A brief guide to Thailand's royal succession

A brief guide to Thailand’s royal succession


1. INTRODUCTION AND WARNING. Thailand is convulsed by conflict over the royal succession as the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej draws to a close. Unacknowledged by the elite and poorly understood by most observers, the contested succession is the key to making sense of the chronic instability and recurrent confrontations that have plagued Thailand over the past decade. There has long been pervasive dread that the end of Bhumibol’s reign would be a time of turmoil in Thailand. That time is now. The king is still clinging to life but has become an increasingly spectral presence, and a bitter struggle over who will inherit his throne is already well under way.

Rivalry among competing factions of the elite to secure decisive influence over the succession has inflicted severe collateral damage on Thailand, enfeebling the economy, eroding the quality of governance, and undermining the rule of law. Bhumibol’s death may well trigger an escalation of the conflict before any resolution is reached. Until then, the country will be suspended in a state of perpetual crisis, blighted by corrosive uncertainty about the future. The eventual outcome is likely to influence Thailand’s destiny, prosperity and sense of identity for decades to come.

Most of Thailand’s 70 million people have been kept completely in the dark about this elite conflict that has enfeebled the economy, eroded the quality of governance and undermined the rule of law. Foreign companies with factories and offices in Thailand, and foreign investors holding Thai assets, are equally uninformed about their exposure to the acute political risk associated with the contested succession. Thailand’s draconian lèse majesté law criminalizes frank discussion of the monarchy, preventing ordinary people gaining adequate understanding of the succession conflict and how it is destabilizing their country. The foreign media has failed to challenge restrictions on reporting, and international news coverage of Thailand tends to be highly misleading, focusing on trivial issues such as the incessant squabbles among rival parties in parliament, and failing to adequately explain how and why the succession is dominating political developments. Brokerages and investment banks have mostly adopted a similar head-in-the sand attitude: fearful of mentioning the succession and lacking the information they need to fully understand its significance, they tend to pretend it is not worth mentioning at all.

The aim of this brief guide is to help Thais and all those with a stake in Thailand’s future understand the impact and implications of the royal succession struggle. It is based on more than 18 months of research including detailed analysis of over 3,000 Thai-related confidential U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks, ongoing conversations with hundreds of sources in Thailand and beyond, and extensive investigation to uncover corroboratory evidence. To write honestly about Thailand I had to exile myself indefinitely from the country as a fugitive from Thai law, and resign from a senior position at Reuters after 17 years as an international correspondent. Most journalists are understandably reluctant to go to such lengths, and this is why coverage of the monarchy is generally so poor. With the media failing to provide credible coverage, Thais mostly rely on rumours and stories shared via gossip and online forums to keep them informed about palace antics and issues. Royal folklore circulating in Thailand includes a dizzying array of tales of sharply varying degrees of accuracy, and the problem is figuring out what is fact and what is fiction. The information presented in this guide to the succession is not simply rehashed rumour: everything stated as fact is based on verified evidence, and particular care has been taken to confirm the details of the health of key players, which is central to the analysis.

The significance of the succession struggle does not diminish the importance of other momentous forces that are transforming Thailand: in particular, popular pressure for good governance and democracy, and technological and social changes that have swept away centuries of passivity among Thailand’s poor. But those factors are widely recognised, and so this guide focuses on explaining how unacknowledged conflict over the succession is the dominant political dynamic driving the strategy and behaviour of Thailand’s elite.

Finally, please bear in mind that this brief guide to the Thai succession contains multiple flagrant violations of the lèse majesté law.    I hope that readers find it useful and that it reaches a wide audience, but those in Thailand or intending to travel there in the foreseeable future should be aware that distributing or openly discussing this document represents a serious crime. Please consider your safety and take sensible precautions before sharing it or commenting on it.


2.1 OFFICIAL Despite Thailand’s divisions, there is remarkable apparent consensus among the elite that the royal succession will proceed smoothly according to clear rules and there is no cause for concern.

Officially the relevant rules governing the succession can be found in the 1924 Palace Law on Succession and the 2007 constitution.

