How stable is post-cremation Thailand?

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Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn (C) in a sacred funeral procession for his father, late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in Bangkok on October 26, 2017.
Photo: AFP/Anthony Wallace

In the lead-up to the cremation of deceased Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, authorities rounded up 42 suspects at check points around the royal ceremony attended by new King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun and other royal family members.

The arrests came after a warning from Defense Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan that anti-royal elements aimed to sabotage the sacred ceremony that attracted hundreds of thousands of mourners to the capital’s royal funeral ground and millions of viewers on live-feed national television.

Rights groups and diplomats monitoring the arrests say the detained suspects likely face prosecution on national security-related charges for threatening the ceremony, including under the penal code’s harsh lese majeste provision that shields the royal family from defamation, insult and threat.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s ruling military junta has been credited for restoring stability after years of revolving street protests paralyzed successive elected governments. It has also been commended for steering a smooth succession from Bhumibol to Vajiralongkorn, a delicate transition many feared could spark instability.

But as Thailand’s year-long period of mourning is lifted and the country prepares for Vajiralongkorn’s formal coronation, now seen as astrologically auspicious to be held in March, how stable is the transition from royal old to new, and how serious is the threat posed by anti-monarchists supposedly lurking in the shadows?

Vajiralongkorn, known as Rama X, has set a tone for his reign in moves that diplomats and analysts say shows his intent to shake-up royal institutions in terms of personnel, protocol and operations. The monarch with a military background has recently imposed more stringent dress codes at his Royal Household Bureau and among his Privy Councilors.

Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn takes part in a procession to transfer the royal relics and ashes of late King Bhumibol Adulyadej from the crematorium to the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, October 27, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn in a procession to transfer the royal relics and ashes of late King Bhumibol Adulyadej from the crematorium to the Grand Palace in Bangkok, October 27, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Jorge Silva

His Royal Household Bureau has also openly targeted those found to have abused their palace positions or association for personal gain. A fortnight after the cremation, former palace Grand Chamberlain Distrorn Vajarodaya was publicly dismissed for “severely immoral acts”, including pilfering funds from a royal charity.

The Vajarodaya clan have served the royal family since the beginning of the Chakri dynasty, dating back to the 1700’s. Distorn, who was known to be personally close to Bhumibol, was removed as grand chamberlain soon after the king died on October 13, 2016. The Royal Household Bureau statement on his dismissal also made mention of an extra-marital affair.

The dismissal has raised questions about how far the new reign will go in ferreting out old royalists who have used the monarchy’s name for personal enrichment or influence-peddling. Vajiralongkorn earlier divorced his consort and jailed her family members under the lese majeste law for using the palace as cover for criminal activities including extortion.

Champions of the new reign say the housecleaning is overdue and that ill-deeds grew in the latter years of Bhumibol’s reign when he was hospitalized for ill-health. They hope the new king will also challenge the big business families that have long leveraged royal connections to corner sectors of the economy, a commercial domination that has grown since the 2014 coup.

Vajiralongkorn has taken full control of the Crown Property Bureau which manages an estimated US$52 billion in assets, signaling a new order by replacing its executive board with his known loyalists. The king also recently shuffled the board of the palace’s Royal Project Foundation, the monarchy’s non-profit instrument dedicated to rural uplift and development.

Mourners queue as they attend the royal cremation ceremony of Thailand's late King Bhumibol Adulyadej near the Grand Palace in Bangkok on October 25, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Kerek Wongsa

Mourners queue as they attend the royal cremation ceremony of Thailand’s late King Bhumibol Adulyadej near the Grand Palace in Bangkok on October 25, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Kerek Wongsa

The military putsch, imposed in the name of restoring stability, also tacitly aimed to ensure that royalist generals rather than politicians were in charge to steer the succession. Prayuth’s dominant Queen’s Guard faction has so far loyally carried out Queen Sirikit’s known wish for her son Vajiralongkorn to ascend the throne unimpeded.

The junta also unquestioningly honored the new palace’s wish to amend the military-drafted constitution’s sections that define the monarch’s legal powers – including an amendment that allows for royal commands without a relevant ministerial countersignature – after the document had popularly passed in an August 2016 national referendum.

The charter changes, however, did not revoke Prayuth’s overarching powers under the interim charter’s Section 44, which allows the junta leader to issue any order for the sake of reform, promotion of love and harmony and prevention of any act detrimental to order, security, the economy or royal throne.

The powers vested in Section 44 were discussed at one of Prayuth’s first audiences with Vajiralongkorn after Bhumibol’s death, according to people familiar with the meeting. Under the new charter, Prayuth maintains the provision’s sweeping powers until a new Cabinet is installed after new elections.

With the lifting of the period of mourning, politicians sidelined by the coup have amplified their calls for the restoration of political rights and a firmer junta commitment to hold polls by the end of next year. Top junta members have vacillated on whether the constitutionally mandated polls will likely be held in 2018 or 2019.

