What you need to know
What does the death of Thailand’s revered king mean for people who oppose the military junta that controls the country?
Expressing his condolences yesterday on the death of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he hoped that Thailand would honor the king’s “legacy” of commitment to human rights.
The death of the revered king, which came after a long illness, has dominated newspapers and websites around the world today. International media are speculating on what this will mean for Thailand, which has been ruled by the military since a coup in May 2014. Some commentators have been quick to suggest that Bhumibol’s passing will throw the country back into political turmoil. However, with the king’s son and heir apparent – the 63-year old Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn – now confirmed to take the throne, the leadership appears to be maintaining stability and its control.
Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha has already addressed the nation, outlining succession plans, and requesting “all the Thai people to wear mourning attire for a period of one year” and refrain from organizing any festive events for 30 days.
Markets open, stable
Taking the markets as an initial indicator, investors are not showing signs of flight. While citizens are being asked to temper how they dress for 12 months and refrain from festivities for the next month, commerce and capital flows have not stopped. The stock exchange was open again today, as were the main banks. As of early afternoon, the Stock Exchange of Thailand main SET index was trading up 4 percent.
Thailand’s economy has been buoyant this year, despite the inherent political risk and ongoing reports of human rights violations, particularly against anyone speaking out against the junta. As Bloomberg reported in late August, Thai stocks and bonds had attracted the second most cash from investors. The financial news service also pointed out that the Thai currency had gained following the Aug. 7 referendum; voters accepted a new draft constitution that opponents believed entrenched the military’s political control.
Prinn Panitchpakdi is Thailand country head of investment firm CLSA. He told Bloomberg today that the country remained “open for business” despite being in “deep sadness.” Panitchpakdi suggested the government would remain on track to implement its long-term plans, including ongoing fiscal stimulus and infrastructure spending. Asked what was the biggest risk facing the economy, Panitchpakdi did not mention domestic political issues – instead pointing to the global economic slowdown and need for continued government spending and structural economic reforms. And he said the government enjoys the support of the majority of the population.
Human rights outlook gloomy
With the military set to stay in control, human rights advocates are not likely to share the finance sector’s rosy outlook for Thailand and its people.
Late last month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted that the military junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), had “done little” to improve human rights in the country, since it took power more than two years ago.
“The junta continues to ban political activities and public gatherings; subjects those peacefully expressing dissenting views to criminal prosecution; and has conducted hundreds of arbitrary arrests,” the organization said. “The military also retains authority to arrest, detain, and interrogate civilians without safeguards against abuse or accountability for human rights violations.”
And it questioned the effectiveness of a recent NCPO order to end the practice of prosecuting civilian cases in military courts, “because it won’t apply to the more than 1,800 civilians already awaiting trial in military courts.”
HRW has been among the organizations to protest the new junta-proposed constitution, noting that 120 people were arrested in the lead up to the referendum. It believes that despite promises to hold elections at the end of 2017, Thailand’s new political structure is designed to prolong the military’s “grip on power,” and that the new constitution will protect the junta from being held accountable for human rights abuses in future.
Terence Chong is Thailand Studies coordinator at the Iseas-Yusof Ishok Institute in Singapore. In a commentary published by the institute today, Chong notes that Bhumibol had overseen a dozen coups since becoming king in 1946.
“To say that the king has been a figure of stability in the face of decades of political unpredictability is putting it lightly,” Chong says.
Under Bhumibol, Thailand’s monarchy has remained “above the squalor of petty politics” and that the monarchy will retain influence “is a given.” However, under the next king, who is “significantly less charismatic than his father,” Chong questions whether the monarchy will “will continue to exist above political squalor or be tainted by it.”
“After the mourning, enter uncertainty. The coup of May 2014, ostensibly to bring in law and order, was also argued to ensure a smooth succession. This succession, however, was always more than the replacement of the monarch but also the succession of the power, fortunes and influence of the country’s traditional elite,” Chong says. “Will the inner circle of the junta see King Bhumibol’s death as the end of its raison d’être or will it clamp down further still in the coming months in the hopes that the silence of critics will pass for deference for the new king?”
First Editor: J. Michael Cole
Second Editor: Olivia Yang