What The Ouster Of The Royal Consort May Say About Where Thailand Is Heading
Earlier this week, Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn stripped his consort of all her ranks and titles, just months after officially granting her the role. A statement from the palace accused her of disloyalty, ingratitude and over-stepping her role.
While seemingly personal in nature, some experts suggest the king's firing of Sineenatra Wongvajirabhakdi, 34, may be another power move by a monarch who has worked to amass personal authority since he succeeded his father in 2016. In an additional move, announced Wednesday, the king also ordered the dismissal of six senior palace officials for "extremely evil" conduct.
When the king, 67, bestowed the title of "royal noble consort" on Sineenatra in July, she became the first royal consort since Thailand outlawed polygyny in 1935. A consort functions as companion to the king, but with a different status from the queen.
Sineenatra served as a major general and a nurse in Thailand's army and, when elevated to consort, took a larger role in the government bureaucracy and civil service.
In August, the Royal Household Bureau's website crashed when it published her biography, accompanied by dozens of photos including some of her in an aircraft cockpit wearing a camouflage-print sports bra.
A statement from the Royal Household Bureau announcing Sineenatra's dismissal accused her of "disrespectful behavior" and trying to supplant Queen Suthida Vajiralongkorn Na Ayudhya, the king's fourth wife, whom he married in May. Sineenatra "had opposed the coronation of Her Majesty the Queen," the statement said, and "breached royal authority by issuing orders involving Their Majesties' activities."
Tamara Loos, the chair of Cornell University's history department and an expert on Southeast Asia, tells NPR the demotion marks a "stunning moment in Thai history." She notes that the public appointment and demotion of the king's consort indicates that Vajiralongkorn not only supports an outdated form of marriage, "but he's supporting one that values inequality and hierarchy."
Those values "don't align with notions of human rights and democracy," Loos says, and show "that King Vajiralongkorn is systematically arrogating power exclusively to himself" — putting Thailand, which began its transition to a constitutional monarchy in 1932, "in danger of reverting to an absolute monarchy."
Before his coronation in May, the king took personal control of the Crown Property Bureau, which controls the royal fortune, and signed a new military-backed constitution including a provision that he requested to allow him to leave the country without appointing a regent. Earlier this year, he disqualified his own sister from running as a candidate for prime minister and then ordered two army units in Bangkok under his direct command.
"All of these steps point to an attempt by the king to reassert a kind of absolutism that we haven't seen in Thailand since the 1920s," Loos says.
Thailand's House of Representatives is elected by popular vote, but the Senate is appointed by the military. While the military is ostensibly separate from the government, many bureaucrats, politicians and high-level officials also hold military ranks, Loos says. Thailand has a long history of military interventions, including a slew of coup d'états during civilian rule, the most recent in 2014.
Thailand's monarchy is known to exert its power in government, unlike other constitutional monarchies such as Great Britain or Japan, where monarchs serve as heads of state but exert no real power, says Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia with the Council on Foreign Relations.
In Thailand, Kurlantzick says, "In the past, the previous king [Bhumibol Adulyadej] had intervened in politics all the time, but he usually did so behind closed doors."
In the 1970s, for example, Vajiralongkorn's father allowed student protesters onto royal palace grounds, Kurlantzick says, "laying the groundwork for the end" of a dictatorial prime minister's rule.
Kurlantzick believes it's impossible to know whether the king's dismissal of his consort was personal or political, but says Vajiralongkorn is "amassing more power and exercising it more openly than his father did." In doing so, the king "is undermining the political stability of the country in some ways," which would be reason for concern in Southeast Asia and in countries with close relations to Thailand, such as Japan, China and the U.S.
But it's difficult for that concern to be expressed, he says, given Thailand's strictly enforced lèse-majesté laws. Those laws strictly forbid and make it illegal to insult the king or anyone connected to him — including the military — without risking up to 15 years in jail.
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