By Matthew Tostevin
BANGKOK (Reuters) – From requiring constitutional changes to pushing for unity in the divided country and reshaping the royal household, Thailand’s new king is putting an assertive stamp on his rule.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn has made it clear to the generals running the country that he will not just sit in the background as a constitutional figurehead since taking the throne in December from a father treated by Thais as semi-divine.
That matters in Thailand, where relationships between monarchy, army and politicians have long determined the stability of Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy and America’s oldest regional ally.
Predictions by some pundits of a troubled royal transition have proven wrong – at least for now.
“His majesty has proven himself to be very adept at managing the junta and the military,” said academic Paul Chambers at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai.
None of more than two dozen serving or former officials, military officers, parliamentarians, diplomats or analysts that Reuters spoke to for this story saw any immediate threat to that balance of power.
With jail facing anyone found guilty of insulting the monarchy under the nation’s “lese majeste” laws, few Thais comment openly on royal matters.
Asked for a response for this story, a palace official said it did not comment to the media. A government spokesman declined comment.
RELATIONSHIP OF OBEDIENCE
King Vajiralongkorn started from a very different place to his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died on Oct. 13.
When the teenage Bhumibol took the throne in the late 1940s, the future of the monarchy itself looked in doubt.
Building alliances, he quietly re-established the royal aura and authority – becoming ultimate arbiter during coups and spells of chaos as Thailand changed from rural backwater to middle-income country.
King Vajiralongkorn, 64, has spent years abroad, his private life complicated by three marriages, and he has yet to win the public adoration received by his father.
But the king’s background puts him on different terms with the generals: He went through military academies; he saw combat against insurgents in the 1970s; he can fly a fighter jet.
In line with protocol, junta members prostrate themselves before the new king at audiences, as palace photos show.
“The relationship is at least one of obedience,” said Eugenie Mérieau, a lecturer and researcher at Sciences Po in Paris.
The junta was quick to obey when the palace asked for constitutional changes – the first such request in decades.
Changes relating to current royal powers were pushed through within days. So was the ability to make further changes to a new constitution that is in the works.
Behind the palace walls, the royal household is being reshaped. Over 20 appointments and promotions have been made by the new king and published in the Royal Gazette.
This includes reshuffling senior members of the household, many of whom had held posts for decades under King Bhumibol, and promoting military officials with ties to the new king.
The head of the influential Privy Council, 96-year-old Prem Tinsulanonda, remains in place, but half the other members are new. The six new appointments have increased representation of those with a background in the army’s Wongthewan faction or King’s Guard, where the king served.
Among other notable military promotions was Suthida Vajiralongkorn na Ayudhya within the King’s Own Bodyguard. Often seen at the king’s side, though not publicly designated as his consort, she became a general on the day he took the throne.
Last week, the king appointed a new Buddhist supreme patriarch, ending more than a year of tussling over the position. Parliament restored the king’s authority to do so after 25 years of having a council of monks make the decision.
The new patriarch is from a fraternity closely tied to the monarchy rather than the one the religious council had first proposed.
UNITY AND RECONCILIATION
The big question is what happens when there is a resumption of political competition, suspended after the last military coup in 2014.
The king has stressed unity within the divided country, both in his New Year address and at a late night meeting with the country’s leadership in January to push for more help for flood victims, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said.
That meeting also coincided with the government’s moves to set up a reconciliation committee ahead of elections expected next year.
The aim of the panel is to listen to different political factions, to establish some common ground between them and then come up with an agreement all would sign to ensure a peaceful transition to civilian-led democracy.
One name above all polarizes Thais: Thaksin Shinawatra.
The former “CEO prime minister” was a hero for poorer Thais loyal to his populist movement. Overthrown in 2006, he lives in Dubai to avoid a jail sentence for corruption. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was prime minister from 2011 until just before the 2014 coup.
Thaksin, a self-made billionaire, is reviled by a Bangkok-based, royalist and pro-army elite. Conservative politicians voice fears in private of any unity deal that would allow Thaksin to return.
Both Shinawatras have been ahead of many other Thai politicians in adopting gold framed pictures of King Vajiralongkorn as the banners on their Twitter feeds.
Nobody from their political camp would comment about the monarchy.
“There is a palpable sense of urgency with regard to reconciliation that some politicians say stems from the new king’s call for peace and unity,” said Michael Vatikiotis, regional director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, which has been involved in reconciliation efforts.
“The military government is under some pressure to deliver on the king’s request, which may even speed up the transition back to civilian government.”
(Editing by Bill Tarrant)