The new monarch faces a steep task in emulating the popularity his father amassed during his 70 year reign, while also dealing with the inevitable political tensions to amount as the military junta continues to hold power.
On October 13th Thailand lost King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest serving monarch. Aged 88, years of declining health finally overcame the popular monarch.
Bhumibol, referred to as Rama IX, had served for 70 years on the throne of Thailand. The death of the stabilizing figure could further disrupt a country already wracked with political turmoil – the Royal Thai Army General, Prayut Chan-o-cha, overthrew the caretaker government in 2014 to establish a Military Junta, of which he is the unelected leader.
On December 1st, Rama IX’s son and Crown Prince to the throne, Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn formally accepted the position of King. The new monarch faces a steep task in emulating the popularity his father amassed during his 70 year reign, while also dealing with the inevitable political tensions to amount as the military junta continues to hold power.
To comprehend the reverence Bhumibol held from the people of Thailand is to understand his importance as a stabilising figure and the task new Rama X faces to live up to his late father’s legacy. A love and respect, at times approaching hysteria, towards the late King was shown by people across the country. After his recent death, a yearlong mourning period was declared throughout Thailand while the usual raucous and colourful Thai nightlife was suspended for 30 days after his death.
King Bhumibol certainly had his critics, but Thailand’s lese-majeste laws effectively act as a gag on any vocal dissidents. It is therefore hard to fully gauge the level of opposition to the late King, but it is generally accepted that he was held in high regard by huge numbers of ordinary Thai citizens.
In the 1960s, he travelled extensively around Thailand meeting local people to shore up support for the monarchy in the face of potential communism insurgency while there is one story of a Thai widow falling into depression and explaining to her son that she felt responsible for the late King’s death as “he worked too hard on behalf of us.”
King Vajiralongkorn thus faces a daunting task to live up to the precedent set by his father, but simultaneously inherits, thanks to the work of Bhumibol, a monarchy more respected than at any point in Thai history, and an estimated $40 trillion fortune.
Additionally, the lese-majeste laws that protect the Thai royal family from insult can see any culprit punished with up to 15 years in jail. This has seen a solidifying of public dedication to the monarchy in recent years, but also a decrease in debate and free speech.
Recent examples of those prosecuted under the law have seen journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall having to flee to Cambodia after publishing a critique of the laws themselves while, in more obscure circumstances, a Thai man was sentenced to 15 years in jail for posting pictures of Rama IX’s favorite dog on Facebook in what was apparently a ‘mocking’ way.
The question remains whether the reign of Rama X will see a loosening, or tightening, of the laws. Until now, the new king lived in Germany with a 200-person royal court. It may be too much to hope that he has assimilated some of Germany’s liberal culture of free speech, however – the BBC, who recently ran a profile on the new King, have had to shut their Bangkok bureau after the Thai government brought a case against them after publication of the article. In these early days of the new King’s reign, a loosening of lese-majeste seems unlikely.
King Varijalongkorn, meaning ‘adorned with jewels’, at the age of 64, has little time, unlike his father, to leave his mark on Thailand. Educated in Australia and the UK, not a huge amount is known about the new monarch. As customary for Thai Buddhist men, he is an ordained monk while his commitment to education sees him donate 42 million Baht (just under £1 million) each year to ‘polytechnic type’ universities across Thailand. His mother, Queen Sirikit, has described him as a “Don Juan” type figure and he has been married a total of 3 times.
It remains to be seen whether he can amass the same divine-like status enjoyed by his father and amidst a growing atmosphere of political tension within Thailand, the new King will have to be the much needed mediator figure his late father so successfully played. For Thailand’s sake, we must hope he can.
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