A scare over the health of Thailand’s king has delivered a blunt lesson to investors about political risk in a country where many see the revered monarch as the sole hope of reconciliation in an increasingly fractured society.
The palace tried to combat rumours about the 81-year-old king’s health with a statement on Wednesday evening, saying his condition was improving after almost a month in hospital with fatigue and breathing problems. By then the markets were near panic and they fell 8 per cent on Thursday after a similar drop the day before. Although barred by the constitution from playing any overt political role, King Bhumibol Adulyadej commands almost unquestioned moral authority in a country where many feel they have been betrayed by the other institutions of state. He is the world’s longest reigning monarch and has used his personal standing to intervene when politicians or generals have flirted with the more brutal reaches of authoritarianism. For 63 years, through 10 successful coups, 16 constitutions and 27 prime ministers, the king has remained the one neutral figure. Many Thais worry that chaos will ensue when competing cliques slip the leash that has restrained them for so long. The stock market has become a barometer of the fear that many Thais have for the future. “Whatever is happening with his health, there is the perception of a storm brewing and that at some point it is going to burst,” said one analyst who declined to be named because of the sensitivity surrounding the royal family in Thailand. “There are a lot of people who are trigger-happy about this event: they are afraid that when it happens the market is going to fall 10 or 20 per cent,” he said. The monarchy is already under pressure. Criticism of the royal family, unthinkable a few years ago and still punishable by up to 15 years in jail, is starting to creep into the public sphere. Concerns over the health of the king and uncertainties about the succession have been interwoven with the country’s intractable political divisions. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, 57, has yet to win the sort of mass support his father harnessed to bring politicians and generals to heel. Even in private, few people in the country will guess at the shape of a post-Bhumibol Thailand.
Thailand’s democratic institutions have proved unequal to the challenges posed by instability — which began under the rule of Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist prime minister who was removed in a military coup in 2006, and continues today. The government has repeatedly invoked emergency powers that allow them to put troops on to the streets to restrain opposition demonstrations. It will use them again next week, when Asian leaders are due to arrive in the country for the 15th annual meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations.