Thailand's Military Junta Consolidates Power
Thailand's Military Junta Consolidates PowerBy Richard S. Ehrlich
BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand's military government is consolidating its control and skillfully handling the country's traumatic mourning in the aftermath of King Bhumibol Adulyadej's death on October 13 at age 88, while a flow of hundreds of thousands of grieving people offer Buddhist prayers in front of the golden royal coffin.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a staunch royalist who seized power in a bloodless 2014 coup, is overseeing the elaborate funeral arrangements and extensive public security amid the nation's grief-stricken changes.
The widely revered, late constitutional monarch headed an influential institution which supported the military.
In turn, the armed forces proudly protected Bhumibol during his 70-year reign.
Prayuth's post-coup policies are also defending Thailand's "old money" elite against social climbing "nouveau riche" rivals.
Those quashed rivals are led by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who Prayuth helped topple in a 2006 coup, and by Thaksin's sister former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra who was ousted by Prayuth's 2014 coup.
Fortunately for Prayuth, his supporters appear to be backing him in the aftermath of the king's death.
They expect Prayuth to maintain Thailand's stability and investment worthiness during the current transition after Bhumibol's only son, former Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, became the new king on December 1.
If there are no disruptions, Prayuth will be able to use the peaceful interlude to continue consolidating his control.
During the past two years, his regime moved supporters into top positions within the military, police, bureaucracy, judiciary and legislature, to ensure the military's leverage over future policies and governments.
Prayuth's pro-democracy opponents meanwhile have decided to respectfully mourn the king's death and temporarily halt their public political activity.
As a result, Prayuth faces no immediate dangerous challenges.
"It seems Prayuth has been able to work with the upcoming king. For one thing, he [Prayuth] already came out to endorse the kingship of Vajiralongkorn," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun in an interview.
"The fact that the king will not be cremated [until one year from now] also guarantees the position of Prayuth in the premiership," because of the respectful mourning period, Pavin said.
Pavin left Thailand 13 years ago and is an associate professor at Kyoto University's Center for Southeast Asian Studies in Japan.
The junta issued an arrest warrant for Pavin and revoked his passport for his anti-coup opinions, but he has applied for refugee status in Japan.
"The political situation remains calm, and perhaps more stable, because most Thais are now in a mourning period," Titipol Phakdeewanich, political science faculty dean at Ubon Ratchathani University in eastern Thailand, said in an interview.
"During this mourning period of King Bhumibol, I think all political factions and parties are fully aware that making any political movements will not be in their interests, and it is not strategically clever to do so," Titipol said.
"Don't try to provoke any conflict at the moment, and don't get the monarchy involved in any conflict," government spokesman Lt. Gen.
Sansern Kaewkamnerd told the nation after the king died.
"Now is the time for all of us to unite," Sansern said.
The widespread adoration and emotional dependence Thais feel toward the late king has also engulfed this Buddhist-majority country in overwhelming sadness mixed with personal anxiety.
The king's body is inside an ornate golden royal urn which stands upright on a raised platform inside the Grand Palace.
Buddhist monks chant prayers while 20,000-30,000 members of the public, dressed in black, are allowed each day to solemnly pass through the hall.
After about one year, a huge outdoor public royal cremation will be held.
The new king, Vajiralongkorn, 64, was confirmed in 1972 by Bhumibol as sole heir to the throne.
King Vajiralongkorn's coronation would be after his father's cremation next year.
Prayuth meanwhile continues to strengthen his forces against his two biggest enemies, the Shinawatra siblings.
Former Prime Minister Yingluck is being prosecuted for her alleged "negligence" while administering rice subsidies during 2012-14.
She must pay $1 billion in compensation to the government for financial "losses" due to alleged mismanagement, including shoddy storage facilities, suspicious invoicing and other activities by officials under her administration.
"The legal officers confirmed this is not a violation of the law's spirit," Prayuth said on October 25, defending his regime's "administrative order" demanding she pay the $1 billion.
Yingluck denied the charges and can appeal in an Administrative Court.
Former Prime Minister Thaksin and his candidates repeatedly won elections by attracting neglected, lower classes in the north and northeast with populist policies including easy loans, inexpensive health care and Thaksin's extrajudicial war on drugs which left more than 2,000 people dead.
But Thaksin remains in self-exile abroad, dodging a two-year prison sentence for corruption during his administration.
Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978. He graduated from Columbia University's Journalism School and also received Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "'Hello My Big Big Honey!' Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews," "60 Stories of Royal Lineage," and "Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946." Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the chapter about "Ceremonies and Regalia" in a book published in English and Thai titled, "King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective." Mr. Ehrlich's newest Virtual Reality novel titled, "Sheila Carfenders, Doctor Mask & President Akimbo," is an immersive three-dimensional, one-hour experience with Oculus technology.
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