The 1924 Palace Law was written under the supervision of King Vajiravudh, Rama VI, to prevent conflict and confusion by establishing a clear line of succession. Thai kings up to Vajiravudh routinely took several wives and consorts and fathered dozens of children, creating multiple claimants to the throne. The law stipulated that only males were eligible, and that succession followed the principle of male primogeniture, with the important modification that if the reigning monarch was polygamous, the rank of the mother would determine which line was paramount. So the monarch’s eldest son by the highest ranked queen would be first in line, followed by other sons by the most senior queen in descending order according to their age, then the monarch’s eldest son by the second ranked queen, and so on. Sons of women who were commoners, or foreign, were explicitly excluded.

In modern Thailand, where royal polygamy is no longer officially practised, the Palace Law on Succession implies straightforward male primogeniture. A woman cannot accede to the throne — Article 13 of the law states:

For the moment, it is still not appropriate for a woman to accede to the throne as a sovereign queen.

The relevant sections in the 2007 constitution, meanwhile, are as follows:

Section 18. Whenever the King is absent from the Kingdom or unable to perform His  functions for any reason whatsoever, the King will appoint a person Regent, and the President of the National Assembly shall countersign the Royal Command therefor.

Section 19. In the case where the King does not appoint a Regent under section 18,  or the King is unable to appoint a Regent owing to His not being sui juris or any other reason whatsoever, the Privy Council shall submit the name of a person suitable to hold the office of Regent to the National Assembly for approval. Upon approval by the National Assembly, the President of National Assembly shall make  an announcement, in the name of the King, to appoint such person as Regent.

During the expiration the term of the House of Representatives or the dissolution thereof, the Senate shall act as the National Assembly in giving an approval under paragraph one.

Section 20. While there is no Regent under section 18 or section 19, the President  of the Privy Council shall be Regent pro tempore.

In the case where the Regent appointed under section 18 or section 19 is unable to perform his or her duties, the  President of the Privy Council shall act as Regent pro tempore. While being Regent  under paragraph one or acting as Regent under paragraph two, the President of the  Privy Council shall not perform his or her duties as President of the Privy Council. In such case, the Privy Council shall select a Privy Councillor to act as President of the Privy Council pro tempore.

Section 21. Before taking office, the Regent appointed under section 18 or section 19 shall make a solemn declaration before the National Assembly in the following words:

“I, (name of the declarer), do solemnly declare that I will be loyal to His Majesty the King (name of the King) and will faithfully perform my duties in the interests of the country and of the people. I will also uphold and observe the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand in every respect.”

During the expiration of the term of the House of Representatives or the dissolution thereof, the Senate shall act as the National Assembly under this section.

Section 22. Subject to section 23, the succession to the Throne shall be in accordance with the Palace Law on Succession, B.E. 2467 (1924).

The Amendment of the Palace Law on Succession, B.E.2467 shall be the prerogative of the King. At the initiative of the King, the Privy Council shall draft the Palace Law Amendment and shall present it to the King for His consideration. When the King has already approved the draft Palace Law Amendment and put His signature thereon, the  President of the Privy Council shall notify the President of the National Assembly for informing the National Assembly. The President of the National Assembly  shall countersign the Royal Command, and the Palace Law Amendment shall have the  force of law upon its publication in the Government Gazette.

During the expiration of the term of the House of Representatives or the dissolution thereof, the Senate shall act as the National Assembly in acknowledging the matter under paragraph two.

Section 23. In the case where the Throne becomes vacant and the King has already appointed His Heir to the Throne under the Palace Law on Succession, B.E. 2467, the Council of Ministers shall notify the President of the National Assembly. The President of the National Assembly shall convoke the National Assembly for the acknowledgement thereof, and the President of the National Assembly shall invite such Heir to ascend the Throne and proclaim such Heir King.

In the case where the Throne becomes vacant and the King has not appointed His Heir under paragraph one, the Privy Council shall submit the name of the Successor to the Throne under section 22 to the Council of Ministers for further submission to the National Assembly for approval. For this purpose, the name of a Princess may be submitted. Upon the approval of the National Assembly, the President of the National Assembly shall invite such Successor to ascend the Throne and proclaim such Successor King.

During the expiration of the term of the House of Representatives or the dissolution thereof, the Senate shall act as the National Assembly in acknowledging the matter under paragraph one or in giving an approval under paragraph two.

