My first introduction to the “people’s king” came on a sunny Monday morning in Bangkok. Surrounded on all sides by a crush of yellow shirts on my way to the office, I marveled at this voluntary display of sartorial harmony. From poor street vendors to well-heeled office workers, reverence for the King transcended societal lines.
For generations of Thai citizens who lived through the Cold War, political uprisings and coups, and the economic upheaval of globalization, King Bhumibol Adulyadej was the one constant in a sea of change – the North Star pointing the way back to what it meant to be “Thai” in a rapidly changing world.
With the King’s passing last week, Thailand must now chart a course forward for a nation that looks very different from the quiet agrarian state Bhumibol inherited in 1946. But with an unpopular royal successor and a divided political elite, the way ahead is as uncertain as is has ever been. The easy and obvious response would be for the current government to delay the long-awaited return to democracy promised for 2017. This would be a mistake. Instead, Thailand should leverage this transition to forge a more durable future. Doing so will require grappling with several difficult challenges.
First and foremost, the loss of Bhumibol is likely to further deepen the political instability and unrest that have plagued Thailand for the past decade. King Bhumibol had long served as peacemaker and unifier-in-chief, mitigating against the worst effects of Thailand’s increasing inequality and fragmentation. It is not clear that Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who does not enjoy his father’s domestic popularity, will be able to play the same role.
At some point, Thailand’s political and military elites will have to address the deep discontent simmering in parts of Thai society. The uncomfortable reality for a nation known for its sunny disposition is that Thailand has some of the highest levels of inequality in Southeast Asia. According to the Asian Development Bank, the wealthiest 20% of Thai households hold over 70% of the country’s household financial assets. Geography only deepens the country’s sense of inequality, with over 90% of the nation’s poor concentrated in rural areas.
Dissatisfaction with the status quo is largely responsible for the sustained popularity of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his allies, who have been repeatedly removed from power by Thailand’s military and political elites. These long-standing divisions between urban elites, rural poor, and disenfranchised minorities will not fade away. To move past the last decade’s perpetual instability, Thai leaders can no longer look primarily to the monarchy to foster the perception of unity. They must instead develop a path toward a more inclusive system of governance that give all parts of Thai society a voice and a place in defining Thailand’s future.
A related challenge for Thailand’s leadership will be to jump-start its languishing economy and complete its transition into a more modern economy. Over the past few decades, strong growth allowed Thailand to establish its place as a solid middle income economy, and the second largest economy in Southeast Asia. Recent trend lines are more worrisome. Since its most recent coup, Thailand’s GDP has grown by less than 2% per year. Foreign direct investment has fallen off in recent years amid growing political uncertainty.
Over the past year, the Thai government has taken steps to boost growth through various tax incentives and stimulus measures. The country’s long-term growth, however, depends on its ability to more fully diversify and embrace the innovation economy. One of the weakest elements of the Thai economy according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report is its innovation ranking. Redressing this gap and shifting toward a more creative, knowledge-based economy will necessitate significant effort and investments in both human capital development and R&D. While the current government has rightly recognized the need to move Thailand in this direction, this shift will ultimately require the development of a more stable and open political system.
Finally, an important question for Thailand is how it will navigate its relationships with regional and global partners. This too, will likely depend on how quickly and effectively Thailand manages the transition back to civilian rule. In the past, Thailand’s coups have placed significant strain on its relations with traditional Western allies such as the United States. Thailand has expressed frustration and a sense of abandonment by Western political leadership, instead bolstering ties to regional powers such as India and China. However, Thai leaders realize they can ill afford to alienate Western investors, nor do they want to be left behind in regional arrangements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
In the coming months, it will be important for political leaders in the United States and elsewhere to reach out to the Thai government and maintain open channels of communication. Western leaders can continue to quietly encourage a continued path toward democracy while also recognizing that a degree of patience will be required during this transition period. For the Thai government, this period will be a test of its ability to navigate an unprecedented loss and return the country to the stable footing it desires. It would be wise for Thai leaders to maintain regular channels of communication with external partners, and to reassure them that Thailand remains on a steady path forward.
For seventy years, there was no more effective and tireless champion for Thailand and its people than King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Ever an optimist, he firmly believed in Thailand’s ability to embrace a brighter, more prosperous future. As they move forward without him for the first time in recent memory, the Thai people now have an opportunity to prove him right.