In Thailand, a divided country confronts loss of a royal unifying force

Thais are mourning King Bhumipol, who died Thursday and was a beloved figure. They have far less faith in the crown prince. 

Edgar Su/Reuters
Mourners react as a motorcade carrying the body of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej arrives at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand Oct. 14, 2016.

Thailand’s Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn has much to live up to.

His father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, was the world’s longest-serving monarch when he died at the age of 88 on Thursday. The king was revered by his subjects as both semi-divine and fatherly, a source of steadiness in a country roiled by decades of social unrest and more than a dozen coups. 

The prince, on the other hand, holds a far different image among Thais, many of whom regard him as self-indulgent and out of touch. Analysts say he is unlikely to attain the admiration his father commanded over his 70-year rule, raising questions about the country's stability and his father’s legacy of transforming the palace into Thailand’s strongest social and political institution.

Tom Pepinsky, who researches Southeast Asian politics as an associate professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., says the king’s death has serious implications as an increasingly divided country loses an important symbol of unity.

“His death means that the Thai political system must find an alternative focal point around which to unite the country's factionalized population,” Prof. Pepinsky says. 

"It's simply impossible to imagine that will transfer immediately to the crown prince," he adds. "The monarchy's narrative is going to have to change from deference for an individual to deference for an institution.”

For now, attention is focused on the king's passing, with Prime Minster Prayuth Chan-Ocha, the junta leader, declaring a one-year mourning period and asking Thais to dress in black and avoid celebrations for the next month, during which time flags will also fly at half-staff.

The prime minister also said on Thursday that the crown prince had asked for time to mourn with his country before he is appointed, raising the possibility that Vajiralongkorn’s formal coronation won’t take place for months, if not years. Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda, a former prime minister with whom the prince has had rocky relations, has been named acting regent.

That has created further uncertainty in a country that has fallen into an uneasy calm since the military took control of government just two years ago. In August, the military extended its influence when Thai voters overwhelmingly approved a new constitution that reduces the power of political parties. 

In the meantime, Thailand’s political fissures have continued to deepen. Analysts warn that the country's military junta could increase its repressive tactics as it negotiates a period in which the country has no king for the first time in seven decades.

The military government has aligned itself closely with the monarchy to bolster its own legitimacy. It routinely invokes lèse majesté, the crime of insulting senior members of the royal family, to burnish its image as the monarchy’s chief defender. Anyone charged with defaming the palace faces up to 15 years in jail.

In anticipation of the king’s death, military leaders have pursued closer relations with the crown prince over the past year. Yet political observers are skeptical of the 64-year-old royal’s ability to become Thailand’s new moral and political arbitrator. While he was designated his father's successor 40 years ago, it could take years for him to gain the trust of the Thai people, who have long been put off by rumors about his hot temper and tumultuous private life.

The military government has also come to realize that depending on the monarchy for its legitimacy is no longer enough, says Michael Montesano, co-coordinator of the Thailand Studies Program at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. He says the challenge it now faces is to complement their royal partnership with broader political initiatives – from economic growth to anti-corruption efforts – to help ensure public support.

“The centrality of royalty to the Thai political order has diminished,” he says. “The junta has clearly been looking for different bases of legitimacy.” 

Less sway

Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932. The prime minister and parliament hold political power and the king serves as head of state.

The late king spent most of his reign focused on rural development projects. Although he held no formal political power, he exerted ultimate authority whenever he did intervene in political crises. 

In 1992, the king helped end a bloody confrontation between the military and pro-democracy protesters when he called the two groups' rival leaders to meet him. They bowed before him on national TV and promised peace.

His son is unlikely to hold similar sway, says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University in Japan.

Vajiralongkorn is much more private than his father and three sisters. He spends much of his time living outside Thailand, usually in Germany. He has been married and divorced three times, including twice to commoners.

Despite the government’s efforts to improve the prince’s image, he reportedly appears ill at ease in public.

Prof. Chachavalpongpun says the military will always work to defend the monarchy. But he warns that the prince’s lack of moral authority could allow military leaders to take greater control of the Thai political system.

“No matter how hard his son tries, he will not be able to match the success of his father,” he says. “This opens the door for the military to become more powerful.”

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