King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the King of Thailand, will turn 87 on Friday, Dec. 5. His annual birthday speech is traditionally a must-watch event, but since 2009, the king has been intermittently hospitalized. His ill heath has sparked serious concern about the future of the monarchy among members of the Thai establishment. Anxiety about the looming royal transition and its possible impact on the dominance of the elite, were among the factors that drove the military to stage a coup on May 22.
It is now more than six months since former General Prayuth Chan-ocha and other military officers overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Yingluck is a sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled in a coup in 2006. Claiming to cleanse Thai politics from rampant corruption, supposedly cultivated by the Shinawatras, and to push for urgent political reforms, the military instead appears to be constructing a constitutional infrastructure clearly intended to guarantee the power of the political elite into the future.
King Bhumibol is the world's longest reigning monarch, having acceded to the throne in 1946. Since then he has successfully transformed the once-unpopular monarchy into the most influential and respected political institution in Thailand. But this era is coming to an end. The traditional elite, which has long used the monarchy to buttress its political position, is not coping well with the rise of the powerful new forces represented by the Shinawatras, who successfully exploited the power of populism to secure their own wealth and political hold.
What has made the current situation so intense is the fact the elite perceives the royal transition as a zero-sum game, in which the outcome will either buttress or threaten its future. The strategy in the post-coup period has thus been harsh, similar to what was seen in the despotic days when Thailand was under the sway of military strongman Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, from 1958 to 1963. Any prospect of a Thaksin return has to be eliminated. Anti-monarchy elements must be dealt with firmly.
But Prayuth is not Sarit and Thailand in 2014 is different from Thailand half a century ago. The social and economic landscape has changed enormously because of economic development and the enlargement of the middle class. Today, Thais demand better access to political power and economic resources. The old style of politics, with the monarchy at its apex, has never benefited them politically, which is why it risks rejection.
In the past six months, while defending the position of the monarchy, Prayuth has worked to portray the Thaksin ethos as ''evil,'' to cover his disdain for the egalitarian and populist political culture associated with the Shinawatra regimes. The change of direction is illuminated by Prayuth's economic policy, which focuses on economic growth, but not on equal distribution. King Bhumibol's philosophy of the "Sufficiency Economy," which stresses moderation and restraint as alternatives to greed and ambition, has been blindly praised. But its ultimate effect can be construed as an idea that constrained the rural poor within their under-privileged environment.
Paradoxically, and as a way of adding legitimacy to his rule, Prayuth has also imitated the populist policies made famous by Thaksin to keep the rural constituencies happy. For example, the Prayuth government set up a large budget for quick payments to farmers of long-pledged rice subsidies, while renewing mega projects, such as high speed trains, to stimulate the economy. This inconsistency exemplifies how the Prayuth government has relied on conflicting policies to seek public acceptance. The junta's ''Returning Happiness'' campaign was initially designed to quell dissent, but the street parties and subsidized festivals soon evaporated, largely because of the project's unsustainable nature.
Meanwhile, the timetable for a promised election is dragging - the latest indications are that any poll would have to wait until 2016. The constitutional drafting process has been dominated by those allied with the military. The country's reform committees are also full of anti-Thaksin figures. The generals are busy vanquishing political enemies, but corruption cases have surfaced within the military government.
Many wonder how long the Prayuth regime will last. In the meantime, it has dramatically reduced freedom of expression. After the coup, the military detained a large number of people from various backgrounds. One objective was to generate a climate of fear and increase social and political control. The primary targets have been anti-monarchists. Cases of lese-majeste, the crime of defaming the monarchy, have multiplied since the coup.
Within the palace, meanwhile, there has been a dramatic realignment of power. In late November, the office of the Crown Prince, Maha Vajiralongkorn, heir apparent to the throne, stripped the royally bestowed family name from close relatives of his wife, Princess Srirasmi. This took place as a result of the arrest for alleged corruption of a number of high-ranking police officers related to Srirasmi's family. Some have also been charged with lese-majeste.
Observers believe the move could pave the way for the Crown Prince to divorce his already-estranged wife, as part of a ''house cleaning'' operation to help ensure a smooth royal succession. If this proves to be true, it would signify a reconciliation between the Crown Prince and the military, which has been divided about his accession to the throne. Many of the traditional elites have long-held negative opinions about the Crown Prince, fearing that his perceived ties with Thaksin might bring the crown under the sway of the Shinawatras.
Whatever happens next in this game of power rearrangement, the royal succession is clearly dictating the fate of Thai politics. Thais are not allowed to discuss the issue because of the lese-majeste law, although the latest scandals have triggered a stream of increasingly bold commentary in Thai social media and press. Prayuth has been firm in prosecuting those discussing the monarchy in the recent past. For now he has placed a lid on a simmering pot. The succession is an event waiting to boil over.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University's Center for Southeast Asian Studies.