Lottery ticket vendors in Thailand have taken to tussling over slips that feature the numbers on Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s official limousine’s license plate. Demand has been driven by punters who believe the coup-installed premier’s political good fortunes will rub off on their bets.
The anecdote is one of many Prayuth’s proponents point to as proof of the army commander turned national leader’s grass-roots popularity and Midas touch. But after nearly three years in office, there are rising indications that Prayuth’s once firm grip has perceptibly slipped as a new royal order takes hold.
Prayuth has been credited for managing a tranquil transition from deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died on October 13, to new King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, who ascended the throne on December 1. Concerns that the succession could ignite a fractious power struggle between competing military-backed royalist camps have, so far, not materialized under the premier’s watch.
At the same time, Vajiralongkorn’s royal household has sought to rebalance the military-monarchy dynamics that prevailed during the late phase of Bhumibol’s 70-year reign, where military power, mostly Prayuth’s, filled a royal vacuum opened during the revered monarch’s ill health and the influential Queen Sirikit’s debilitating stroke in 2012, both publicly announced in Royal Household Bureau statements.
Vajiralongkorn’s reassertion of royal power was evident in the constitutional changes requested by his Principal Private Secretary, based on the monarch’s “observations.”
The revisions have been written under a shroud of secrecy by a junta-appointed committee, raising questions over whether they will be confined to royal-related issues. The king must endorse the charter, which was passed in pre-amended form in a national referendum last August, before it may be enacted.
The new king has emphasized a more martial order to monarchal institutions, including strict dress codes and marching orders at the Royal Household Bureau and royal advisory Privy Council, according to Bangkok-based diplomats.
Top brass soldiers appointed to Vajiralongkorn’s Privy Council, including three capable ministers in Prayuth’s junta government, have since been dispatched to government ministries, including interior, as well as the country’s insurgency-prone southernmost region to report back to the monarch.
Less visible but apparent to many observers is Vajiralongkorn’s desire for genuine reconciliation between opposed political camps, now split between the coup-ousted Peua Thai party and its erstwhile Democrat party rival. Prayuth’s deputy, defense minister General Prawit Wongsuwan, launched the reconciliation drive shortly after Prayuth had an audience with Vajiralongkorn in December, according to analysts and diplomats monitoring the situation.
In a symbolic nod to Vajiralongkorn, or Rama X, the 10th king in the centuries-old Chakri dynasty, the military steered process is ostensibly marked by the number 10, with each meeting held between 10 junta representatives and 10 political party representatives to discuss 10 topics.
Launched on February 14, the process aims to arrive at a mutually accepted political ground rules before the restoration of democracy, with long delayed elections now expected in late 2018.
Until now, Prayuth, a career soldier, has strongly resisted interaction with the elected politicians he has consistently blamed for the country’s political morass, including an entrenched culture of corruption his junta has claimed to combat.
The feeling is mutual in some political quarters: Democrat party leader and ex-premier Abhisit Vejjajiva panned the military steered process as “useless” after his party’s meeting with junta representatives on February 17.
Around the same time, villagers from the Democrats’ stronghold southern region protested at Bangkok’s Government House against the junta’s plan to build a coal-fired power plant in the tourist province of Krabi.
Abhisit and a deputy had earlier called on Prayuth to use cleaner fuel sources than coal at the facility. The protest, while eventually squashed by soldiers, was one of the largest against Prayuth since he seized power and outlawed dissent in a May 2014 coup.
Yet there could be more resistance to reconciliation ahead. Diplomats and a government official who requested anonymity say that exiled former premier and Peua Thai party de facto leader Thaksin Shinawatra met in November in London with a senior royal representative who reportedly flew to the United Kingdom from Germany aboard Thaksin’s private jet.
According to the same envoys, Thaksin has since been offered terms as part of a reconciliation deal that would allow for his return from exile in exchange for a vow not to reenter politics for 10 years and payment of fines related to his corruption conviction. It is unclear if Thaksin would be required to serve any of his two-year prison sentence under the apparent proposal. (Thaksin could not be reached for comment.)
An attempt by his sister Yingluck Shinawatra’s elected government in October 2013 to pass through parliament an amnesty bill that some say would have paved the way for the criminally convicted Thaksin to return to Thailand a free man sparked months of debilitating anti-government street protests that led to Prayuth’s 2014 putsch.
When the junta leader served as the army’s top soldier in charge of Bangkok’s security, Prayuth blamed Thaksin for the street chaos in 2010 that lead to the killing of over 90 people, both civilians and soldiers.
In light of Prayuth’s well-known antipathy towards Thaksin, it still seems unlikely he would endorse such a fig-leaf offer of reconciliation. A royal pardon granted in the name of national reconciliation, however, could bypass Prayuth.
Analysts concur that Prayuth is well-placed to become premier when Thailand eventually transitions to a form of quasi-democracy, where elected politicians will be checked from on high by a military appointed Senate. The junta’s lawyers are expected between now and then to break up Peua Thai and the Democrats into smaller parties. That would make them more easily managed and controlled in divide and rule fashion, similar to the country’s military guided democracy in the 1980s.
What’s less clear is whether Prayuth’s current ruling Queen’s Guard clique, whose elite soldiers rose through the ranks on the strength of their loyalty and service to Queen Sirikit and for the past decade have dominated the army’s top positions, will necessarily remain as the dominant military faction under Vajiralongkorn’s new reign.
There are already signs of a subtle shift. An amendment published in the Government Gazette on February 1, but barely covered in local media modified the coup’s first executive order that gave Prayuth as junta leader exclusive discretion over any transfer or mobilization of arms or personnel.
The new modified version of the order also gives that power to current army commander General Chalermchai Sitthisart, who hails from the military’s Special Forces, not the Queen’s Guard.
Other analysts have noted the fast-rising star of 1st Army Region commander Major General Apirat Kongsompong, a King’s Guard soldier with known personal ties to Vajiralongkorn and viewed as a possible royally favored future army commander.
Apirat recently obliged Vajiralongkorn by incorporating an infantry battalion unit under his command into the king’s personal bodyguard unit, known as Royal Guard 904.
While these movements are all preliminary, combined and consolidated they will all gradually loosen Prayuth’s until now unchallenged grip on power. As Bhumibol’s royal funeral and Vajiralongkorn’s coronation ceremony are completed respectively in late December this year and early next, the popular Prayuth may well be satisfied to take a bow and assume a less dominant role as the kingdom transitions to new political and royal orders.
While Thailand’s power dynamics are clearly shifting, it is not clear yet – as his admiring Thai lottery punters show – that Prayuth’s number will be up any time soon.
-Asia Times / Shawn W. Crispin