The chronic political instability in Thailand intensified with the bomb that exploded last week in the middle of a major Bangkok tourist area. With 20 dead and still counting, the event is a decisive rebuttal of the military dictatorship's promise to restore 'happiness' to Thailand.
That's how coup leader and now Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha articulated the aim of the military coup in May 2014 – to make Thais happy again!
Official responses to the bombing, its agents and its principal actor appear increasingly like an episode of the Keystone Cops.
The longer the uncertainty remains, the more farcical the tragedy becomes. Officials contradict each other on basic detail as junta leaders play politics with their local and international allies and adversaries. And still there is no plausible explanation of who, why and with what expected outcome the act of calculated, lethal malice was executed.
The operatives appear to have slipped detection for the time being. Reportedly early intelligence suggested the bomber immediately hopped on a motorcycle taxi and headed to the airport. That was later denied when, after inspection of the photographs of everyone coming in and out of Thailand's international airports, there was no evidence of the phantom figure in a yellow T-shirt.
But what this latest lethal episode says is this: Thailand's political woes will probably only get worse. Why? Because the central issue in Thailand's public life remains unresolved.
The issue? Royal succession. For the appearances of a constitutional monarchy, the rule of law and democratic institutions, Thailand's political and economic culture still revolves around the frail and ageing king and the military.
The wheel-chair bound head of state, the world’s the longest serving royal ruler, is very rarely seen. Yet the reverence he genuinely commands across the vast majority of the Thai population remains intact. But negatively, what drives the ready reverence for the 'father' of the nation is the ambiguity surrounding his son. He will succeed to the throne some time. What the coup was mostly about was the military taking out insurance to make sure they would be in charge when the change came, and that they would be setting the agenda.
The previous government of Yingluck Shinawatra — sister of the ex-Prime Minister Thaksin, deposed in a coup in 2006 — did some economically destructive things that bought it the votes of rice farmers in crucial localities. And they initiated parliamentary procedures to have Thaksin exonerated for his corrupt behaviour as PM that was a red rag to the bull of haters of the Shinawatra clan.
But something else meant Yingluck had to go: the closeness of the Shinawatra clan to parts of the Royal family who were believed to be beyond the generals’ control.
To have that part of the family calling the shots on the demise of the King was just too much for the conservative Bangkok elite that is close to the monarch.
For longer than anyone cares to calculate, Thailand has followed a political cycle that rolls around every six to eight years: election-coup-military rule-new constitution-election-coup again. The cycle goes around and around like a prayer wheel — apparent movement but all spinning on the same spot.
In the not too distant future, that cycle will face a decisive turning point: the death of the king whose blessing has always been needed for a coup. And what happens then, no one knows. But there are some informed hunches.
What the chronic instability reflects is that Thailand is a changing and divided nation. The last 25 years have witnessed consistently robust economic growth that has translated into not only enhanced national and personal wealth and prosperity but higher levels of health care and at least a veneer of education among Thais.
That in turn has led to the creation of a upwardly mobile middle class in rural and regional Thailand that is different to the traditional educated and professional people of Bangkok. This new group is not content to have the Bangkok elite continue to dictate.
The Shinawatra clan rose to power on the rising expectations of changing demographics and the Bangkok elite knows it. That's why the constitution currently being written will seek to ensure that in the future, power is kept in the 'right' hands.
But this is a short sighted and short-term strategy in a the country that is already divided, as the recurrent demonstrations and protests for the last five years show.
In reality, democratic values in Thailand are very weak and the public institutions that support democracy — among them the constitution, the parliament, the courts, rule of law and regulator — lack the independence critical to provide the building blocks for real democracy. And there is still a military that sees itself as serving the monarch, rather than the state, and a police force with an deserved international reputation for corruption and incompetence.
Thailand's instability is set to last at least as long as the nation waits to see how the king's health fares. It may then correct itself with the right political will or it risks becoming an enduring condition of life in Thailand, ushering in a future far more lethal than last week’s episode.
Michael Kelly SJ lives in Bangkok where he is CEO of ucanews.com and Publisher of globalpulsemagazine.com.
Thai king homage image by Wikimedia Commons.