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Prince William and Kate Middleton royal wedding: Do monarchies still matter?

Prince William and Kate Middleton's royal wedding may have tinges of the turreted-castle fairy tale. But from romantic to ruthless, more than 40 modern monarchies, including Prince William's family, still influence global realities for better or worse.

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"I think the monarchy has a key role to play in leading Cambodian society forward," says Prince Sisowath Thomico, King Sihamoni's first cousin. In 1993 elections when "Cambodia was about to burst into another civil war," Prince Thomico explains, King Sihanouk supported negotiations between political factions, and again in 1998 and 2003. Photographs of King Sihanouk and his son are displayed on walls all over Cambodia and are widely believed by Buddhists, who revere the king, to bring good luck. The king's birthday is a public holiday and many streets bear his name.

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Across the border from Cambodia, Thailand offers another approach. King Bhumibol Adulyadej – the world's longest reigning and richest monarch, whose fortune Forbes magazine estimates to be more than $30 billion – officially heads a constitutional monarchy. Yet, through his tenure, he has been the country's indispensable political player.

"The king is the most revered and most powerful person on the Thai political scene," says Joshua Kurlantzick, a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In September 2006 a coup launched by several powerful Army generals with the avowed aim of "protecting the monarchy" against democratically elected populist Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra radically altered Thailand's political landscape. The four years since have pitted staunch royalists among the country's financial and military elites against Mr. Thaksin's beleaguered followers, who come largely from the rural and urban poor. The voice of political dissent, previously strong by Asian standards, has been largely suppressed with the help of Thailand's draconian lèse-majesté law. Even the mildest criticism of any member of the royal family, whose doings merit daily laudatory reports by the country's sycophantic press, can earn critics long prison sentences.

The king, who is claimed by the state to be above politics and is considered divine by the nation of Buddhists, exerts that power through an array of institutions "without leaving his fingerprints," Mr. Kurlantzick says.

Among the levers of power available to him are a privy council and the royal family's business holdings. How long this system can survive is an open question. The king is ailing. And the heir apparent, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, whose relations with three known consorts – one of whom he married and divorced, and two common-law wives – have earned him little of his father's popularity with the people.

"The country has revolved around the stabilizing presence of the king," Kurlantzick says. "Without him there is concern that the political system will collapse. They haven't had a royal transition of power in over six decades."

In Japan, monarchy is traditional, ceremonial, and without a hint of actual governing power. The emperor's role was transformed by Japan's defeat during World War II – American occupiers forced the royal family to renounce its Shinto divinity as the country embarked on a modern political path under occupation.

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