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In King Bhumibol's demise, turbulent Thailand has lost a steadying hand

Vivek Katju | Updated on: 13 October 2016, 22:39 IST

Thailand's king Bhumibol Adulyadej passed away in Bangkok on 13 October after a reign of 70 years. He was 88. The world's longest serving monarch, he had been ailing for the past decade and leading a largely reclusive life.

In his stead, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn was performing the royal functions.

Bhumibol led a truly exemplary life. He was devoted to the welfare of his people and oversaw a series of social and economic projects to improve, in particular, Thai agriculture. It earned him enormous respect from and influence among all sections of the society, including the military and political elite.

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Although a constitutional monarch, he intervened on many occasions, with a light but effective touch, to provide political stability.

In the last decade of his reign, King Bhumibol would have been greatly saddened by the polarisation in Thai society and polity. He didn't have the energy to weld the nation back together, and it is difficult to see any successor gain as much respect and confidence to be able to do that.

His apparent successor is his only son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha has said an heir had been designated as far back as 1972 and the government would inform the parliament about the choice soon. He did not name the designated heir because propriety demands that the National Assembly be the first to be formally informed. It is only the parliament that can grant constitutional sanction to the late king's choice.

The National Assembly met Thursday evening, but reports from Bangkok indicate that after the members were formally informed of King Bhumibol's death, they dispersed without taking up the matter of succession. It's claimed that this was at the request of the crown prince who wants the endorsement made after an appropriate interval. This is intriguing for a country cannot be without a head of state.

In any case, unless extraordinary developments take place, the crown prince will succeed his father. This is despite the fact that the succession has been a matter of concern in many sections of Thai society. The crown prince has led a controversial life which has fuelled rumours and whispers for decades now. The contrast between a father and son couldn't be greater than between King Bhumibol and Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. But Thailand's lesemajeste laws have ensured this was never openly talked about.

Of Bhumibol's children, the one closest to him in character and his clear favourite was Princess Mahachakri Sirindorn. She has remained single, dedicating her life to scholarship, including an interest in Sanskrit, and contributing to public welfare projects. She is quite popular among the people.

There have been hushed reports, from time to time, of Princess Mahachakri succeeding her father. The Thai succession law was changed by Bhumibol to allow a princess to succeed a king. Such reports, though, were more a reflection of hope for a successor like Bhumibol rather than a practical alternative, especially as divisive social and political forces came to the fore in the country over the past decade. It became all the more important for the elite around the palace and the army to ensure a smooth and uncontroversial succession.

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In the past decade or so, the old palace elite has been challenged by new cash-rich ones. The latter acquired their substantial capital through opportunities provided by the digital economy. They took to politics and acquired power. Their leader was Thaksin Shinawatra, a one-time police officer who became a billionaire telecom entrepreneur. He took power in 2001 by mobilising the poor of the north and the northeast of the country through populist slogans, and was re-elected prime minister in 2005 with an overwhelming majority.

The old elite accused him and his supporters of disdain for the king and after a period of quiet political manoeuvring, the Thai army ousted him in a coup in October 2006.

The coup triggered political turmoil that continues to this day and is unlikely to end anytime soon as it has exposed the many contradictions in Thai society and polity which the force of the king's personality had kept from exploding.

Since 2006, military rule has been punctuated with civilian governments formed after elections which Thaksin's supporters have won even though he himself remains in exile. The last prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister, was ousted in a coup by General Prayuth in May 2014.

Gen Prayuth's junta has since consolidated its position by bringing a new constitution, for which popular approval was secured through a referendum in August, which provides for what its critics say will be a "military guided system". The prime minister has pledged that elections under this constitution will be held in 2017. But elections or not, the military will seek to keep the Thaksanites out of power. The country's business elite, traditional and new, is likely to choose stability over democracy, so are Thailand's Asean neighbours and the international community at large. And it is likely that Thaksin will lie low at least until the year-long mourning for the king is over.

In any case, the Thai people will miss the king they revered as a father and who had earned the authority to steady the ship of state whenever it lurched into dangerous waters, until, of course, old age and ill health caught up and he no longer could.

Edited by Mehraj D Lone

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First published: 13 October 2016, 22:39 IST