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Thai king's birthday marks time-out in Thailand's game of thrones

Though the royal institution once enjoyed a near-universal respect, recent political polarization has raised questions about the role of the monarchy and about the country's future after his reign. 

By Correspondent / December 5, 2012

Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej addresses to the crowd from the balcony at the Anantha Samakhom Throne Hall in Bangkok, Thailand, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 during his 85th birthday celebration.

Sakchai Lalit/AP

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Bangkok,Thailand

Hundreds of thousands of Thais lined the streets of Bangkok on Wednesday to see King Bhumibol Adulyadej make a rare public speech to mark his 85th birthday.

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“My heart feels so good today seeing His Majesty,” says Penpat Thaweekul, one of the vast royal-supporting yellow-clad crowd waiting under a hot sun to catch a glimpse of the now-frail king speaking from a distant balcony.

The world's longest-sitting monarch is portrayed as a widely-revered apolitical father-figure – but even with this representation, there are lines Thailand's elected politicians cannot cross. Though the royal institution once enjoyed a near-universal respect, recent polarization has raised questions about that role and about the country's future after his reign. 

After the king's reign, “the royalist domination in politics will be in disarray, for sure,” says historian Thongchai Winichakul. The rest, he says is unclear, wondering, “Will their power decline or will they take a tighter control during the transition?”

The heir-apparent is the only son of the king, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, who as rumors have it was close to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in the past, and appears to command less respect among Thais than Princess Sirindhorn, the king’s daughter and second in line.

Royalists viewed former Prime Minister Thaksin – whose parties have won four successive elections since 2001 and whose sister Yingluck is now premier – as a threat to the officials and business elites around the king. According to a leaked September 2006 US embassy document, a Thaksin confidante described royalists as fretting that then Prime Minister Thaksin’s policies “would erode their own standing.” The same month, Thaksin was ousted in a military coup.

In an effort to protect the monarchy, Thailand cracked down on some of the world's strictest lese-majeste laws and punishments, making it incredibly difficult for open discussion on the monarchy and its future.

According to statistics gathered by iLaw, which tracks freedom of speech in Thailand, more than 16,500 websites deemed in breach of the lese-majeste laws and related computer laws have been blocked this year – a spike since 2011 when around 3,200 were blocked – though far below the almost 40,000 blocked by the previous government during the violent, protest-riven 2010.

Prime minister musical chairs

The royalist factions who ousted Thaksin in 2006 “cannot be happy that Thaksin’s sister is prime minister,” says Paul Handley, author of “The King Never Smiles,” an unauthorized biography of King Bhumibol banned in Thailand. “I think that limits her ability to begin normalizing politics away from palace intrigue, if that was even in her ability and intention.”

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