The new, pro-military king does not want to become dependent on the military for his, and the monarchies, survival. The royal solution is seen as dangerous for the monarchy. The king is trying to restore the political and economic power the monarchy had in the 1930s, but surrendered back then as an act of self-preservation. The new king seems to thing history won’t repeat itself. The new king has moved forcefully to assert long dormant royal powers. In mid-2018 he officially took personal control over the royal fortune. Currently this is estimated to be worth over $33 billion and consists mainly of real estate and shares of major corporations. In the past the royal assets were managed by the semi-independent Crown Property Bureau and not taxed. A law was passed, at the king’s request, in 2017 to allow the change and with that came another change; the royal fortune was now subject to taxation. This is not a popular move but the king believes the monarch can ignore public opinion, up to a point.
The king has taken steps to reduce the criticism. He has eliminated most of the lese majeste (criticism of the monarchy) prosecutions although these laws remain on the books. The king has curbed corruption by family members and is always on the lookout for gestures he can perform to improve his public standing. All that helps, but so far the open criticism of the “king who would be an old school king” continues.
The Thai people disagree and after six years of military rule have resumed public protests seemed appropriate, even though that sort of thing is now illegal. Then again, the military is much more disliked than feared compared to 2014. The military seems to feel that the kind can handle demonstrations against monarchy himself. The king and the military appear to be feuding.
The king is taking advantage of that to curb the power of the military. He has established a military force separate from the military and ordered all non-royal combat units out of the capital. The new “Royal Guard Command” has only 5,000 troops, but they are in the capital and answer only to the king. There is also a new police command devoted just to royal protection and led by a commander approved by the king. The king is also demanding that all officers considered for senior positions in the military be approved by the him.
The new king is conducting a purge of the palace staff along with a “loyalty training” program for thousands of officials serving the monarchy in one way or another. The king fired dozens of palace officials for misconduct. Also dismissed and stripped of all official honors was his recently appointed royal concubine. All this palace intrigue appears to have something to do with the king’s fourth wife, who is the queen and does not want to become an ex-wife like her three predecessors. In Thailand, discussing such palace activity publicly is illegal. Nevertheless, the gossip describes a very “truth is stranger than fiction” situation.
The purge and loyalty training program is not unusual for the new king. He conducted a ceremony not seen since the 1930s as he officially recognized his mistress as a royal concubine (literally a “royal noble consort”). The new consort was an army nurse when she met the crown prince and later became part of his bodyguard. As is customary the queen (since a recent marriage) sat next to the king during the brief ceremony. The queen was also a long-time girlfriend. The king met her when she was a flight attendant. The 68-year-old king spent most of his life as a playboy crown prince. This was in sharp contrast to his father. The official concubine is now in jail but there are still more than a dozen unofficial concubines, most of them with the king and his wife in a German hotel.
Royalists fear the behavior of the new king will do permanent damage to the monarchy. This is just one more problem the military has created. Now there is the possibility that the next political opposition movement will call for the elimination of the monarchy. This was not really possible until the current king took power and made it clear he was different and not in a good way. Unlike his predecessor, the new king already had an unsavory reputation. To make matters worse the new king made a deal with the military government that would, in theory, benefit both of them in the long run. First, the former crown prince assured everyone that he would behave. In return the military government freed the monarchy from constitutional and parliamentary restrictions that were part of the 1930s deal that turned a threatened absolute monarchy into a more popular constitutional one. The military government was changing the constitution when the old king died in 2016 and that presented a rare opportunity for the new king to gain more power for the monarchy. The generals needed the backing of the king because they justified their 2014 coup by claiming they were doing it to protect the monarchy. The old king was not enthusiastic about that but had learned to stand back. In 2016 the military got their new constitution ratified in a referendum and the king approved it in early 2017.
The king is also restoring royal palaces and other properties that had long been used as tourist attractions. No more. The king is not only expanding the number of properties owned and operated by the monarchy but is demanding absolute obedience. Those who disobey or otherwise annoy the king are dismissed or worse. He has ordered symbols of the 1932 revolution/coup/compromise, that created the constitutional monarchy, to be eliminated, often secretly without any acknowledgement of royal involvement. The king is also writing many of his three former wives and their children out of his official personal history. The flaw in these moves is that most Thais know what really happened in 1932 and are angry about a clueless new king trying to reverse and rewrite history.
The king has made his situation even worse by living in the German Alps, taking over hotel for himself and about a hundred staff and family members. This began after covid19 became a crisis last March. The king made one quick (24 hour) trip back to Thailand in April to take care of some royal business but has otherwise been ruling the country from a German hotel where he and his entourage are the only guests. Germans and Thais have protested this arrangement but the king has ignored that.
The majority of Thais are pro-democracy and are relentless in their efforts to restore their power without triggering a civil war. A major goal of the democrats is a return of local elections. These have not been held since the 2014 coup and resuming the local elections is one thing nearly all Thais can agree on. Those elections were supposed to be held in 2020 but the military dominated government is trying to use covid19 to push the vote into 2021. That is apparently not working. The military knows that the local elections will simply spotlight how unpopular the military has become. That ill repute is not fading away. Local elections would also remove the many replacement local officials appointed while the military was in charge.
