What will king’s death mean for Thailand?

Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej has died after more than 70 years on the throne, creating a royal succession at a time of political uncertainty under military rule. Here is what may happen next. All reporting on the Thai monarchy, and particularly the personalities involved, is constrained by strict lèse-majesté laws that threaten 15 years in jail per offence.

What does this mean for politics and business in the country?

Most observers expect a long period of official mourning and ritual, with a shorter shutdown of government and business. The king’s mother was not cremated until almost eight months after her death in July 1995. Authorities will have to balance respect and protocol against the pragmatic need to avoid overly disrupting an already sluggish economy. Thailand is a hub for international companies and tourism, so a long closure would soon start to hurt.

If the succession is smooth, politics is unlikely to move much for a while. There will be a taboo against open conflict, which the military has in any case already stifled. All sides in Thailand’s decade-long political power struggle will be feeling their way in the new environment.

Who will succeed the king?

The crown prince, Maha Vajiralongkorn, 64, has long been the official successor, anointed by his father King Bhumibol. But he does not enjoy the same public respect and devotion as the late ruler. In a televised statement shortly after the announcement of the king’s death, Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, Thailand’s prime minister, indicated the royal succession would proceed as expected.

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Why has the king been so important if Thailand is a constitutional monarchy?

Thailand is not an absolute monarchy. Officially, the throne is above politics, except in times of great national crisis. But in practice the king has long been the ultimate source of authority for both the military and the political and business elite.

The military’s symbiotic relationship with the throne has been a cornerstone of modern Thailand, which has featured 12 coups. The generals’ first duty is to protect the monarch, not the Thai people. All putsches need to be formally approved by the palace, including the latest one in May 2014.

Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws have also proved increasingly useful to authorities seeking to stifle even mild dissent. The rules are widely interpreted and anyone can make an allegation against anyone else, creating a climate of fear and self-censorship. One man was even accused last year of making an online insult of Tongdaeng, or Copper, a now-deceased stray dog rescued by the king. Police are generally reluctant to turn down or stop royal insult investigations for fear they could be accused of lese majesty themselves.

Another dimension of royal power is the monarchy’s vast financial holdings, estimated to be worth tens of billions of dollars. Principal among these is the Crown Property Bureau, which holds large amounts of land and has stakes in many big industries. The throne is also an important source of business patronage, including through the awards of royal warrants to companies. One past recipient was King Power, the duty-free business of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, owner of Leicester City, the English Premier League football champions.

Will the succession change the nature of the Thai monarchy and the country’s power balance?

A big point to watch is how much of the throne’s authority was invested in King Bhumibol personally. The monarchy under his successor may have a very different feel. Thailand has also changed hugely socially in the 70 years since King Bhumibol took the throne. In 1946, it had only 14 years earlier ceased to be an absolute monarchy. The country had little industrialisation and many feudal trappings. Now, a combination of rising wealth, globalisation and political awakening has brought into focus divisions between the country’s still large rice-farming heartlands and a capital city where government spending and attention are focused. How these tensions, suppressed since the coup, play out over time is a question much wider than the future status of the monarchy.


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