Reviews | A divided Thai house


Mr Prem resigned in 1988, largely due to infighting within his government, but he remained influential behind the scenes. In particular, he would have advised Bhumibol during the turbulent period of 1991-92. After General Suchinda Kraprayoon, a member of the then ruling junta, reneged on his promise not to become prime minister, there were pro-democracy protests and then the army killed protesters. Bhumibol intervened, calling for a truce while keeping his distance from the military, and established a reputation as a stabilizing force and neutrality. In 1998, Bhumibol appointed Mr. Prem to chair the Privy Council, an advisory body that protects the interests of the monarchy and propagates its views. At this time, unelected institutions like the Privy Council and the courts were increasingly influencing Thai politics.

The power of Mr. Prem and his supporters in the network monarchy continued to grow until 2001. In that year, telecommunications mogul Thaksin Shinawatra won the election by a crushing, thanks to a populist platform. promising to reduce rural poverty. Tensions between elected and unelected institutions turned into open conflict, as Mr Thaksin threatened to reshape the political landscape and challenge the dominance of the monarchy and the military. He was ousted in 2006 in a coup widely believed to have been orchestrated by Mr. Prem. (He denied it.)

Thaksin was not the only loser, however. Soon the Prem faction found itself weakened by the emergence of an anti-coup movement, the so-called Red Shirts, as well as anti-monarchist sentiment, which grew as Bhumibol’s health deteriorated. Queen Sirikit, meanwhile, was becoming more active politically, in part to compensate for Bhumibol’s declining authority.

Sirikit’s position has been strengthened in recent years with the promotion of men from the Queen’s Guard to key positions in the military. General Prayuth was deputy chief of the army in May 2010 when the army cracked down on protesters in red shirts in Bangkok’s business district; a few months later, he became head of the army. Most of the leaders of the 2014 coup are members of the Queen’s Guard.

Although Sirikit suffered a severe stroke in 2012, his followers remain powerful and now appear poised to influence the royal succession. Prayuth’s government apparently backs Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, whom Bhumibol designated as his heir apparent in 1972. Vajiralongkorn, for his part, appears to have backed General Prayuth’s coup – by chairing, for example, the inaugural session of the National Legislative Assembly in August 2014.

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