The passing of an ailing octogenarian can never be truly unexpected. Yet the mood in Thailand is one of collective shock at the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch. Against this backdrop, the military transitional government of Prayut Chan-Ocha has begun laying out a carefully choreographed royal transition. The process must be seen to be smooth and orderly precisely, because it threatens to upend so much of Thai politics and society.
The genuine outpouring of grief and affection for the late king speaks volumes about Bhumibol. Over seven decades he became the preeminent symbol of his country, yet he remained an enigma: a figure of stability and unity who leaves behind a profoundly divided country; a constitutional monarch with few legal powers but the status of a semi-divine ruler; a man of the people and particularly of the agrarian classes but also aloof, sober and conservative in character. So personalised was the affection and support he commanded that there are questions as to the continued viability of the monarchy, the prestige of which he helped rebuild. So powerful has become the myth of the mediating father figure, it seems the political system no longer entirely trusts itself to function in the absence of his political legitimacy.
In this sense, the outpouring of grief also speaks volumes of the anxiety for the political vacuum now confronting the country. Prayut, above all else, is a political realist. He was quick yesterday to do two things: he confirmed that his government will recommend that Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn succeed his father on the throne, thereby pre-empting any possible destabilising moves by ultra-royalists to stall the succession or propose the crown prince’s sister Princess Sirindhorn (who is viewed as more of an insider) as regent. The prime minister also declared an extended twelve-month period of official mourning. That will be crucial in buying time for further behind the scenes jockeying – in particular to reconcile the crown prince with members of the Privy Council more loyal to his late father, while focussing the public’s attention on the pomp and ceremony of the occasion.
For now Thailand has been given time to adjust to the shifting tectonic plates in the monarchy. However, a year of official mourning could also feasibly be used as a pretext for postponing promised elections in 2017, should the military consider the stability of its newly passed constitution to be imperilled.
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