Thailand’s revered king held the country together for more than 70 years. But his son’s succession could threaten everything he built.
- By Sebastian StrangioSebastian Strangio is a journalist and author focusing on Southeast Asia. He currently splits his time between Phnom Penh and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
After two days of rumors about the health of Thailand’s king, confirmation finally arrived in the form of a solemn statement issued by the royal palace Thursday evening. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a unifying figure through seven politically tumultuous decades, died peacefully in the capital of Bangkok at the age of 88. According to the palace, the world’s longest-reigning monarch died at 3:52 p.m. after years of declining health. The immediate cause of death was not clear.
Despite reports that the king’s health had worsened in recent days, the news has plunged Thailand into a period of deep mourning and uncertainty. For most Thais, King Bhumibol is the only monarch they have ever known, the one constant in a modern history marked by mass protests, military coups, and widening political fault lines. In some quarters, the king is revered with almost religious fervor; his beatific portrait is ubiquitous, staring down from the walls of homes, businesses, and government buildings across the country.
By the time the king’s death was announced Thursday evening, crowds of mourners had gathered outside Siriraj Hospital, clad in yellow and pink, colors associated with the throne. Some wept openly, clutching portraits of the monarch. Others sang royalist songs in a plaintive key. On social media networks, the #longlivetheking hashtag was trending as Thai web users posted hundreds of messages and photos in memory of King Bhumibol.
In a televised address, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a general who took power in a May 2014 coup, declared a year of mourning and a 30-day moratorium on entertainment events. He also announced that King Bhumibol will be succeeded as expected by Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who has said he “needs time to mourn his father” before taking his place as the 10th king of the Chakri Dynasty. Unlike King Bhumibol, Prince Vajiralongkorn is a controversial figure, a jet-setting womanizer whose eventual ascension to the throne will likely herald a period of rocky transition for one of the world’s most revered monarchies.
During a reign lasting a touch more than 70 years, King Bhumibol presided over Thailand’s transformation from a rural kingdom once known as Siam into a regional economic powerhouse. A quiet, introverted man with horn-rimmed glasses, Bhumibol was born in 1927 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while his father was a student at Harvard Medical School. The young prince spent much of his early life abroad, until the mysterious shooting death of his brother, King Ananda Mahidol, unexpectedly catapulted Bhumibol to the throne in 1946.
In his early years as ruler, King Bhumibol split his time between his official royal duties and hobbies like photography and jazz and as the years went by came to be seen as a stabilizing force that stood firm amid cycles of political upheaval. (Since 1932, this country of 67 million has experienced 19 coups and coup attempts.) The king’s stature was heightened by the political tumult of October 1973, when the arrest of 13 student activists triggered massive public protests against Thailand’s military dictator du jour, Thanom Kittikachorn. After security forces fired on student protesters, killing around 70, King Bhumibol and other royals intervened and expressed support for the protesters. The junta was eventually forced out of power, and Thanom fled the country.
If these events revealed a new zenith of popularity for the 45-year-old king, it also demonstrated the ambiguity of his position in Thailand’s fractious politics: not directly involved but never wholly aloof. In an article on the October uprising, the New York Times described King Bhumibol’s role as “less than ruling but certainly more than just reigning.” Although royalists argue that the king was a father figure who ruled for the good of his people, most of Thailand’s military coups have enjoyed tacit royal approval.
In his twilight years, as Thailand’s political crises compounded, King Bhumibol became a remote, isolated figure, more a presence than a man, dogged by poor health and swaddled by a stringent lèse-majesté regime that effectively prevented any open discussion of the royal family — including the effect his death might have on this politically fragile country.
The ramifications of King Bhumibol’s death are uncertain but likely to be far-reaching. Despite standing as a bastion of unity for the Thai people, the king’s image papered over wide social and political divides. For the last 15 years, a bitter political struggle has pitted the allies of former prime minister and billionaire telecommunications mogul Thaksin Shinawatra, who won massive support from the rural poor for his populist social and economic policies, against the traditional royalist elite — a tight-knit coterie of soldiers, bureaucrats, and rich businessmen surrounding the palace. This conflict reflects a deeper social rift between the conservative middle class in the cities and rural and working-class Thais — the so-called “Red Shirts” — who found their political voice in support of Thaksin.
Some observers have suggested that the succession could have complex effects on the outcome of this struggle. The most immediate question surrounds King Bhumibol’s nominated successor. Though Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn’s claim to the throne is clear, the 64-year-old lacks his father’s royal aura and is believed to be deeply unpopular among the royalist elite. Over the years, he has shown little interest in the public duties associated with the royal family, instead earning a reputation as a fast-living playboy who spends most of his time outside the country, largely in Germany, where he reportedly owns an $11 million villa on a lake south of Munich.
In 2007, leaked video footage showed Prince Vajiralongkorn holding a lavish private party with his then-wife, Srirasmi Suwadee — clad in nothing but heels and a G-string — and his pampered pet poodle, Foo Foo, which by the time of its death last year held the rank of chief marshal in the Royal Thai Air Force. (The mutt’s death was marked by four days of Buddhist funeral rites.) In July, the German tabloid Bild published photos of Prince Vajiralongkorn boarding a plane in Munich wearing low-rise jeans and an unflattering tank top that revealed a palette of fresh yakuza-style tattoos. (Thai authorities claimed the photos were doctored.)
Scottish journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall, author of the 2014 book A Kingdom in Crisis, which was banned in Thailand for its discussion of the royal succession, says much of the Thai elite is implacably opposed to the prospect of Prince Vajiralongkorn succeeding his father. “From quite a young age, he acted like a medieval monarch,” Marshall said of the crown prince. “For the elites who benefit from the continued perception of a benevolent monarchy, this is a disaster.”
To make matters worse, many fear that Prince Vajiralongkorn might make common cause with Thaksin, who is currently in exile abroad, joining hands with the popular politician to clean house in the palace. This, in turn, could undermine royalist control of the Privy Council, a small but influential royal advisory body, and threaten the sprawling networks of business and patronage that converge on the opaque Crown Property Bureau, which administers the palace’s estimated $53 billion in property and business investments. “What the elite has always been terrified of is that the crown prince and Thaksin will get together and that Thaksin would get his hands on the Crown Property Bureau. That thought absolutely terrifies them,” Marshall said.
For now, with the population in deep mourning, things are likely to be muted. Undoubtedly, this is by design. Kasit Piromya, a former foreign minister, told me last year that one of the army’s main motivations for launching the 2014 coup was to ensure there was political stability during the sensitive period of succession. Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan, said despite the elite’s distaste for the crown prince, most senior officials would probably wait to see how things pan out. “At the end of the day, the well-being of the monarchy is the well-being of the royalists. Even if they don’t like it, they’ll have to swallow it for their own good,” he said.
Where the succession leads in the longer term is harder to predict. One question is whether the popular reverence for the monarchy will fade now that King Bhumibol is gone. Another question is what sort of monarch Prince Vajiralongkorn will turn out to be if and when he is crowned king. Will he choose to settle into a comfortable life of palace-bound ritual? Or will he decide to pursue an activist reign, shaking up an entrenched political establishment in pursuit of his own vision for Thailand? There is also the question of whether elections, which the junta has promised for next year, will go ahead in the current situation. What is certain is that as one historical era opens, and another closes, the future of the monarchy will now hang ever more ominously over the country’s political life — whether or not anyone can acknowledge it publicly.
Photo credit: CHUMSAK KANOKNAN/Getty Images