It is not yet clear how Thailand and its politics will restructure itself following the death of King Bhumibol on 13 October. But a number of facts are becoming apparent.
The king was a unique figure whose role is not easily filled. King Bhumibol’s 70-year reign was the one fixed point in an era of economic transformation, political turbulence and regional conflict. He provided a source of national legitimacy and stability during a record number of coups and constitutions. As Father of the Nation, he became an important part of modern Thai identity.
Furthermore, this role was not merely ceremonial and symbolic. The king’s barami, moral charisma, enabled him to play a role that went far beyond a formal constitutional mandate. The extent of this power continues to be debated; the deep reverence, even enchantment, that underpinned it is unfamiliar in the West. But few doubt that the king’s authority influenced – and did not merely legitimize – the country’s political development, and at key moments had a decisive impact on the course of events.
Finally, the modern monarchy is King Bhumibol’s achievement. By force of example he restored this institution from the uncertain future it faced following the end of absolute rule in 1932. But for this reason the role of monarchy and the person of the king became indistinguishable. There is no precedent for defining this role, its power and its position in the larger system of governance after the passing of its creator.
Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, whom the king designated as his heir in 1972, was not immediately declared the next king following the death of his father – it was explained that he had asked for time to grieve with his people before accepting the invitation from the National Legislative Assembly (NLA). Pending the announcement of a new king, the 96-year old Prem Tinsulanonda – a former prime minister, head of the Privy Council and a key figure during the last 30 years of King Bhumibol’s reign – has been appointed regent.
In sum, this is a highly significant, but inherently uncertain, moment for Thailand.
The immediate social and economic impact has been limited. Some observers feared a traumatic hysteria would take hold in reaction to the king’s death. But nation-wide mourning has been calm and dignified. Most striking is the participation of the younger generation. Though raised in the twilight of the king’s reign when his public appearances were less frequent, young people flocked to the funeral procession on the day after his death. Their behaviour – kneeled, reverent silence, followed by selfies and instagrams – reflected the mix of traditional attachments and modern connectedness in this rapidly changing society.
In a few cases, popular grief has turned to anger against those seen as not properly mourning, or even insulting, the monarchy, leading to threats and intimidation. But this has been episodic and small-scale, not organized and systematic. The government has spoken out against vigilantism, while itself stepping up prosecutions and extradition requests for alleged lèse-majesté.
There is a pragmatic understanding that economic activity should not be disrupted. Apart from certain forms of entertainment and advertising, few restrictions have been imposed during the mourning period. Thailand is muted but remains open for business.
A number of key actions in the coming months will offer clues to Thailand’s future. The authorities will want to avoid any perception of uncertainty while the transition to a post-Bhumibol era is being agreed and implemented. Here are some signs to watch for:
- A declaration by the NLA would confirm the succession, drawing a line under this matter. Prayuth has assured the people that this will happen soon, with a coronation to follow after the end of the year-long official mourning period;
- Adoption of the new constitution, Thailand’s 20th since 1932, would confirm the arrival of a new political order. Passed in a national referendum in August, this is expected to be sent to the crown prince for approval in early November –the final, and indispensable, step before it comes into force;
- New elections to return the country to democracy would confirm the military government’s confidence in stability. It has reaffirmed the current timetable of late 2017. Conversely, a delay would indicate that the military feels the need to remain in control while it completes a ‘reset’ of the political system and consolidation of the post-Bhumibol era.
- A return to normal politics would test the strength of opposition forces. All sides in Thailand’s divided polity have agreed to suspend public politics during the initial mourning. But the Redshirt opposition, hindered by junta rule and set back by defeat in the constitutional referendum, will in due course seek to resume its activity, especially if elections go ahead.
Former prime minister and opposition leader Thaksin Shinawatra, who was forced out of the country in 2008 and harbours ambition to return, has yet to comment publicly after the king’s passing. His parties have won every contested election since 2001. But the last of these was in 2011: a major uncertainty is how much popular support the pro-Thaksin forces now command. Such calculations will shape the future of Thai politics under a new reign.
Dr Nigel Gould-Davies, Associate Fellow, Asia Programme and Russia and Eurasia Programme