Thailand’s coronation comes amid political conundrum

From 4-6 May, King Vajiralongkorn was crowned in one of the most elaborate traditional coronation ceremonies in the world while Thailand faces a political conundrum.

Source: Thai TV

With influences from Hinduism, the coronation of King Vajiralongkorn was the first in Thailand in 69 years. With a 1 billion baht budget and Prayut Chan-o-cha, Prime Minister and head of junta, as the head of the organizing committee, the coronation of King Vajiralongkorn took 5 months of preparation. Monday 6 May was made a national holiday by the government. Skytrain and subway rides were free for everybody on 5-6 May. All department stores in Thailand played songs in praise of the new King. Many people wore yellow to celebrate the coronation either voluntarily or under the encouragement of their workplaces, because King Vajiralongkorn, like his father, was born on a Monday, and yellow is the auspicious colour for Monday in Thai belief.

On 4 May, King Vajiralongkorn, in white robes, was bathed in sacred water. Then, in royal dress, he was anointed with sacred water by 8 members of the royal and political elite of Thailand, stationed in 8 cardinal directions around the King. These included two descendants of King Rama V (Mongkolchalerm Yugala and Chalermsuk Yugala), the President of the Privy Council (Prem Tinsulanonda), the President of the National Assembly (Pornpetch Wichitcholchai), the President of the Supreme Court (Cheep Chulamon), a member of the Royal Society (Charas Suwanwela), the Prime Minister (Prayut Chan-o-cha), and the Minister of Interior (Anupong Paochinda). With help of the bureaucracy and military, the sacred water was brought from an unprecedented 126 local sources in 76 provinces in Thailand, while the coronation of the late King Bhumibol in 1950 used 108 sources.

Source: Thai TV

With the royal ablution, royal anointment, and the coronation, King Vajiralongkorn is now the rightful King of Thailand. “I shall continue, maintain, develop, and rule this land with righteousness for the happiness of the people forever”, said King Vajiralongkorn, after sitting on the throne and being crowned as the rightful monarch of Thailand in the coronation ceremony on 4 May at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The statement was concordant with that of the late King Bhumibol, his father, who said at his coronation “I shall rule this land with righteousness for the happiness of the Thai people.”

It was as if all resentment disappeared during the coronation. Thaksin Shinawatra, the fugitive ex-Prime Minister, asked in an interview with BBC Thai on 26 March what he would suggest himself if there were negotiations with the army, said “Just think of me as another Thai citizen, and an ex-Prime Minister who loves the country, loves the people and loves the King.” But his royal decorations were revoked by the King on March 30, 6 days after the questionable General Election. The claim was that he had been sentenced to exile. Still, Thaksin Shinawatra posted on Twitter on 4 May the message “Long live the King on the occasion of the coronation ceremony” and a poem in praise of the King.

On the same day, Princess Ubolratana, the King’s older sister, reportedly hugged King Vajiralongkorn during the coronation ceremony. On 5 May, the second day of the coronation ceremony, when the King was to give official royal titles to members of the Chakri dynasty, Princess Ubolranata was not given one, but this seems to be what she wished. In February, the Thai Raksa Chart Party, a party associated with Thaksin, nominated Princess Ubolratana to be their PM candidate. The Princess had renounced her royalty in 1972 to marry Peter Ladd Jensen (they are now divorced), and insisted she was an ordinary person. However, the King announced the nomination unconstitutional and inappropriate as she remained a member of the royal family. In March, the Constitutional Court dissolved the Thai Raksa Chart Party for threatening the constitutional monarchy. Asked on Instagram by her followers why she did not get a royal title, the Princess explained “because of my work, it’s more convenient and effective this way.” She has been correcting her followers that instead of praising her “long live Her Highness”, they should say “long live slender.” 