Section 24. Pending the proclamation of the name of the Heir or the Successor to the Throne under section 23, the President of the Privy Council shall be Regent pro tempore. In the case where the Throne becomes vacant while the Regent has been  appointed under section 18 or section 19 or while the President of the Privy Council is acting as Regent under section 20 paragraph one, such Regent, as the case may be, shall continue to be the Regent until the proclamation of the name of the Heir or the Successor to ascend the Throne as King.

In the case where the Regent who has been appointed and continues to be the Regent under paragraph one is unable to perform his or her duties, the President of the Privy council shall act as Regent pro tempore.

In the case where the President of the Privy Council is the Regent under paragraph one or acts as Regent pro tempore under paragraph two, the provisions of section 20 paragraph three shall apply.

These rules on the succession — including the intriguing provision that if the king dies without naming a male heir, the privy council can propose a princess as monarch — were first introduced in the 1991 constitution, and were repeated verbatim in the 1997 and 2007 constitutions.

Applied to contemporary Thailand, the provisions of the 1924 Palace Law and the 2007 constitution have only one possible interpretation, according to all factions of the elite: Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn is the uncontested heir to the throne.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has produced an adulatory website about Thailand’s monarchy that includes a section with “Frequently Asked Questions” setting out the official position on the royal succession:

The issue of Royal succession is governed by both the Palace Law on Succession B.E. 2476 (1924) and the Constitution. As such, there are clearly stipulated rules and procedures as to what will happen should the need arise. Relevant provisions in the current Constitution also lay out the specific roles of the Privy Council, National Assembly and Cabinet. The sections on the monarchy in Thailand’s constitutions – be it the 1997 Constitution or the present 2007 Constitution – have remained substantively unchanged since 1991. Under these laws, it is His Majesty the King’s prerogative to appoint His Heir to the Throne. Once the King makes such a proclamation, the line of succession is clear. In this connection, His Royal Highness Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn was proclaimed Crown Prince, or in other words Heir to the Throne, in December 1972. There is thus no cause for uncertainty and no warranted basis for speculation otherwise.

During his tenure as prime minister from December 2008 to August 2011, the staunch royalist Abhisit Vejjajiva followed this line, although he sometimes appeared confused about the precise mechanics of succession. This video shows his rather awkward responses when questioned about the issue during a May 2009 visit to the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong:

Abhisit’s nemesis Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled populist leader who controls the current government nominally led by his sister Yingluck, has also stuck to this story. In a Bloomberg interview in Singapore in 2012, Thaksin claimed:

There shouldn’t be any problem about the succession of the throne. There is nothing to worry.

Both Abhisit and Thaksin have acknowledged that some Thais are apprehensive about the succession, arguing that this is natural because it will take time for Vajiralongkorn to earn the respect and affection that King Bhumibol built up during more than six decades on the throne. Here is Abhisit talking to Bloomberg in May 2009:

In a controversial interview with The Times in November 2009, Thaksin declared:

The Crown Prince, because he will be new, may not be as popular as His Majesty the King. However, he will have less problem because the palace circle will be smaller, because of being new in the reign.

Another remarkable set of answers to “Frequently Asked Questions”, released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during Thailand’s worst political violence in decades in May 2010, acknowledges that many Thais feel anxious about the succession:

The succession is certainly a difficult issue for Thais to discuss, given what His Majesty has done for more than 60 years for the well-being of all Thai people who regard him as a father figure. It is thus normal for people to be apprehensive.

The official narrative — that the prince is the unchallenged heir to the throne and that his succession will proceed smoothly according to clear rules — has confused many observers. Even analysts astute enough to understand that the succession has profoundly affected modern Thai political developments have often struggled to explain how this could be so, because they largely accept the story that Vajiralongkorn is the uncontested heir.

But in fact, it is a myth that Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn will proceed smoothly onto the throne of Thailand as King Rama X. The succession is contested, and is likely to be anything but smooth.

2.2 ACTUAL In Thai politics, the rules are rarely an impediment for the powerful. Laws and constitutions are highly flexible, and can be manipulated by those with money and clout. This is particularly true for the palace and the military.

