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Is troubled Thailand tumbling into civil war?

Unreported battle over royal succession in the kingdom is a driving force behind the crisis

May 23, 2014 11:30AM ET

The backdrop for Thailand’s coup d’état on Thursday is a political dynamic that has long baffled outside observers. The kingdom has been convulsed since 2005 by worsening turmoil that seems to defy adequate explanation by the media.

On one side is former telecommunications billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, the most popular prime minister in Thai history, who lives in self-imposed exile after being deposed in a coup in 2006, and his millions of supporters, who are overwhelmingly drawn from the poorer ranks of society. On the other side is Thailand’s establishment — the military leadership, judiciary and aristocracy — as well as middle-class residents of Bangkok. Meanwhile, the 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej is increasingly frail, and a ferocious battle is being fought by competing factions of the elite over who will be the kingdom’s next monarch, according to high-level sources in the Thai establishment, academics and secret U.S. embassy cables obtained by WikiLeaks. These overlapping conflicts are extraordinarily bitter and divisive, but the connections among them are routinely left out of media accounts. That’s because under the country’s draconian lèse-majesté law, discussing the royal succession and the role of the palace in Thai politics is punishable by imprisonment of three to 15 years. Journalists, academics and analysts writing about Thailand’s crisis face an extraordinary dilemma: It is impossible to accurately explain the situation without breaking Thai law. 

With martial law in force, even more now remains unspoken. The military has banned critical comment from the airwaves and newspapers and is even making a quixotic effort to stifle discussion on social media. “Owners of print media and TV stations, editors, presenters and representatives of mass media are prohibited from interviewing academics or inviting them to express opinions,” the military announced on Tuesday. Eugenie Merieau, a fellow at Thammasat University in Bangkok and a lecturer on Southeast Asian public law at Sciences-Po in Paris, says such policies, by stifling debate through penal and social sanctions, “are an obstacle to reconciliation, as the core of the conflict — namely, the future of the monarchy — cannot be discussed openly.”

David Streckfuss, an expert on the lèse-majesté law based in Khon Kaen in Thailand’s northeast, said that preventing political debate and popular participation in governance would only worsen the crisis. “One would hope that Thailand has gotten well beyond the time of politics determined in backroom deals crafted by the elite with seemingly little thought for the people who supposedly should be deciding such matters,” he said. “More than ever before in Thai history, Thailand needs its public forums — newspapers, social media and independent radio and TV stations. Depriving Thai people of these forums is depriving them of their voices and their participation in the political outcome.”

Two conflicts, one secret

The military has insisted it has no intention of holding on to power and simply intends to oversee a process of political reform and reconciliation, followed by elections. But Thais have heard similar promises from their generals many times before. Invariably, they have been broken. Thailand’s military, mired in a Cold War mindset, cannot serve as a credible mediator.

Historically the army has repeatedly subverted Thai democracy rather than supported it. It has a baleful history of chronic political meddling, having staged more than 20 successful or attempted coups over the past century. The last one, staged by royalist generals in 2006, is overwhelmingly viewed as a catastrophe that worsened Thailand’s divisions and left the army humiliated. The military’s image was further stained by a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy red-shirt protesters in April and May 2010. More than 90 people, mostly unarmed civilians, were killed in the violence. Army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha is aware that the military itself is bitterly divided, with many rank-and-file soldiers supporting Thaksin and opposing a putsch. Despite all this, he chose the immense gamble of staging yet another coup.

But even given the dismal record of the Thai armed forces, the latest coup represents an extraordinary risk for the kingdom’s military leadership because of the dovetailing of two epic conflicts being fought in 21st century Thailand. One is a struggle by poorer members of society to assert their democratic rights in a caste-ridden country dominated for centuries by an aristocracy that draws legitimacy from Thailand’s sacred monarchy. For these Thais, Thaksin is a hero: Although a deeply flawed leader with a disdain for human rights, as prime minister he implemented populist policies that directly benefited the country’s poorest citizens. Their anger at the military overthrow of Thaksin has only grown as successive elected governments controlled by his family and allies have been flung out of office by questionable judiciary rulings. Millions of Thais are disgusted that their ballot-box choices have been overruled by unelected judges and generals. Their aspirations and anger are at the heart of the story.