Source: Princess Ubolratana's Instagram

After giving royal titles to the members of the royal family, King Vajiralongkorn with his royal entourage, consisting of the King’s Guard, military and police, and a marching band, went along Ratchadamnoen Avenue, from the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Since this is the first coronation in the age of the smart phone, people who came to reserve places along the street since the early morning took pictures, posted them on social media and chanted “Long live the King” as King Vajiralongkorn passed by in the evening. On the evening of 6 May, the King made a public appearance at Phra Thinang Sutthaisawan Prasat of the Grand Palace along with royal family members to celebrate with the people. Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana, the King’s daughter, reportedly captured the moment and posted it on her official Instagram and Facebook pages.

But smartphones mean that Thai people can express their love differently. On eve of the election, the King made an announcement to the Thai people to choose good people to rule this country. Right after the announcement, the hashtag 'We are grown-ups and can choose for ourselves' soared to the top of Twitter trending. Three days before the coronation, King Vajiralongkorn announced his marriage to now-Queen Suthida, and the hashtag 'Queen' tops Twitter again. In the eyes of authorities, a too deviant expression of love can be inappropriate, or even illegal under Article 112 which means 3 to 15 years in jail.  

The Political Conundrum

On 1st January 2019, the Royal Palace announced that the coronation ceremony of King Vajiralongkorn would be held from 4 to 6 May. The government then postponed the election from 24 February to 24 March so that it would not affect the coronation. Demonstrations were held to end the election delay after the NCPO government lifted the restrictions on freedom of expression. After the coronation, Thailand’s political future remains uncertain. With the political stalemate after the General Election on 24 March, the junta has been trying every way to form the next government.

First, the anti-junta bloc has been under attack from a series of lawsuits. According to the Financial Times, Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit said the party faces 16 accusations, 6 of which are against him personally. Apart from sedition, the most recent is on the ground that he remained a shareholder of V-Luck Media Company, although he insists he transferred his shares on 8 January. If convicted, he can no longer be an MP. Surapol Kietchaiyakorn of the Pheu Thai party, who won in Constituency 8 of Chiang Mai, was banned from politics for 1 year for donating 2,000 baht in cash and a clock to Phra Khruba Sam of Wat Phra That Doi Chao. 

Second, the appointed senate is coming. Peerasak Porjit, the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, said that 60 of the 250 senators appointed by the junta will be from the National Assembly, a legislative body which has been working for the military government since 2014. The King will officially endorse the senators, after they have been nominated by the NCPO, on 10 May. During the first 5 years of the 2017 constitution, the Senate has a say in voting for the Prime Minister.

Third, even now, the junta-appointed Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) still has not announced the complete election results. The ECT released the official results of the constituency elections on 7 May, but the real trouble is the party-list MPs. The 2017 constitution, drafted by the NCPO-appointed Constitution Drafting Committee and approved in a national referendum, specifies a single-ballot system, with a single vote for the two types of MP. In constituency elections, the winner is still decided in a first-past-the-post system. But the party-list system requires a more sophisticated calculation, since voters have no direct way to elect party-list MPs of the political party of their choice.

The problem is that the ECT still has no idea how to calculate the party-list MPs. On 11 April, the ECT requested the Constitutional Court to decide how to calculate the party-list MPs, but the Court dismissed the request on 24 April, saying it was a matter under the authority of the ECT. Kriangkrai Leekitwattana then filed a request with the Ombudsman to consider if the Organic Law on the Election of MPs contradicts the Constitution, and therefore if the election is valid at all. The Ombudsman dismissed the issue of invalidating the election, but filed a request with the Constitutional Court to rule on the constitutionality of the Organic Law. This time, the Court accepted the request.

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Now, the Court has two main choices. One is to rule that the Organic Law is valid. The Organic Law may require that ECT’s calculation include a minimum vote requirement for a party to get a party-list MP. This will probably mean that 16 parties will get MPs. The alternative is to rule that the Organic Law is invalid. This means that the more ambiguous Article 91 of the Constitution, which lacks the minimum vote requirement, will play a decisive role in the calculation. If the latter is applied, it means that as many as 27 political parties will get party-list MPs, and the anti-junta bloc in the House of Representatives will have even fewer seats. The Future Forward Party, for example, may lose 8 seats under this calculation method. The Constitutional Court will rule on the matter tomorrow.