Historically, since the emergence of Thai kingdoms more than seven centuries ago, rules of succession have tended to be interpreted particularly flexibly. For a succession to proceed smoothly according to set rules is exceptionally rare.

Tumultuous succession conflicts were commonplace in all the monarchies of the region, as Robert Heine-Geldern wrote in his classic 1956 study Conceptions of State and Kingship in Southeast Asia:

The deification of the king, while raising him to an almost unbelievably exalted position with regard to his subjects, has in no way succeeded in stabilizing government, rather the contrary. As explained above, the theory of divine incarnation, and even more so that of rebirth and of karma, provided an easy subterfuge for usurpers. The fact that the relatively easy task of seizing the palace, as in Burma and Siam, or of seizing the regalia, as in certain parts of Indonesia, often sufficed to be accepted as king by the whole nation, was bound to act as an additional incitement to rebellion. Moreover, the immense power and the lack of restrictions which the king enjoyed invited abuses which in the end made the monarch obnoxious to his subjects and hastened his downfall.

To this came the vagueness of the rules of succession. Sometimes the king himself chose his successor. Sometimes the ministers appointed a prince as king. Then again the queens unofficially but efficiently exercised their influence in favor of a prince of their choice. Often the crown simply fell to the prince who was the quickest to seize the palace and to execute his brothers. Under these circumstances it is no wonder that the empires of Southeast Asia from the very beginning were torn by frequent rebellion, often resulting in the overthrow of kings or even dynasties.

Thailand entirely fit with this pattern. Efforts to impose rules on the succession — such as the innovation introduced by King Trailok in the 15th century of monarchs designating an heir apparent or uparaja, usually a brother or eldest son — failed to prevent regular paroxysms of conflict. The German naturalist Engelbert Kaempfer, who travelled to Siam in the late 17th century, observed in his posthumously published The History of Japan: Together with a Description of the Kingdom of Siam that:
By virtue of the ancient Laws of Siam, upon the demise of the King, the Crown devolves on his Brother; and upon the Brother’s death, or if there be none, an the eldest Son. But this rule hath been so often broken through, and the right of Succession brought into such a confusion, that at present, upon the death of the King, he puts up for the Crown who is the most powerful of the Royal Family, and so it seldom happens that the next and lawful Heir ascends the Throne, or is able to maintain the peaceable possession of it.
This uncertainty of Succession even sometimes gives an opportunity to Strangers, who have no pretensions at all to aspire to the Throne…
Chronic conflict over the succession destabilised and weakened the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya in the 17th and 18th centuries, contributing to its cataclysmic collapse in 1767 as Burmese armies swept through Thai territory and sacked the capital. As Cornell University Professor David Wyatt wrote in Thailand: A Short History:
Ayutthaya’s lack of strong, durable political institutions, and mechanisms for the transfer of political power from one generation to the next, threatened the kingdom’s survival…
Virtually every royal succession in these two centuries turned into a political crisis. These crises became increasingly dangerous as the stakes grew higher. The nobles of the central bureaucracy had well-established economic, social and political interests to preserve, and any new king might radically alter the existing balance of power among them. If there was a real general crisis in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it stemmed from the tension between royal and noble power, between the paramountcy of the throne and the competition among elite, noble factions and interest groups.
Official histories tend to underplay the vicious intrigue and frequent spasms of violence that have always characterised Thai kingdoms as a result of conflict over the royal succession, but a recent hagiography, King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work, acknowledges the bloody history of Ayutthaya in an introduction written by freelance scholar Chris Baker:

Internally, competition for the throne, which had accrued enormous wealth, was intense. Succession laws were unclear. Intrigue was rife. When a king died, bloodline was a significant determinant of the heir but so too was clout. Hoping to advance their own status and and gain the spoils of increased manpower for themselves, factions of nobles surrounding the court lobbied in the name of rival heirs. Foreign traders and monks patronised by high princes also exerted influence over the selection. The losers in the succession dramas often lost their lives, and their entire families and allies were violently purged.

