Thai King Caps His Coronation Year With a River Extravaganza

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Thailand hosted a rare procession of gilded royal barges Thursday to complete King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s coronation ceremony, capping a year when the monarch repeatedly displayed his authority.

The flotilla with 2,200 oarsmen took the king -- the head of state in Thailand’s constitutional monarchy -- and Queen Suthida Bajrasudhabimalalakshana along Bangkok’s Chao Phraya river. The event came at the end of a tumultuous year in which military rule concluded after the first general election since a coup in 2014.

Thai King Caps His Coronation Year With a River Extravaganza

Vajiralongkorn’s steps included rejecting his sister’s shock candidacy for prime minister ahead of the disputed March poll, rebuking exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra as well as a number of royal aides, and taking command of some army units. The actions demonstrate a different approach to kingship since taking the throne in 2016 compared to his father.

“He’s asserting power,” said Tamara Loos, professor of history and Asian studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York who has published books about Thailand. “He’s creating a new kind of kingship that’s backed by the military and quasi-elected officials.”

Thai King Caps His Coronation Year With a River Extravaganza

The Bureau of the Royal Household referred requests for comment to the Office of His Majesty’s Principal Private Secretary, which couldn’t immediately be reached by telephone.

Tangled Politics

Thailand continues to face political divisions that in the past led to sometimes bloody demonstrations followed by military coups. Future Forward, the most high-profile opposition party, last week warned protests could erupt again if a slew of legal cases lead to its dissolution by judges.

The reform-minded party is part of an opposition bloc that controls almost half the lower house of parliament, and which has questioned the fairness of the March election and its outcome following five years under a junta.

A pro-military coalition led by former junta chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha took office after the poll with a slim majority. It subsequently faced a complaint of illegitimacy for failing to utter the whole oath of office in a swearing in ceremony in front of Vajiralongkorn.

Thai King Caps His Coronation Year With a River Extravaganza

Oath of Office

Television footage indicates the final sentence of the oath as mandated by the charter was omitted. The full oath is:

“I swear I will be loyal to His Majesty and perform my duties honestly for the benefit of the country and the people. I will also uphold and comply with the constitution of the kingdom in every aspect.”

The Constitutional Court in September refused to accept the complaint, saying the swearing-in ceremony lay beyond its jurisdiction.

A month later, parliament backed an emergency decree transferring some army units to Vajiralongkorn’s command. But 70 lawmakers from Future Forward voted against the decree, arguing that while they are loyal to the monarch, the issue wasn’t an emergency.

Their rejection of the motion stunned a nation that treats top royals as semi-divine and officially above politics, and views edicts related to them as sacrosanct.

Public discussion of the monarchy is also curtailed by lese-majeste laws, which allow for as long as 15 years in prison for defaming, insulting or threatening the king, queen, heir apparent or regent.

‘Internal Reorganization’

Steps such as the transfer of the army units point to “an internal reorganization that’s creating a separation of power between the monarchy and the government,” said Jade Donavanik, chairman of the Faculty of Law at the College of Asian Scholars in northeastern Thailand.

As they are internal matters to do with the royal household, they don’t have much of an impact on how Thailand is run day-to-day, Jade said.

Later in October, the nation was transfixed when the first royal noble consort in almost a century was stripped of her title a few months after her appointment. In a nighttime Royal Gazette statement, the consort was accused of trying to make herself equivalent to the queen, defying the royal couple and causing conflict among royal household officials.

While 67-year-old Vajiralongkorn was formally crowned in May, he ascended to the throne in 2016 after the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Assets

The following year, Vajiralongkorn gained ownership of Crown Property Bureau assets through legal changes he approved. His stakes in Siam Commercial Bank Pcl and Siam Cement Pcl, two major listed Thai firms, are worth about $8 billion combined, according to the firms’ websites and Bloomberg calculations. The full value of the bureau’s real estate and other holdings isn’t clear.

Heading into 2020, the focus is on the balance of power in parliament and whether the coalition can pass the delayed annual budget with its razor-thin majority. The spending hold up is weighing on the struggling Thai economy.

Thai King Caps His Coronation Year With a River Extravaganza

Future Forward, the third-largest party, has said there’s a risk it could be broken up as early as next month. The Constitutional Court has already disqualified its leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit from the legislature for breaching media shareholding rules in a case he said was politically motivated.

Steps such as those against Future Forward “don’t bode well for democratic processes and civil society,” said Cornell’s Loos.

“We’ll see a gradual demotion of rival factions,” she said. “We’ll be left with a strong military that’s aligned with the monarch.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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