Fixated on the succession and disdainful of democracy, Thailand’s royalist establishment is pushing the country toward widespread violence – in the worst-case scenario, even civil war.

However, a second, secret conflict is raging among the country’s most powerful people. With Bhumibol increasingly frail, a battle is being waged over who will be the kingdom’s next monarch. At stake is a vast royal fortune estimated at more than $30 billion. Whichever faction of the elite prevails in the struggle to play kingmaker stands to benefit from this wealth for decades to come. So a central element of Thailand’s crisis is a high-stakes war over money and power, revolving around the royal succession. This is one reason the country’s political turmoil is so vicious.

The conflicts over democracy and succession have become increasingly entangled. Thaksin is allied with the heir to the throne, Bhumibol’s 61-year-old son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, according to highly placed sources on both sides of the conflict. T-shirts backing the prince have become increasingly common attire at red-shirt rallies. Their enemies — fearing that Thaksin and the prince, aided by royal riches, could dominate Thailand politically and economically for years — are trying to sabotage the succession. Control over the parliament, a relatively weak institution in Thailand, is key. The reason: Under Thailand’s constitution, the parliament formally proclaims the next monarch when the king dies. The royalist establishment hopes to freeze Vajiralongkorn out of the succession and appoint his popular younger sister Sirindhorn as regent on behalf of the crown prince’s 9-year-old son Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, who would be named King Rama X. Both sides are thus desperate to hold sway over the parliament when that moment comes.

But because of the country’s lèse-majesté law, this side of the story rarely rises to the surface. “Amidst all this political maneuvering, the real issue preoccupying Thailand’s political elite cannot be written about by the local press,” wrote Christopher Wood, managing director and chief strategist for Asian financial adviser CLSA, in his Greed & Fear investment newsletter earlier this month. “This can be referred to as the ‘great unspoken.’”

Once this unacknowledged element of the story is restored to the narrative, Thailand’s crisis suddenly starts to make sense.

Brokering a compromise

For Thailand, the best-case scenario is that the army succeeds in brokering a political compromise among the nation’s elite factions.

“Success or failure entirely depends on the perception of the military’s role,” said a Bangkok-based foreign analyst working to promote democracy in Thailand who requested anonymity because of the military’s ban on public political comment. “If the military is accepted by both sides in the role of a nonpartisan referee, then there is a short window of opportunity to twist some arms and forcefully broker a compromise. If the military is perceived as overbearing or partisan, this window will close quickly.”

Any credible compromise deal would need to involve elections being held within a reasonable time frame, in six or nine months at most. But Thailand’s old elite is determined to delay elections as long as possible because they know that Thaksin’s immense popularity among the poor guarantees his allies success at the ballot box. The only way they can hope to hang on to the parliament until the royal succession is by preventing elections. And so, fixated on the succession and the vast riches at stake (and disdainful of democracy), Thailand’s royalist establishment is pushing the country toward widespread violence — in the worst-case scenario, even civil war.

Prospects appear to be dimming that Thailand can peacefully find a way out of its deepening crisis. But the history of democratization in other monarchies shows it can be done, Streckfuss said. “Most common in history is the unrepresented or underrepresented seizing a greater share of the public sphere with a concomitant recognition by the elite that it must cede a certain amount of its power,” he said. “In other words, the elite comes to terms with democracy — giving up some of its domination to the majority in the name of social and political peace. What else can popular sovereignty mean?”

If Thailand’s royalist elite can learn to live with democracy, the country may be able to move forward. The alternative is that Thailand’s crisis is settled with violence and bloodshed rather than compromise and negotiation.

“Though rare, more enlightened monarchies have truly played a mediator role in this process,” Streckfuss said. “Probably more common is attempts by intransigent monarchies to join with other elite groups and hold on to its traditional prerogatives. The outcome in the latter case is often revolution.”

Andrew MacGregor Marshall is a journalist and the author of “A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand's Struggle for Democracy in the 21st Century."

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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