Thailand mourns the death of its king who held the country together
His son and successor-to-be, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, is another matter
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died last Thursday at 88 after 70 years rule, expressed in his much-loved person all the contradictions of Thailand. He was a bridge but also a barrier between feudal rule and democracy which, at times, he championed against the country’s military rulers.
At other times he was the essential unifying prop the military needed to give legitimacy to their coups. He was hugely wealthy – one of the world’s great royal fortunes with an estimated $31 billion in property – and yet was loved by the poor on whom he lavished charity.
In recent times he backed the military in the bitter fight that has polarised the country between exiled billionaire and former PM Thaksin Shinawatra and his allies among the rural poor on the one hand, and the urban middle classes and military establishments who saw Shinawatra as a threat to their privilege. Thailand is currently ruled by an army junta which seized power in 2014 from allies of the latter – elections are promised next year.
But if Bhumibol succeeded in holding the county together, his son and successor-to-be, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn (64) is another matter. Whether the monarchy can survive will depend on some deft political reaching-out on his part to a country disapproving of his lifestyle.
The partying prince, who lives in a luxury home in Bavaria, will take over only after a year of national mourning presided over by a 94-year-old regent. The crown prince has a taste for airplanes, fast cars, women and the high life, not to mention a trail of broken marriages and abandoned children.
The accession is likely to happen, however, assisted by a quiet nod from the military which appears to believe it can reach the sort of accommodation with the crown prince that it had with his father.
And, no doubt, by the complete absence of real debate within Thailand ensured by the country’s ferocious lèse-majesté law which prohibits even the mildest of criticism of the royal family. Dozens of people are currently serving long prison terms for just that.