The Cable

Thailand Crowns a New King

But the monarch has big shoes to fill — at a time when Thailand needs steady leadership most.


On Thursday, Thailand received a new king for the first time since 1946. Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn formally took the throne, ending a seven-week royal interregnum after his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, died Oct. 13. The coronation allays many concerns over the country’s political stability; the Thai monarchy traditionally has a heavy hand in guiding in the country’s fractious political system.

The new king will be insulated from criticism through the country’s stringent lèse-majesté laws. But that doesn’t mean he’s earned the respect of his people just yet, most of whom have only known only one king in their life. And with uncertainty over King Bhumibol’s successor also comes deep-seated political uncertainty, as Foreign Policy noted.

Given his father’s widespread popularity, King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, as he is now known, has big shoes to fill. King Bhumibol, who reigned for 70 years, was widely revered and considered an anchor of stability in a country that endured decades of political tumult, from coups to attempted coups to constitutional crises. In 1992, King Bhumibol solidified his popularity by brokering peace amid a bloody coup d’état that pitted pro-democracy forces against the military.

He has an uphill battle to earn the popularity his father enjoyed. Though he was designated the successor to the throne in 1972, the newly anointed king spent much of his life abroad in Germany, meaning the Thai public doesn’t know much about its new monarch — especially since it is illegal to openly discuss royal succession. And some of the information Thais do have isn’t flattering.

“I have to be very frank. My son, the crown prince, is a little bit of a Don Juan,” his mother said in a 1982 interview with the Wall Street Journal. (That interview got the Journal banned from Thailand for negatively portraying the royal family).

And then, of course, there’s Air Chief Marshal Foo Foo. Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn’s third wife had a white poodle that earned a senior ranking in the Thai air force. When the dog died in 2015, it was cremated after the requisite four days of Buddhist funeral rites.

Though the new king received military training in his youth, he reportedly has a tense relationship with the country’s ruling junta, which has a penchant for orchestrating coups if politicians fall out of their favor. That’s kept the country in sustained political strife since 2005, when political elites first began to quietly jockey for power as they braced for the ailing King Bhumibol’s death.

Photo credit: Borja Sanchez-Trillo/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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