Death of Thailand’s ‘Development King’ tosses his legacy into unsteady hands

Thailand's Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. (Credit: AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

The death of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej has shrouded the “Land of Smiles” in grief and anxiety over its political future. Regardless of whether the authoritarian military government can pull off a smooth transition as planned, one outcome seems likely: If the Thai people want a voice, they’ll have to fight much harder for it.

The longest-reigning and one of the most beloved monarchs in the world, Bhumibol died on Thursday after suffering from various illnesses over the past year. His son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, has delayed his coronation until after the one-year mourning period.

Bhumibol commanded near-divine adoration from the Thai people and international supporters, who dubbed him the “Development King.”

“If human development is about putting people first, there can no better advocate for it than His Majesty,” said Kofi Annan, who presented Bhumibol with the U.N.’s first Human Development Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 for the more than 4,000 development projects the king initiated in agriculture, irrigation and public health, according to his official biography.

In a statement of condolence issued Thursday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “[expressed]his hope that Thailand will continue to honor King Bhumibol’s legacy of commitment to universal values and respect for human rights.”

Unfortunately, Thailand’s human rights record isn’t nearly as luminous as Ban makes it seem, especially after military coups received the royal nod to oust populist prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 and Yingluck Shinawatra – Thaksin’s sister – in 2014. Migrant abuse, exploitation and trafficking is a significant problem, and the ruling military junta, led by Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha, has effectively stamped out freedom of expression.

In particular, strict lèse majesté laws criminalize anything that can be construed as criticism, defamation or insult to the royal family. But even these laws haven’t been able to conceal the surplus of scandal surrounding the highly controversial – daresay, reviled – Vajiralongkorn.

At 64, Vajiralongkorn continues to litter Thai headlines with outrageous escapades, including three divorces, appointing his pet poodle Foo Foo an air chief marshal in the Thai military and making his then-wife Princess Srirasmi perform near-naked and eat off the floor at Foo Foo’s birthday party.

This summer, when photographs captured Vajiralongkorn’s arrival in Munich in a tight crop top that exposed a temporary tattoo-covered torso, authorities detained the wife of the journalist, Andrew MacGregor Marshall, who shared the photos on Twitter.

But it’s not just unseemly behavior that undermines people’s faith in his impending reign. Vajiralongkorn has shown little interest in political affairs, instead exiling several of his own children and finding himself linked to the suspicious deaths of prominent figures and arbitrary arrests of personal offenders like his ex-wife’s family.

Although the military government under Prayuth has amended the constitution in ways that seem to safeguard against Vajiralongkorn, it seems to also have firmly committed itself to courting the crown prince. Some analysts think Prayuth can pull off a smooth transition, but many are doubtful, calling the junta “increasingly erratic, incompetent and repressive.”

“With an incompetent junta in power, providing impunity to a loathed prince who is increasingly out of control, the likelihood of some kind of uprising seems very high,” Marshall told the Guardian.

Abrupt suppression will no doubt smother the first outcries for democracy if they are voiced. Perhaps, then, the question isn’t whether the people will come out on top or the monarchy and ruling elite. Rather, how many of the Development King’s achievements will survive Thailand’s struggle for stability?

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.