15 years' jail for each count of insult or libel against the monarch.

"Each king has a different character and I think this current king sees this amendment as important to him," said Siam University law academic Ekachai Chainuvati, who points out that past Thai Constitutions have required the sitting monarch to sign off on all laws anyway. 

Despite official assertions to the contrary, a constitutional amendment could delay the elections yet again. Polls can take place only after the promulgation of a new Constitution, and the chances of them taking place at the end of this year - as promised by General Prayut - now appear slim, say analysts.

In addition, the government is preoccupied with preparations for an elaborate cremation ceremony for King Bhumibol, to be held late this year. His remains, ensconced in the Grand Palace since his death in October, continue to draw masses of Thais wishing to pay their last respects to the revered patriarchal figure. 

This draft Constitution, if approved, will be Thailand's 20th in its 85 years as a constitutional monarchy. The country's most recent coup in 2014 put an end to a decade of political turmoil marked by tussles between the popularly elected government supported by exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and royalist, urban-based elites who threw their weight behind street protests that triggered military intervention. The draft Constitution would have crimped the influence of the former faction, while giving military appointees control over the entire Upper House.

In the end, many Thais who dislike military rule voted for the charter anyway, out of a desire for the country to move on. That turning point now seems further away as Thailand treads unfamiliar ground.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2017, with the headline 'New Thai king makes presence felt with charter request'. Subscribe