Kingdom Come

The Real Crisis in Thailand is the Coming Royal Succession

Behind Thailand’s bloody protests is a battle between the nation’s corrupt shadow ruler, the prime minister’s brother, and the Crown Prince over who will rule when the King dies.

Damir Sagolj / Reuters

The Kingdom of Thailand is hypnotized. Nobody acknowledges our looming nightmare: our King is dying. While current protests focus on government corruption, the unspeakable succession to the throne overshadows all. This week, clashes resumed in the streets. The Royal Thai Police were ordered to crush the Whistleblowers: they were met with force. Soldiers in civilian clothes protected demonstrators.

The Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is a marionette for her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister who exiled himself after being ousted by a military junta in 2006.

The Yingluck government is paralyzed because it cannot disperse the Whistleblowers while the military defends them. Yingluck cannot negotiate because the core demand of the Whistleblowers is the banishment of Thaksin and the entire Shinawatra dynasty from participation in the political life of the Kingdom. Earlier this week, the Whistleblowers began threatening the Shinawatra business holdings. Yingluck has no room for maneuver, and her predicament is worsening.

Faced with mounting protests, Yingluck convened a crippled election on February 2. But elections are no solution for what ails Thailand, because the Whistleblowers, knowing how corrupt the election process is, will not accept a whitewash that benefits a corrupt autocracy, a tyranny of the majority.

We Westerners reflexively trust elections, and we do not hesitate to recommend them to others who know better. In Thailand, a political machine that purchases votes in the millions makes a mockery of the exercise, a phenomenon that penetrates down to the village level and must be seen to be believed. Skeptics are incredulous that vote-buying on such a scale occurs. It does. Every inhabitant of my family’s village in Isan got paid for their votes, election after election, until this time, when the government left farmers holding the bag for unpaid rice.

In the end, the elections of February 2 midwifed a crippled, illegitimate government that cannot pay its bills, is unable to borrow from banks, and has resolved nothing. The elections are past and the Whistleblowers are still in the streets. Farmers, angry that they were never paid for rice at the heart of a scandal that is currently blowing up the Kingdom, are joining them. They are leaving their Red Shirts at home.

And now, Prime Minister Yingluck herself faces indictment on charges of graft and malfeasance in the rice mortgage scheme on the 27th of February, along with 15 of her government ministers.

While public attention focuses on Yingluck, the real battle behind the scenes involves Thaksin, the ousted prime minister who still pulls the strings, and the monarchy, consisting of the King, his courtiers in the Privy Council, the Queen, and the Crown Prince.

Thaksin could relent, he could accept that he has stolen enough from the Kingdom, for Thailand very much remains a Kingdom, and Thaksin remains a billionaire. But Thaksin will not relent. Even after the generals purged him in 2006, he incited insurrection during the Red Shirt riots that rocked Bangkok in 2010. The Reds tried to burn Bangkok down when the Army routed them, but Thaksin and his Reds could not topple the royalty: The King remains standing, “above politics,” and he stands still.

No mere political dispute could compel millions of Thai to take to the streets. Their leaders demand an end to the “Thaksin regime,” a pervasive patronage network, a criminal nepotism that contaminates all echelons of government, buys votes, steals from the treasury, and corrupts farmers. Thaksin’s corruption is serial, and it is unprecedented in Thai history. And then there are the deaths that can be laid at Thaksin’s feet, from Tak Bai and Krue Se to the “war on drugs”) and the abortive riots of 2010.

The Whistleblowers march, they occupy government offices, they inhibit the normal functioning of the state. They cannot be bought, persuaded, or dissuaded. They are not going away. But the Whistleblowers are not just rejecting endemic corruption in a country of mafias—they are marching in support of His Majesty King Bhumipol. His personality cult is ubiquitous. Obligatory portraits of the King preside in every home. His image appears on every coin. His place in the hearts of most Thai is central and impregnable.

The problem is that the monarch is 86 and ailing. He will die soon. But the royalty may not be discussed in Thailand under penalty of law. So no one talks about the pending death of the sovereign, and worse, no one permits themselves to even think about it. The coming succession is a national blind spot, a pathological omission, because without review, without sorting, dissection, debate, discussion, there is no emerging consensus, and there can be no popular opinion.

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Meanwhile, Thaksin has a plan for the day the King dies, counting on the ascension of the Crown Prince to the throne. The Crown Prince is as reviled among the Thai people as the King, Rama IX, is beloved.

The Thai dread their next King. They call him “Sia O,” a gangster name. Thaksin tried to suborn the Crown Prince by paying off his gambling debts, and by refurbishing his Nonthaburi Palace, but the gambit backfired. The Crown Prince moved to the Sukothai Palace, and he called Thaksin “an elected dictator” in a conversation with Ambassador Boyce that was immortalized in diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks.

Thaksin has his eye on the prize: He covets the $35 billion dollar holdings of the Crown Property Bureau, and he envisions himself a president of a Thai republic that would nationalize royal assets. This would imply the demise of the Thai monarchy, at least figuratively, and it would seal Thaksin’s final triumph over the royalists and generals that usurped him during the coup of 2006.

The demise of the Chakri dynasty is unthinkable for most Thai, but they dread their Crown Prince. Failing an unimaginable miracle, even more turmoil looms ahead for Thailand. Long live the King.