The passing of Thailand’s long-ruling, deeply beloved, but mostly powerless King Bhumibol Adulyadej portends a long period of uncertainty, and not just in his kingdom. All around Southeast Asia, the weakening of democratic governments and the rise of unpredictable rulers is creating instability and undermining long-standing alliances with the West.
King Bhumibol was a staunch supporter of strong relations with the US (he was born there), but his successor, Maha Vajiralongkorn, the crown prince, is an international playboy. Deeply unpopular with Thais, he’s likely to be closer to the military junta that has ruled Thailand since a coup in 2014. Under the junta the country’s descent into authoritarianism has been swift; last week it refused entry to a Hong Kong pro-democracy activist, possibly at the behest of China. That signaled that Thailand doesn’t welcome dissenters and is also shifting its allegiances in China’s direction.
Other nations have sent similar messages. Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte is openly challenging the US and pivoting closer to China; he may even give China the crucial piece in its effort to gain control of the South China Sea, a source of growing tensions with many of its Asian neighbors. Cambodia has welcomed China’s loose purse strings with open arms.
Nor is Thailand the only country facing a period of instability. Malaysia is embroiled in a corruption scandal that may yet unseat the prime minister. And though its relations with the US are warming, newly (and slowly) democratizing Myanmar continues to grapple with armed conflict against ethnic groups in the country.
Thailand will now retreat into a year-long mourning period, during which not much will appear to happen. But the calm could be the prelude to much more turmoil there and in the region.
This was published as part of the weekend edition of the Quartz Daily Brief. Subscribe here to our newsletter, tailored for morning delivery in Asia, Europe and Africa, or the Americas.