The current Chakri dynasty was established by an interloper called Thong Duang, a part-Mon and part-Chinese commoner who served as a royal page and rose to be governor of Ratchaburi and a general under King Taksin following the fall of Ayutthaya. Thong Duang seized the throne in 1782 after Taksin was overthrown and founded a new kingdom with Bangkok as its capital, proclaiming himself King Rama I. In an effort to ensure the longevity of his dynasty and prevent the savage power struggles over succession that had undermined Ayutthaya, he enacted various reforms including creating a new institution, the Council of Accession, supposedly with binding power to name a new monarch when the king died.

Yet succession conflicts plagued the House of Chakri too. Prince Tub, also known as Jessadabodindra, grabbed the throne as King Rama III in 1824 despite the fact that as the son of a concubine rather than a full queen, his claim was dubious. Prince Mongkut, the rightful heir according to the rules, was left in an extremely perilous position, and spent 17 years as a monk until becoming King Rama IV in 1851. His son Chulalongkorn, King Rama V, faced a serious confrontation with the uparaja, Prince Vichaichan, in 1874/75, during which a bomb attack set several buildings in the Grand Palace complex ablaze. Following this, Chulalongkorn abolished the position of uparaja in 1885, replacing it with the practice of naming a crown prince. The first crown prince, Vajirhunis, died before his father, in 1895. The second crown prince, Vajiravudh, became Rama VI in 1910, and enacted the Palace Law on Succession in 1924 in an effort to delineate a credible sequence of proximity to the throne among Chulalongkorn’s 33 sons.

Although chronic conflict over the succession had severely negative consequences for Siam over the centuries, there were good reasons why the rules were usually vague and interpreted flexibly by the elites. Among the biggest weaknesses of hereditary systems of government is the risk of an incompetent or malignant ruler coming to power. For this reason, many hereditary systems build in a degree of flexibility rather than sticking strictly to rigid rules of succession. As Robert L Solomon wrote in his RAND study Aspects of State, Kingship and Succession, published in 1970:

Southeast Asian practice — and ideal — regarding royal succession kept within the two poles of standardization of rules (which makes the transfer of office a smoother, more acceptable affair) and flexibility (necessary to maintain a minimal level of competence and adequacy.

A crucial element of the theology of Siamese kingship was that monarchs were legitimised not just by blood but also by merit. This corresponds to the two intertwined traditions of Buddhism and Brahmanism that provide the spiritual foundations for the Thai monarchy. In the Buddhist tradition, the monarch gains legitimacy from merit, while in the Brahmanical tradition legitimacy derives directly from the king’s royal blood. As Christine Gray explained in her brilliant 1986 PhD thesis Thailand: The Soteriological State:

The Thai royal tradition that developed from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century was an amalgam of Buddhist and Hindu beliefs about the divine and sacred qualities of the king. This tradition incorporated two potentially contradictory ideologies of purity and power: the Hindu, based on the idea that the king’s ‘sacrality’ [khwam saksit] was a function of his “pure substance” (i.e., his pure blood or biogenetic substance) and the Buddhist, based on the idea that the king’s sacrality was primarily a function of his pure religious practice (selfless action). In the Hindu tradition, the king’s superior wisdom and insight, his powerful propensity towards world renunciation, were seen literally as inhering in his pure blood; pure blood was both a symbol of purity and the physical “stuff” of purity — high rank, merit, ability, and pure practice were conjoined features in a cultural matrix. In the Buddhist tradition, the king’s ability and wisdom were represented as arising solely from his renunciatory activities — in much the same way that this process occurs for Buddhist monks (who, as the Buddha made clear, may come from all strata of society); the king’s pure blood was deemphasized, subsumed within talk of royal genealogies. The concept of royal genealogy remained ambiguous.

The importance of preserving pure royal blood led to routine incest in Siamese royal dynasties: kings and princes often married their own half-sisters and cousins. This has persisted to the present day: King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit are cousins, and Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn’s first marriage was to his cousin Princess Soamsawali.

But the importance of merit as well as blood created significant ambiguity, which has always been reflected in Thai succession struggles. It was not enough for an aspiring king to have pure royal blood: he also had to display merit. As the anthropologist Stanley J. Tambiah observed in The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets, Siamese kings were not directly identified with the Hindu god Shiva, as the Khmer god-kings of Angkor had been. Siamese royals had to legitimise their claim to power through meritorious conduct and political success:

There were no stable dynasties of rulers who succeeded one another according to defined and predictable rules of heirship. If there were “divine” kings, they were continually dethroned by palace rebellions and wars of secession. The “divinity,” or claims to righteous or universal kingship, were based on “personal charisma” rather than on institutionalised rules pertaining to the tenure of an “office.”

Tambiah noted that kings — and those wanting to become king — could attempt to legitimise themselves through ostentatious personal virtue that would enable them to claim they were a dhamaraja or cakravartin, conforming to the highest ideals of monarchy. A second legitimating strategy was to win physical possession of the palace and of sacred artefacts and palladia. It was widely believed that force alone could not win possession of palaces and artefacts imbued with royal and sacred power: only the righteous could possess them. Thong Duang, the first Chakri king, exploited his possession of a small jade figurine known as the Emerald Buddha to legitimise his reign. He seized the sacred artefact from the Lao capital of Vientiane in 1779 and it remains the palladium of Chakri-era Thailand, housed in a temple inside the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok.

Violent succession struggles tended to automatically confer a degree of spiritual legitimacy on the winner. Anyone who successfully seized the throne could proclaim this as proof of their merit, even if they were not closely connected to the royal bloodline. The rules for succession took second place to the survival of the fittest. Contested successions tended to weed out weak and incompetent candidates. They were less effective at excluding corrupt and amoral pretenders to the throne: it was an asset in succession conflicts to be well versed in the dark arts of bribery, deception and intrigue, and to be unsqueamish about extreme brutality (including the murder of close relatives) when necessary.

In modern Thailand, the rules for succession remain flexible, and deliberately so. It is as important as ever for the palace to give itself some room for manoeuvre and avoid the prospect of an unsuitable monarch acceding to the throne. Besides the old beliefs that the king must exemplify the highest moral standards, which still persist in 21st century Siam, a new reason has emerged for avoiding rigid adherence to the rules: democracy.

A hereditary monarchy that wields absolute or significant political power is fundamentally incompatible with the principles of democracy. As demands for democracy grew louder during the 20th century, the Thai monarchy was in an increasingly perilous position. Instead of retreating to a purely ceremonial role, the palace sought to portray itself as an inherently democratic institution, making the extraordinary claim that the monarch reigned only with popular assent. But the pretence that the king was somehow elected by the people could not be sustained if an unpopular ruler was allowed to accede to the throne. King Prajadhipok, Rama VII, was privately painfully aware of this reality. As he wrote to U.S. advisor Francis Sayre in 1926:

As you well know, the king has absolute power in everything. This principle is very good and very suitable for the country, as long as we have a good king. If the king is really an elected king, it is probable that he would be a fairly good king.

But this idea of election is really a theoretical one. The kings of Siam are really hereditary, with a very limited possibility of choice. Such being the case, it is not at all certain that we shall always have a good king. The absolute power may become a positive danger to the country…

The position of king has become one of great difficulty. The movements of opinion in this country give a sure sign that the days of autocratic rulership are numbered. The position of the king must be made more secure if this dynasty is going to last. Some kind of guarantee must be found against an unwise king.

It was an explicit recognition that the survival of the Chakri dynasty depended upon ensuring some flexibility in future royal successions to prevent an undesirable candidate becoming king.

The absolute monarchy in Siam came to a sudden end in 1932 when a group of foreign-educated bureaucrats and military officers seized power. Prajadhipok became a constitutional monarch, and abdicated in 1935. But Thailand’s royalists have never accepted the palace being relegated to solely symbolic status. As Benedict Anderson wrote in his brilliant 1977 essay Studies of the Thai State: The State of Thai Studies:

‘Royalism’ in the sense of an active quest for real power in the political system by the royal family … persists in a curiously antique form in contemporary Siam.

To provide ideological justification for the continued political power of the palace, royalists formulated the concept of “Thai-style democracy”. This philosophy has gone through several incarnations, all of which involved rejecting popular sovereignty and promoting the palace as the source and safeguard of democracy in Thailand. This required the continued pretence that the monarch ruled by popular assent. In a famous lecture in 1946, The Old Siamese Conception of the Monarchy, royal mythologist Prince Dhani Nivat claimed:

A Siamese monarch succeeds to the Throne theoretically by election. The idea is of course recognisable as coming from the old Buddhist scriptures in the figure of King Mahasammata, the ‘Great Elect.’ No hard and fast rules exist as to how electors are qualified as such, but’ they were usually royal and temporal Lords of the Realm sometimes doing their business in the presence, but not with the participation, of spiritual Lords. Irregular successions there certainly have been, but they were exceptions rather than the rule.

