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Mounting threats to Thailand's order

A new king, old generals and southern conflict play on country's anxieties

| Thailand
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Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn watches the annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony in central Bangkok on May 12.   © Reuters

These are nervous times for Thailand. After the death in October of King Bhumibol Adyulyadej, and with his son King Maha Vajiralongkorn on the Chakri throne, anxiety about the country's long-term direction is building among those who wonder whether the current crop of military rulers has any real appetite for surrendering control.

Since seizing power in May 2014, the generals have sought to stamp out dissent from groups aggrieved at the abandonment of democratic principles. The strongman Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his team worry that forces allied to deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra still wait in the shadows for their chance to re-take power.

For Prayuth, in his preferred role as guardian of the realm, this prospect encourages a blunt approach to opposing views. The defense of the new king -- a man with a reputation for erratic behavior -- has been steadfast. The country's strict lese-majeste law is used to tackle critics and threaten those who question the orthodoxy of royalist-military dominance.

Prayuth's alternative to free-flowing debate is a narrow vision of Thai values, ordained from on high and proliferated through a propaganda apparatus well-honed in the grim arts of manipulating public opinion. While much of the military's attention focuses on what happens in Bangkok, there is no hiding from the darkest shadow hanging over the kingdom.

In the southernmost provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat a long-running conflict between local Malay-Muslims and the central government has seen over 6,500 deaths. In this war of attrition, the insurgency shows no signs of losing momentum: It has been regularly attacking symbols of Thai state authority since 2004. Attacks outside the Muslim rebellion's usual zones of operation are a significant new development.

Worst-case scenario

There is a big risk that violence in southern Thailand will end up further weakening Bangkok's legitimacy. In a worst-case scenario for the palace and military, this could lead to significant territorial and political concessions, much as the Siamese kings accepted at the height of European colonial expansion in the 19th and 20th centuries.

For the current government, that is a profoundly disturbing prospect and one that justifies continued efforts to counter internal subversive activities. Unfortunately, efforts to blame pro-Thaksin activists for violent incidents serve to distract attention from the seriousness of the southern Thai battleground.

Under these conditions, re-establishing a democratic political culture remains a relatively low priority, especially while there are such strong perceptions that enemies of the monarchy and military are probing for vulnerabilities in the established order.

The early months of King Vajiralongkorn's reign have reinforced impressions that Thailand is looking to beef up the dictatorial machinery to ensure that nobody can seriously threaten the stranglehold of the military and monarchy's mutual survival pact.

As the designated "warrior-royal"-- trained at Australia's Royal Military College in the 1970s and then given every opportunity to develop relations across the Thai Army, Navy and Air Force -- the king is keen to present himself as the supreme authority. Revisions to the new constitution have reinforced the idea that he will not accept any diminution of the monarchy's status, even though he must appreciate that his own reputation does not help matters.

Later this year, the new king will receive some transfer of charismatic authority when he leads the cremation ceremony for his late father. That demonstration of spiritual, economic and political power will put King Vajiralongkorn at both front and center. The Thai people will deeply mourn the late king. They will also be relieved if the country can quickly move toward more peaceful and democratic arrangements.

But what if that does not happen? Contention among dueling elites is the usual pattern in Thai society, and the new king has already made moves, in particular through his constitutional wrangling, to assert his primacy.

From the top, he will have options. He also a major problem -- the king does not enjoy the adoration of the Thai people.

Longer term, is the royal family prepared to weather much more public scrutiny in return for some residual level of popular endorsement, much as happened to European royal families during the 20th century?

Re-imagining the monarchy

In the future, it is possible that with a new consensus about political management, the Chakri dynasty could be reimagined as a monarchy that embraces more constraints in its political and economic activities. The monarch could end up assuming a status akin to the Emperor of Japan: revered, always distant, and thoroughly impotent in political terms.

This scenario presupposes either a functional elected government, after the creation of a new system of democratic rule, or the entrenchment of a military regime that no longer relies on the legitimizing aura of the royal family. In either structure, especially if there is a weak king or queen on the throne, the royal family would need to work hard to justify its ongoing role in Thai society.

This transformation could suit King Vajiralongkorn if he determines that engagement with the cut-and-thrust of tabloid revelry best matches his interests and style. We should remember that he is now most famous around the world for wearing a "crop top" in public during a recent stay in Germany.

Obviously, it would take a profound, even fanciful, cultural change within the royal institution and in Thai society more generally to countenance the open questioning of royal power.

One advantage for the current king of re-imagining his role is that it may shift some of the burdens on to other political and cultural stakeholders. If the king is ever prepared to accept some critical or cheeky assessment, he could quickly turn any of his quirks to unexpected political advantage.

But that is probably wishful thinking. With its triple threat -- the new and untested king, an entrenched military dictatorship and the ongoing violence in southern Thailand -- further problems are likely, and sustainable solutions will prove as elusive as ever.

The long game could be brutal. Thailand's response to the triple threat might end up fatally undermining the legitimacy of the monarchy and the dominant faction of the armed forces, with unpredictable consequences for all involved.

Such a dramatic outcome would require a sequence of misjudgments on the part of the political and military leadership and would likely also see the involvement of foreign powers eager to seize any advantage from an existential crisis. The ramifications would be region-wide.

For Thailand's people and leadership, undoing generations of effort to build cohesion and a sense of national purpose would then be traumatic at every level. Avoiding that scenario will take compromise and careful planning. Sadly, on the current trajectory, Thailand is facing more pain in the years ahead.

Nicholas Farrelly is deputy director of the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University and the author of "Thailand's Triple Threat," published by the Lowy Institute for International Affairs.

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