Why is Thailand's democracy so dysfunctional? Blame the king.
The world's longest-serving head of state marked his 86th birthday on Thursday, Dec. 5, and as always in recent years the pitched political battle on Bangkok's streets agreed a respectful truce to mark the occasion. That bitter enemies would halt their fight for a few days to honor Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej shows the success his reign has been, and how much esteem he has stored up over 67 years as a constitutional -- yet uniquely powerful -- monarch.
Yet the unending fight between pro-and anti-government forces, the so-called Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts, reflects his fundamental failing to prepare a future for Thailand as a stable, mature democracy after he passes.
Bhumibol is still alive, but there is no doubt that his long reign is dying. He was frail and barely audible as he read a statement calling for unity Thursday morning. He and Queen Sirikit, 81, both suffer a number of debilitating ailments, and now stay out of the public eye. They live not in the capital, but in a seaside palace to the south, infrequently seen or heard from.
Their longtime team is fading, as well. The king's main political agent, privy councilor, former Army chief and Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda, is 93, in ill health, and no longer able to manage the military. And Bhumibol's other lifetime stalwart, the supreme patriarch of the Thai Buddhist clergy, just died at 100.
Very few of the 67 million Thais have ever known another king. Bhumibol has been the one constant in their lives: the country's backbone, moral authority, the very symbol of what is Thai. So this looming end portends a frightening shift in their cosmos -- especially since his sole heir, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, is disliked, feared and scorned.
European constitutional monarchies have the obvious solution to this problem. Brits, for example, may dislike or feel somewhat apathetic to Prince Charles, but in England elected leaders and parliament runs the show, ensuring the country is not vulnerable to the often tragic capriciousness of royal succession.
Thailand has not made that step. The fight that has persisted for much of the past decade is about if, how, and when it will. For a country that has always seemed able to keep moving forward since Bhumibol took the throne in 1946, the stakes are high.
King Bhumibol's reign could have taken a different trajectory. Born in Boston to a high prince studying modern medicine at Harvard, and raised in Switzerland, he might have had a greater appreciation for modern constitutional government. The absolute throne was overthrown when he was five, and there was no going back.
But with the country desperately in need of a unifier in the political vacuum after World War II, instead he built a traditional, deified Buddhist kingship, at first guided by die-hard princes of the ancien regime, and later, when he found his own stride, in concert with the military.
That evolution was arguably unavoidable. As a key front in the Cold War, Thailand's military was important to its key supporter -- the United States -- in the 1960s, and the development of elected government was low priority. The alliance between the throne and the generals suited Washington well. And it remained after the Vietnam War ended.
Since then, at every step, and in every political crisis, Bhumibol has fallen back on the Army to help repress the power of elected politicians and restrain the development of parliamentary democracy. The military has wrested power from civilian governments more than 10 times during his reign, most of them, including the latest in 2006, with the throne's full support.
Until the last decade when health concerns caught up with him, Bhumibol had been an active king -- a modernizing figure in many ways, promoting education, endorsing new technologies, and advocating for the sciences. But as an institution his throne, and its allies in the military, have refused to move from the old model and cede power to elected civilians.
Civilian politicians have regularly appeared over the decades with hopes of taking that big step. But each time the military and the throne have convinced the people that their lead is preferable to a raucous parliament and money-tinged political parties. And Bhumibol himself has often made clear his scorn for politicians. Throughout his reign he has regularly, and opportunistically, blasted politicians for their failings, while virtually never criticizing the men in green.
Thaksin Shinawatra, the telecoms tycoon first elected prime minister in 2001, was only the latest to try to interrupt the palace-military alliance. But he was the most successful, coming after a 13-year period of rapid economic development and spreading prosperity that had persuaded more Thais that the old ways of governance were obsolete.
As Thailand entered the new millennium, the tradition of a powerful Buddhist king, and of the ostensibly steadying hand of the generals, became less relevant to a country carving its way into Asian Tigerdom.
With an ego as big as his multi-billion dollar fortune, Thaksin thought he could take the country past the Bhumibol era. He appeared to want to supplant the king as the country's leader, and to hold onto power for a long, like Southeast Asia's venerable autocrats Suharto, Mahathir Mohamed, and Lee Kwan Yew.
Indeed, he sought the backing of Bhumibol's key constituencies: the royal family, by financing their needs (especially the crown prince's); the military, by promoting his own men; and the vast Thai peasantry, by pumping public funds in his own name into the countryside.
From the throne, that looked like usurpation at work. There was no way that Thaksin could ever replace Bhumibol when alive, but he could well wrest the throne's power after the king passed. Thus, after his second landslide election victory in 2005, the next year the palace supported a military takeover that sent Thaksin into exile.
From the opposite vantage point, however, Thaksin represents an opportunity to cut the power of the generals, reduce the risks surrounding the succession to Vajiralongkorn, and to place elected politicians at the center of governance. That is why, when the palace-supported post-coup governments failed, a majority of Thais were willing to vote for his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, to stand in as prime minister while Thaksin fights to return.
Thaksin is more than venal, and has proven very willing, operating from abroad, to foment unrest and send his backers forward as cannon fodder, to get himself back in power. The most recent turmoil in the streets of Bangkok stems from an abortive effort by Yingluck to gain amnesty for Thaksin as part of broader legislation forgiving anyone on either side of the political divide -- including the previous prime minister -- accused of politics-related crimes since the 2006 coup. His desire to supplant the monarchy, his alleged corruption, his manipulation of politics through his sister, his ostensible determination to hold power for decades -- all this feeds a visceral hate for Thaksin among well-educated, worldly Thais.
But neither they nor the throne are able to offer a viable alternative in the arena of elections. The throne's allies in political parties have flopped at challenging Thaksin's popular support. And so Thailand is at a standoff, and one that will be increasingly nerve-wracking as Bhumibol nears his final days.
The situation would be less worrisome if the next king was expected to be as benign as Prince Charles. But Vajiralongkorn, 61, is distrusted and many worry about him assuming the powers his father has had. He has a long history of trouble, with many incidents domestically and internationally that have been covered up by the palace. That and his family life -- three successive wives and reputedly many other girlfriends -- raise questions over whether he is suitable for the throne.
He is committed to his family and the throne, but what he thinks about royal power, democratic politics, the role of the constitution, or the rule of law, is unknown. And there is no real alternative to him. What is known, thanks to a Wikileaked U.S. embassy cable is that even the top people around King Bhumibol dislike and distrust the crown prince, and have no solution to the potential danger he poses.
Yet what will likely fall into Vajiralongkorn's hands when Bhumibol dies is the structure they created: a throne closely tied to the military, both with institutional disdain for the parliamentary democracy mapped out in the Thai constitution since 1932.
It is possible that the prince is stepping up, trying to set a deal of sorts with Thaksin. There are no concrete details on the contacts between the two, or what kind of accommodation they might be thinking of. But the deep hate of many pro-monarchy Thais for Thaksin as well as the prince makes that hugely risky.
A solution would be for the palace to work more closely with, and be more supportive of Yingluck, to the point of strengthening her government. In turn, Yingluck would give up trying to help her brother, and instead leave him in exile in Dubai. But that would still leave the country's fate up to the ambitions of two men alone, both of whom, to say the least, stir bitter feelings and fears.
There is a reason that strong monarchies and family-based autocracies have gone by the wayside, to avoid having the entire country subject to how a single son or daughter might perform. (See: North Korea). Sadly, Thailand has not gotten the message.