The current monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, claims to be the democratic choice of his people. He told U.S. magazine Look in 1967:

I really am an elected king. If the people do not want me, they can throw me out, eh? Then I will be out of a job.

In reality, there has never been a precedent in centuries of Thai history for “the people” overthrowing a monarch. When monarchs were deposed it was by the elite, usually as part of a succession struggle. The last time a king was toppled was in 1782 when Bhumibol’s ancestor Thong Duang seized power from King Taksin and began the Chakri dynasty. But for the monarchy to maintain its relevance in the 21st century and hang on to its privileges and political influence, the pretence of the elected king must be maintained. Above all, this requires manipulating the royal succession so that a highly unpopular monarch never accedes to the throne. The rules must remain vague enough and flexible enough to permit some leeway in selecting the designated heir.

The 1924 Palace Law on Succession contains a provision explicitly aimed at preventing the accession of an undesirable monarch. Article 10 states:

The Heir who is to succeed to the Throne should be fully respected by the people and the people should be able to rely on him happily. If he is considered by the majority of the people as objectionable, he should be out of the line to the Throne.

The claim of the Thai monarchy to be somehow democratic rests heavily on this provision being applied when appropriate.

The prospect of Vajiralongkorn succeeding Bhumibol and becoming King Rama X is therefore by no means inevitable. Claims by the elite that the crown prince will smoothly  inherit the throne are highly misleading.

King Bhumibol can designate any heir he chooses. Although the constitutional provision effective since 1991 that a princess may accede to the throne appears to conflict with the 1924 Palace Law on Succession, in practice this need not restrict Bhumibol’s choice, because since 1991 the constitution has also given the king the sole prerogative to change the 1924 law whenever he wishes. If he wished to name a woman as his successor, he could do so simultaneously with announcing a change to the Palace Law.

If Bhumibol dies without making any formal comment about an heir, Vajiralongkorn will still not automatically inherit the throne. It remains unclear whether the crown prince has already been officially designated as Bhumibol’s heir. In 1972, when Vajiralongkorn was 20 years old, Bhumibol performed a ceremony naming him crown prince of Thailand. But in 1977, the king elevated his second daughter Sirindhorn to the status of potential heir to the throne too. Official sources usually explain this move by characterising it as a precaution in case anything happened to Vajiralongkorn, and claim it did not cast the prince’s status as heir into doubt. But in fact, the elevation of Sirindhorn to crown princess generated significant ambiguity that has never been satisfactorily resolved. Most elite sources, including Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, insist that the 1972 ceremony formally designated Vajiralongkorn as heir to the throne. But Sukhumband Paripatra, a cousin of Bhumibol and great grandson of Chulalongkorn with considerable expertise in royal protocol, told Spiegel in an April 2009 interview that “as far as we know” the king has not formally chosen his successor.

If this ambiguity is not cleared up by Bhumibol before his death, it could open the way for elite factions to challenge Vajiralongkorn’s succession. Even if the king does clarify who he wants to succeed him, there is no ironclad guarantee that his wishes would be followed, particularly if the designated choice is unpopular and has powerful enemies among the elite. If that were the case, a challenge to Vajiralongkorn’s succession could be mounted after Bhumibol’s death, based on Article 10 of the Palace Law on Succession. Because of the important constitutional role of the privy council in the succession process, any attempt to block the crown prince’s accession would be unlikely to succeed without the support by the privy council president and most of his colleagues. It would also be unlikely to succeed without the consent of parliament  — or if parliament was somehow dissolved or neutralised, with the consent of the senate. Finally, given the military’s self-proclaimed role as defender of the Thai monarchy, any attempt to interfere with the royal succession would almost certainly be crushed by the army unless senior generals were on board with the plan.

Just like the succession struggles of past centuries, the outcome would then be determined not by the rules, but by a test of strength among competing factions of the elite.