The elected military government is behaving much like the former unelected military government. For example, the new government is using compliant courts to terrorize journalists using jail terms for fabricated offenses and getting opposition political parties outlawed the same way. This ensures that the civil war between the military/royalist coalition and democrats continues. The more the military tries to suppress the democrats the more anger they generate among the majority of Thais who do not want to be ruled by the military. The generals realized they were in trouble after the March 2019 elections showed the democrats winning more votes than expected. The pro-democracy parties attempted to form a coalition government but lost out to a slightly larger coalition assembled by the pro-military parties. This close call for the new military dominated government led to the current policy of terrorizing individual critics (real, suspected or imagined) and litigating suspect organizations out of existence. Methods include trying to arrest and prosecute key pro-democracy politicians on false charges and disrupt pro-democracy activity in parliament.
The opposition is not backing off. At the end of 2019 an opinion poll showed that opposition politician and political party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was favored as a prime minister by 31.4 percent of Thais compared to 23.7 percent for the actual prime minister former general Prayut Chan Ocha. Juangroongruangkit is a billionaire businessman whose party was among the top three favorites. The military dominated government eventually had Juangroongruangkit banned from parliament and his party banned from politics. This only increased his popularity as his followers joined other parties that shared their goals. Large protests against Prayut Chan Ocha are more frequent, even though they are illegal.
Juangroongruangkit is much less popular with the new king, who is angry that the Juangroongruangkit parliamentary coalition were the only ones voting against the royal request that two army units be transferred to direct control of the king. It was unprecedented, but not illegal, to vote against a royal request. The king is not pleased but the king is not nearly as popular as his father and more
July 26, 2020: Thailand has gone more than 60 days without any new covid19 cases. A disciplined population and an effective national health system made the difference. Thailand so far had 3,300 confirmed cases of covid19 (coronavirus) which comes out to 47 cases per million population and 0.8 deaths per million. Those numbers hardly changed over the last month. Such was not the case with other nations in the region. Neighbor Malaysia had 276 cases per million population cases and four deaths per million.
The stark difference here was because Thailand had a public health system that extended to the lowest levels (villages and city neighbors) with volunteers making up most of the staff and obtaining directions and medical supplies from the government. That meant a strict quarantine was not necessary and compliance was monitored and enforced by locals. In Malaysia some Moslem clerics defied quarantine rules and continued holding prayer services in crowded mosques. Because more people in Malaysia were infected, some Thai Moslems working in Malaysia tried to return home infected with covid19.A screening and approval process was set up to catch most of these virus carriers before they got home and infected others.
Another potential source of infections was the large number of Chinese tourists and commercial visitors that are normally in the country. Foreigners were sent home as soon as possible. While still in Thailand foreigners were forced to self-quarantine for two weeks before they could move freely. Even then they were avoided by most Thais.
Thailand did not undertake widespread testing for covid19 but does know that few Chinese visitors were infected. While covid19 first appeared in Wuhan China in late 2019 the Chinese government tried to suppress the news but word-of-mouth did the job in Wuhan and a lot of tourists and business travelers cancelled their trips. Some infected travelers did get out of Wuhan but Thailand was one of the earliest nations to quarantine and then ban foreign visitors in general. This ban is just now beginning to lift.
Elsewhere in the region Bangladesh has 1,356 covid19 cases per million and 18 dead per million. In Burma it’s six cases per million people and 0.1 deaths. India has 1,041 cases per million and 24 dead per million while Pakistan has 1,240 cases per million and 26 deaths per million people. China, where the virus began, stopped releasing covid19 cases and deaths data as part of a government program to try and blame the U.S. for the virus. Few (Chinese or foreigners) believe that and it is taken for granted by neighbors of China that the “Wuhan Virus”, as it was first known, indeed came from China. A growing number of Chinese virus researchers who “know too much” are fleeing China and seeking asylum in the West.
By now it has also become known that covid19 is not much more dangerous than one of the deadlier annual influenza epidemics. The flu is taken for granted and it is unclear if covid19, which is genetically almost identical to the 2013 SARS virus, another Chinese corona (trans-species) virus, will be an annual event or disappear like SARS and similar diseases. Covid19 is unique in that it attacks the lungs and is often mistaken for pneumonia. As such it is particularly dangerous to the elderly or anyone with weakened immune system or other illnesses. Most healthy adults and children do not notice covid19 at all even if exposed to it.
July 25, 2020: Exports in June were down 23 percent compared to June 2019. This is not as bad as the damage covid19 has done to the tourism industry, which is expected to generate less than a third of the income it usually does. Tourism is about 20 percent of the Thai economy and added to other economic woes has got most Thais anxious about their financial futures. The government sees the unemployment rate peaking at over 25 percent and fears how long that will last. In late 2019 it was estimated that the economy (GDP) would grow nearly three percent in 2020. Now the prediction of for the GDP to lose nearly nine percent in 2020 and possibly more depending on how long it takes to get the tourists back. Exports of manufactured goods is already booming but that cannot make up for the tourism losses. All this is catastrophic for a country that has long had an unemployment rate of one percent or less. Particularly hard hit is the south, which depends a lot on tourism and where the less educated majority Moslem population always had a higher unemployment rate. The government has begun to ease economic restrictions and let people get back to work.
July 24, 2020: The army announced that it will not try to suppress popular protests against the government and the army, but will monitor them.
July 18, 2020: In the capital thousands of people protested against the government and a smaller group protested in front of the main military headquarters.
July 14, 2020: In the south (Pattani province) a soldier died when a remotely controlled bomb was detonated. The dead soldier was leading a six-man patrol through an area where separatists and Islamic terrorists often attacked school teachers on their way to work. The teachers are often Buddhists. Violence like this has declined considerably since covid19 showed up in March. The men responsible for the violence are still around and expected to become more active by the end of the year. So far this month there have been several attacks, all in Pattani province, that wounded about a dozen soldiers and civilians.