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha sits as he watches a military parade marking his retirement as commander in chief of the Royal Thai Army at the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy in Nakorn Nayok on September 29, 2014. Thailand's army chief prime minister, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, hands over command of the army this week to a trusted ally and steps into civilian politics. AFP PHOTO / Nicolas ASFOURI / AFP PHOTO / NICOLAS ASFOURI

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha watches a military parade marking his retirement as commander in chief of the Royal Thai Army on September 29, 2014. Photo: AFP/ Nicolas Asfouri 

Some argue the royal transition will not be whole until Prayuth relinquishes Section 44’s overarching powers and an elected government that recognizes the primacy of the crown is installed. Under Thai law, the monarchy is above politics; Vajiralongkorn has not commented publicly on the proposed polls or their timeline but has promptly endorsed related laws.

Thailand’s military and monarchy have long had a symbiotic relationship, with the former sworn to the protection of the latter, but the new emerging balance between the two powerful institutions is still being determined under Vajiralongkorn’s young new reign.

The military stepped up to fill some of the authority vacuum opened with Bhumibol’s and Sirkit’s ill-health, but the royal household’s requested charter changes showed that the new palace wants certain royal prerogatives restored and expanded, diplomats and analysts say.

So, too, has its absorption of military combat units, including the First Region Command’s First Infantry Division, a top-fighting force, into the king’s personal guard. The division was recently moved from the military’s main command in Bangkok to Vajiralongkorn’s secondary Tawee Wattana palace on the capital’s outskirts, with certain soldiers transferred upcountry.

With uncertainty still surrounding the royal transition’s next phase, many analysts wonder if Prayuth’s junta is truly willing to step aside and allow the same elected politicians it overthrew to return to power with political vengeance in mind and the potential to politicize the still unfolding succession.

FILE PHOTO - Thailand's former premier Thaksin Shinawatra speaks during a group interview in Tokyo August 23, 2011.  REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao/File Photo

Thai former premier Thaksin Shinawatra in a file photo. Photo: Reuters/Yuriko Nakao

Analysts agree that the coup-ousted Peua Thai party, backed by criminally convicted self-exiled ex-premiers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, would likely win any poll even under new election laws designed to narrow any party’s margin of victory and prevent the formation of a one-party majority government.

Although the military-appointed Senate will play a key role in picking the next premier in any deadlock scenario, earlier predictions that Prayuth was a shoo-in to lead an elected “unity” government now look increasingly less likely as nearly all major parties speak out against his staying on.

Peua Thai has said it would launch a no-confidence debate as soon as legally possible to critically scrutinize and unseat any Prayuth-led elected government. Nor is it clear that the military-appointed Senate’s powers granted in the new charter to remove deemed as wayward elected politicians will have popular legitimacy in a restored democratic environment.

The junta has maintained it is too early to lift its ban on political activities due to undisclosed security concerns. The discovery last week of a large arms cache in a rice field in a province neighboring Bangkok has conveniently perpetuated the regime’s narrative that dangerous anti-junta guerillas linger in the mist.

Authorities have claimed some of the five main suspects are associated with Thaksin’s United Front for Democracy (UDD) ‘Red Shirt’ group that spearheaded destabilizing street protests the military lethally cracked down on in 2010.

Yet few independent analysts believe Thaksin or his allied UDD leaders would now undertake any activities that give the junta justification to further delay polls. One foreign liaison with access to Thaksin says the ex-leader is keen to contest and win the election rather than stir new instability, even with junta harassment of his sister and son.

Supporters of ousted former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra wait for her at the Supreme Court in Bangkok, Thailand, August  25, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Jorge Silva

Supporters of ousted former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra wait for her at the Supreme Court in Bangkok, Thailand, August 25, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Jorge Silva

The junta’s unchallenged power has been undergirded by a sophisticated surveillance state pointed largely at Thaksin’s Red Shirt allies. The military’s Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), a spy outfit traditionally focused on insurgent threats, has recently expanded its presence in Thaksin’s north and northeastern provincial strongholds.

ISOC’s probing oversight and other invasive tactics explain why there has been barely a peep of dissent against the coup. Attempts to organize underground, including over encrypted instant messaging services, have often been infiltrated by pressuring known UDD activists to hand over passwords to their dissident chat groups. (Prayuth recently empowered ISOC to undertake corruption investigations.)

The junta will thus likely have a hard time selling the idea, both domestically and internationally, that polls must be delayed due to unseen pro-Thaksin, anti-coup security threats. They may find more receptive audiences, however, to the notion that anti-monarchy elements remain bent on undermining the royal institution at a still uncertain juncture of the succession.

Over 100 lese majeste charges have been filed since the coup, with another 1,000 complaints still under police investigation, monitoring rights groups estimate. The junta has presided over some of the harshest sentences ever handed down under the law, and still the number of complaints filed have notably risen since Bhumibol’s passing and Vajiralongkorn’s accession.

The arrest of 42 suspects who may or may not have intended to disrupt Bhumibol’s cremation, a ceremony that underscored the widely revered monarch’s hallowed place in Thai society, may yet give the junta the justification it needs to delay the return to democracy in the name of national security.

And anyone who dares to criticize the military for giving priority to protecting the crown could face anti-royal charges themselves.

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