A rift is growing within Thailand’s military-royalist establishment, threatening the country’s stability and undermining prospects that the upcoming royal succession will unfold smoothly.
On one side is an old guard of senior officers who gradually consolidated power during the long reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. On the other is a new guard from a semi-autonomous elite military unit at the service of Queen Sirikit, which includes the leaders of last year’s coup against the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the current prime minister, is a former commander of the 21st Infantry regiment, better known as the Queen’s Guard. Founded in 1950 to fight in the Korean War, it was later assigned to protect Sirikit. After rising to eminence within the regiment, in recent years General Prayuth has sought to increase his political power, and now is challenging other military-royalist factions.
The army has been an indispensable actor in Thai politics for decades, thanks largely to its close connection with the monarchy. Together the military and the royal family have worked to keep civilian governments weak in order to maintain more power themselves. During the Cold War, they joined forces to ward off Communist influence. Their alliance was reinforced in the 1980s, after King Bhumibol appointed Prem Tinsulanonda, a general, to be prime minister. With that nomination, Mr. Prem became the head of what the political scientist Duncan McCargo has called the “network monarchy”: a political consortium of pro-monarchy groups that includes the military, conservative royalists, senior bureaucrats and big business.
Mr. Prem stepped down in 1988, largely because of infighting within his government, but he remained influential behind the scenes. Notably, he is said to have advised Bhumibol during the turbulent period of 1991-92. After Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon, a member of the junta then in power, reneged on a promise not to become prime minister, there were pro-democracy protests, and then the military killed some demonstrators. Bhumibol stepped in, calling for a truce while keeping his distance from the army, and earning a reputation as a stabilizing force and for being neutral. In 1998 Bhumibol appointed Mr. Prem to preside over the Privy Council, an advisory body that protects the monarchy’s interests and propagates its views. By that time, non-elected institutions like the Privy Council and the courts were exerting more and more influence in Thai politics.
The power of Mr. Prem and his supporters in the network monarchy continued to grow until 2001. That year, the telecommunications tycoonThaksin Shinawatra won the election by a landslide, thanks to a populist platform vowing to reduce rural poverty. Tensions between elected and non-elected institutions became an open conflict, as Mr. Thaksin threatened to recast the political landscape and challenge the domination of the monarchy and the military. He was ousted in 2006 in a coup widely believed to have been masterminded by Mr. Prem. (He has denied this.)
Thaksin was not the only loser, however. Soon the Prem faction found itself weakened by the emergence of an anti-coup movement, the so-called red-shirts, as well as anti-monarchist sentiment, which was growing as Bhumibol’s health deteriorated. Queen Sirikit, meanwhile, was becoming more politically active, partly to compensate for Bhumibol’s fading authority.
Sirikit’s position has been reinforced in recent years with the promotion of men from the Queen’s Guard to key positions in the army. General Prayuth was deputy army chief in May 2010 when the army cracked down on red-shirt protesters in Bangkok’s business district; a few months later, he became army chief. Most leaders of the 2014 coup are members of the Queen’s Guard.
Although Sirikit suffered a severe stroke in 2012, her loyalists remain powerful, and now seem ready to influence the royal succession. The Prayuth government apparently supports Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, whom Bhumibol designated as his heir apparent in 1972. Vajiralongkorn, for his part, seems to have endorsed General Prayuth’s coup — by, for example, presiding over the inaugural session of the National Legislative Assembly in August 2014.
But the old guard within the network monarchy finds Vajiralongkorn lacking in gravitas. According to a 2010 U.S. diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks, Mr. Prem, the Privy Councilor Siddhi Savetsila and former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun expressed misgivings to the U.S. ambassador to Thailand about the prince becoming king. A note by the ambassador says Mr. Siddhi and Mr. Anand “implied the country would be better off if other arrangements could be made.” Mr. Siddhi suggested that Vajiralongkorn’s sister Princess Sirindhorn, who is well liked by the public, be made heir apparent instead.
Conservative royalists have also become increasingly critical of the military government. Mr. Prem told the media in January, “this country does not belong to Prayuth.” Mr. Anand recently declared in public that General Prayuth should “not to extend his rule too long.” Rumors of a countercoup are growing louder in Bangkok.
General Prayuth has responded by placing more members of the Queen’s Guard in major positions: His brother General Preecha is rumored to become the next army chief. General Prayuth has reportedly been orchestrating this promotion without consulting the Privy Council, even though it traditionally has had a say in important military appointments.
But Mr. Prem is not yet out of the picture. When Bhumibol passes, it will be up to the Privy Council to formally recommend the heir apparent to Parliament for approval and then appointment to the throne. At that point it could nominate Sirindhorn instead of Vajiralongkorn. Even if it did endorse the prince, simply delaying that decision by a day would do great damage to his legitimacy as king.
Fragmentation within the military-royalist complex is complicating the upcoming royal succession in Thailand. With the factions of General Prayuth and Mr. Prem apparently favoring different candidates to the throne, the two men’s struggle could translate into power plays within the government, the army and the palace itself. And should the camp of the Queen’s Guard prevail and Vajiralongkorn accede to the throne, both the military and the monarchy would become even more politicized — and Thailand even less democratic.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.