Donald Trump, King of the US, and Rama X, New King of Thailand
Thailand and the US are in the process of adjusting to controversial new leaders. Look out for the amazing parallels.
December 10, 2016
Donald Trump is not the only unusual and controversial person now in the process of achieving the highest office in his land.
Last week, Thailand’s Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn accepted the “invitation” to become king in succession to King Bhumipol who had held the title since 1946.
He is now Rama X (tenth king) of the Chakri dynasty, founded in 1782 by a general who seized power by killing the then King Taksin. The 64-year-old Vajiralongkorn will be crowned sometime next year, after a long period of mourning for his father.
In one way, Trump and Vajiralongkorn are very much alike (and on Trump’s part of the equation needs no repeating). The little that is known of his Thai counterpart revolves around snippets of information about a colourful private life.
In another regard, Trump and Vajiralongkorn could not be more different. While Trump travelled a lot for his businesses, there is no doubt that his home base was the United States.
The same is not true for the future Thai king. Although hailing from a very tradition-bound country, the Crown Prince was conspicuous by his absence. He spent more time at his house in Munich, Germany, than in Thailand and made few official appearances.
He is thus very much unlike one of his three sisters, the earnest but unmarried Princess Sirindhorn, popular for her dutiful royal attendances at worthy events.
Speculation over succession
For the past two decades, there has been speculation that Vajiralongkorn might not succeed his father. Would Thais break tradition and anoint a woman – Sirindhorn?
Or choose an under-age royal children, leaving the throne in the hands of a Regent appointed by the Privy Council, an group of elderly insiders headed by 96-year-old Prem Tinsulanonda, a former general who was prime minister for most of the 1980s?
That question mark has now been made redundant. Like it or not, the only son of Bhumipol is now king. The Thai media, under the guidance of Prayuth Chan-ocha, head of the military junta which took power in 2014, is going overboard in praise of the new monarch.
Meanwhile, references to the royals are kept in check by Internet monitoring and the threat of lése majésté laws which can bring long jail terms to those criticize royal persons or the institution.
Two outsiders taking power
The comparisons with Trump are first that he and the future Thai king are both outsiders who are widely scorned for their past. Second, no one has much idea of how they will now act.
Of course, in theory a U.S. president has immense direct power, while a Thai king has very little. But reality can be different.
Trump’s tweets are hemmed in by institutions. Rama X’s scant constitutional power is offset by the decades spent by various, mostly army-backed, regimes in bolstering the prestige and importance of the Thai monarchy. Coups have been launched in its name.
For sure, the new king benefits from the reputation of his father. The sheer length of his reign boosted the monarchy from a colorful irrelevance in 1946 to a mighty instrument of military-backed conservatism.
The Munich factor
As far as Vajiralongkorn is concerned, the answer to the future may lie in the reason he spent so much time living in Munich.
- Was it that he felt freer to carry on his private life and pleasures?
- Was he fearful of his fate in Bangkok knowing that many among the elite did not want him to take the throne?
Vajiralongkorn’s much venerated father had been on his sickbed for a decade before he died. The speculation over the succession issue was endless.
The future king must also have been mindful that Bhumibol inherited the throne only after his own elder brother, King Ananda, was mysteriously murdered at age twenty.
Others speculate that the reason for his prolonged absence was the Crown Prince at odds with the military and royalist forces who repeatedly overthrew the elected governments of Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The comparisons with the character conversion required of Trump to assume the U.S. Presidency for real is readily apparent.
One would expect that both Trump and the future Thai king need to make a transition, difficult though it may be, from always opting for the fanciful to succumbing to the dutiful.
Thais, for their part, are quietly wondering
- Now that he has the status of king, will Vajiralongkorn opt for a quiet (and safe) life attending dutifully to ceremonies and good works?
- Or will the one who has hitherto shunned public life want to show that he is his own man, not become a cipher for those using monarchism as a cudgel against Thaksin?
- Will the Crown Prince now take his independent and wayward streak into the higher office?
The specter of Thaksin lurks
An early answer to this question is unlikely. The nation will be in waiting at least until the mourning is over and the new king crowned.
But that roughly corresponds to the time when the junta will have to put its new and very illiberal constitution to the test of an election.
Any election would provide an opportunity for Thaksin’s supporters to show their numbers, even though the outcome is likely to be rigged against them.
Man in the middle?
The new Thai king will also have the opportunity to renew the powerful Privy Council and finally replace Prem Tinsulanonda, the 96-year old former general and prime minister who has been its president since 1998.
Again, people wonder: Will Vajiralongkorn also attempt to make himself a bridge between Thaksin, the military and monarchists?
If so, his goal would be to try to end the deep divide – socio-economic as well as political. This issue has roiled the nation at least since Thaksin was overthrown by a coup a decade ago.
The junta’s role
Maintaining stability through the royal transition has long been one of the reasons cited for military intervention. But now that event has passed, so far without overt signs of discord, Thai politics can possibly begin to escape from uneasy stasis.
The junta is finding that there is no easy escape from Thailand’s economic dilemmas, sluggish performance and deep income divides.
It is now following much the same path as the Shinawatras whom it accused of corruption and waste of state resources.
China, the U.S. and Germany
The situation may also have some foreign policy implications. Partly in pursuit of China trade and partly irritated by being criticised by the U.S. and EU for the coup, the Thai junta has been obsequious in its attitude to China. Trump’s anti-trade agenda could push that further.
But in the longer run, Thai foreign policy is pragmatic and will seek to avoid over-dependence on a giant near-neighbor. And with his liking for Germany, the new king may have his own views on the world.
So, while the world asks whether Trump will turn tweets into policy, Thais ask (quietly) whether the new king will break silence. If so, the question is whether the monarchists will listen to the monarch.
In one way, Trump and Vajiralongkorn are very alike. In another regard, they could not be more different.
Trump and the future Thai king are both outsiders who are widely scorned for their past.
Trump and the future Thai king need to stop opting for the fanciful and start succumbing to the dutiful.
While the world asks whether Trump will turn tweets into policy, Thais ask whether the new king will break silence.