An End to Improvisation in Thailand

05/14/2015 12:55 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2016

BANGKOK -- Fifty-five years ago, the king of Siam met the king of swing. With Cold War tensions ratcheting up, Thailand's young monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, embarked on a month-long tour of the U.S. to highlight the strong ties between Washington and Bangkok. In California, Bhumibol and his family visited Disneyland and rubbed elbows with Elvis, Bob Hope, and Lucille Ball. In Washington, the king paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue in an open limousine, received the Legion of Merit from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and addressed a joint session of Congress. On July 4 Gov. Nelson Rockefeller hosted the king at a lavish party in New York.

But perhaps the most memorable part of Bhumibol's trip occurred the following afternoon, at the home of legendary jazz musician Benny Goodman. There, Bhumibol -- a longtime lover of jazz and a talented composer and performer in his own right -- participated in a two-hour jam session with Goodman, Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson, and other jazz greats. At the end of the night, Goodman gifted Bhumibol with an appropriate scepter: a new saxophone.

Bhumibol's knack for improvisation has served him well -- on stage and on the throne. Since the establishment of Thailand's wobbly democracy in 1932, the king has been a steadying presence, the one consistent theme in a country that has lived through 19 coups and 20 constitutions in just 80 years.

Yet now, as Thailand endures the second year of yet another coup, Bhumibol is approaching the 70th year of his reign -- and his health is reputedly poor. In this Southeast Asian kingdom of 67 million, the question on everyone's mind is: When the music stops and the world's longest-serving monarch is gone, what -- or who -- will fill the void?

The obvious answer is Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, whom the king declared, in 1972, to be his successor. But the prince -- an infamous playboy -- is as scorned as is father is revered.

Opponents of the prince -- who, despite lese majeste laws that criminalize speaking ill of the royal family, are numerous -- instead point to his well-liked sister, Princess Chakri Sirindhorn. "The saving grace would be the princess," a friend tells me, now that the law of succession has been amended to allow the king to choose any of his children.

"There are many ways around it," a Thailand expert says of the prince's claim to the throne. He adds, "It's very important who is the prime minister at the time of the succession."

In essence, who sits on the throne is merely a proxy for a larger fight.

On one side are the poor and rural Thai in the northeast, who support the populist policies of the self-made billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted prime minister. A police officer who became a telecommunications billionaire, Thaksin built a formidable political majority by providing universal health care, education, and easy credit to Thais who felt "a rural sense of exclusion from government."

"Thaksin, despite his faults, is one of the few that progressed democracy in Thailand," a banker and member of the Bangkok elite tells me. "Thaksin brought awareness of the value of the vote."

The Shinawatras and their supporters are opposed by urban elites allied with the palace and the military, to whom Thaksin represents not the triumph of democracy but the epitome of vote buying and corruption. A Thai journalist informs me, "He said, 'If you didn't vote for me, you get nothing,' and he meant it. He denied budgets and other things for areas that didn't vote for him."

After the military exiled Thaksin from the country in 2006, Thaksin's younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was elected in 2011. A scandal-plagued rice-subsidy program -- and a heavy-headed effort to ram through parliament an amnesty bill permitting Thaksin's return from exile -- led to widespread protests and clashes between Thailand's two factions. In May 2014 the military declared martial law and forced Yingluck from office. When 190 of 200 legislators in the military-stacked assembly later voted to impeach Yingluck for "dereliction of duty" over the rice subsidy -- which the analyst David Merkel dryly notes is "akin to impeaching a U.S. president over an ethanol subsidy, pork barrel spending, or a dairy program" -- Yingluck rightly declared, "Democracy has died in Thailand today, along with the rule of law."

Portrayed as an impromptu effort to maintain order after years of turmoil, the coup is instead a power play by Bangkok's elite -- a calculated move "to make sure that traditional royalists, and the military, are running the country when the king dies," as the Council on Foreign Relation's Joshua Kurlantzick puts it. Above all, these elites are terrified that Thaksin, long thought to be aligned with the prince, will return to power if Vajiralongkorn takes the throne (though palace watchers tell me that that alliance may be shaky, as "the prince will be close to anyone as long as he can use them," and the military may well be a better patron at the moment).

In April, General Prayuth Chan-ocha lifted martial law -- but replaced it with a constitution that the UN calls "something even more draconian" and a spokesman for the Shinawatras' political party compared to "running away from a tiger into a crocodile." Prayuth insists that he's "not a ruthless person," even as he muses that he'd "probably just execute" troublesome journalists and sends dissidents -- including over 1,000 academics, activists, and political opponents -- to military facilities for "attitude adjustment." Under the current regime, no political gatherings of more than five people are allowed in the "land of smiles."

Intended to promote stability, the coup instead raises painful new questions. Will Thailand, after years of halfhearted efforts at popular rule, let the death of a king be the death of democracy? Or, as a Thai investment banker says, will "the change in the monarchy ... force the country to grow up?"

"The challenge of my time is how to change from a closed society to an open society and do it peacefully," a Thai writer tells me. "We have a constitutional court that doesn't follow the constitution and nullifies an election that had 20 million people participating. ... We have an election commission that delays elections. We have a human rights commission that doesn't care about human rights. There's a lack of moral fortitude and no courage anymore and we need some elites to say something."

Perhaps reformers can take heart that the inspiration they need is right in front of them. Bhumibol is beloved in large part because the Thai people see him as treating everyone equally and caring equally about problems from the skyscrapers of Bangkok to the humblest village. Without him -- and regardless of who takes the throne -- Thailand needs to stop improvising its future and start replicating that sentiment not just in the palace but across the institutions of government.

Most importantly, as a Thai businessman says to me, people must "accept the fact that Thaksin opened a Pandora's box that can't be closed." Thailand in the 21st century can no longer afford to ignore the needs and aspirations of any of its citizens.

When asked why he had a racially integrated ensemble, Bhumibol's bandmate Goodman replied, "It takes the black keys and the white keys both to make perfect harmony." These words are well worth heeding. Otherwise it is the people of Thailand who will be singing the blues.

Stanley Weiss, a global mining executive and the founder of Washington-based Business Executives for National Security, has been widely published on domestic and international issues for three decades.