Thailand’s crisis is in the hands of its people

For all the dust and din, today's general election in Thailand, with its conduct and credibility challenged and its outcome uncertain, is only a small piece in a broader tectonic power shift, analysts say.

In previous years, the army would have intervened by now. This time it is standing around - but unarmed.

As early as December, Dr Surin Pitsuwan, former ASEAN secretary-general and Democrat Party stalwart, remarked: "In the past, they would have rolled out the tanks already to restore law and order. The most important thing is to... let civilians decide on the next move."

In 1992, King Bhumibol Adulyadej summoned warring faction leaders and admonished them for endangering the country. But today, the King is an increasingly frail 86 years old.

"The reset options that have worked in past times of crisis - a royal intervention or a military coup - do not appear to be in the offing," Chulalongkorn University professor of political science Thitinan Pongdushirak wrote yesterday in an opinion piece for the New York Times.

While the King's moral authority remains unrivalled, "he is 86 and there have been no signs so far that he might intervene", he wrote.

The role of his successor, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, 61, in relation to the current crisis is the subject of much speculation, but thus far remains opaque.

The institution itself is inscrutable, but this has lent itself to a speculative buzz over the inevitable, looming succession. Every word or gesture of the immediate royal family members is being analysed for possible meaning.

And the "place of the monarchy-centred established order in Thailand's electoral democracy", as Prof Thitinan puts it, is very much at the heart of the current debate and struggle over what kind of democracy Thais want.

On paper, Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, but in reality the King - and King Bhumibol specifically - enjoys enormous extra-constitutional power. He is the longest reigning monarch in the world, and as such the only king most Thais alive today have ever known.

Decades of elaborate ceremony and ritual have ensured his elevation to the status of a symbol of the national identity and conscience.

The coming succession is causing deep anxiety among Thais - in private, because strict laws prevent open critical discussion of the monarchy.

The depth of the anxiety makes it clear that the effect of the passing of King Bhumibol cannot be underestimated.

Associate Professor Pavin Chachavalpongpun at Kyoto University's Centre for South-east Asian Studies wrote in Asia Sentinel last November: "The military has never worked alone. It has worked intimately through the so-called network monarchy.

But since the monarchy has been weakened by its long years of self-politicisation and the ill health of the King, the military may find making no move to be the best option for its survival.

"In the long run, this... could actually be a net positive for Thai democracy. As the monarchy loses some degree of public trust, other democratic institutions eventually will have to assume the role of mediator and crisis-solver."

In a telephone interview yesterday, he said: "The poor health of the King and Queen prevents the exercise of royal activism. This is a good thing. It might be good that people are left to handle this by themselves."

To Prof Pavin and other analysts, the transformational shift has already begun. Professor of political science Panitan Wattanayagorn, who is also a former spokesman for Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, said: "The palace and military don't have to get involved in the current crisis."

"The palace may be busy working on transition. The military is also trying to handle this transition - by not getting involved in politics."

A very senior Thai politician, who asked not to be identified, said last week: "This time, the people are being left to sort it all out themselves."

And as the drama plays out under a cloud of anxiety, with a real risk of violence and in completely uncharted waters, that in itself is "more democratic", he added.

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