The shock was not so much what was said, but that it was said at all. Thailand's foreign minister appeared at a seminar in Washington this week to raise the taboo subject of reform of the Thai monarchy and the future of its military and troubled democracy. 'It is a process that we have to go through and I think we should be brave enough to go through all of this and to talk about even the taboo subject of the institution of the monarchy,' Kasit Piromya said. 'Everything is now becoming in the open. Let's have a discussion. What type of democratic society would we like to be?' Given the unease of Thai media in approaching royal issues - lese-majeste remains a serious crime - his remarks may sink without a trace internally. And given the sense of crisis choking Bangkok in the wake of the weekend's political violence - complete with coup rumours and a government struggling to stay afloat - the media has every excuse to concentrate on the immediate challenges. But Kasit's comments are remarkable. They go to the heart of the political quagmire in which Thailand has been sinking for five years. They also reflect a building undercurrent, both among ordinary Thais increasingly fearful for their future and local academics - who are starting to sound the alarm, albeit in a carefully calibrated fashion. The ailing 82-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej is at the centre of the storm as his reign enters its twilight. The royalist establishment elite - of which Kasit is a member - see the dangers in a figure such as the ousted and exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra reshaping the country as a dictator if he is in power, or close to those who are, during a royal transition. It is a given that the king's nominal heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who lacks his popularity, will not automatically wield the moral authority or enjoy the god-like reverence of his father. 'Yes, it is all about Thaksin and all about the king,' a senior Democrat Party politician said in 2006, months before the coup that ended telecoms tycoon Thaksin's five-year elected rule. 'If Thaksin is near power when the king dies, then it will be the end of Thailand as we know it, democracy and monarchy. It will be a case of arise, President Thaksin.' Such fears underscore the importance of statements such as Kasit's. Insiders warn that for far too long lese-majeste and other social conventions have thwarted the debate Thailand has to have. To his opponents, Thaksin may have been corrupt and dictatorial. But he was repeatedly elected and won over the rural poor, a huge voting bloc ignored by the Bangkok elite. Even if Thaksin is kept from the stage, a sustainable political solution requires that the peasants and workers be given a voice. Kasit made this clear when he spoke of the need to tackle questions kept under wraps for decades - the political role of the military and providing channels for the 'wishes of the farmers, the workers, the office workers'. While he is the only serving official to openly raise such issues, his is not a voice in the wilderness. In a respected essay published in the US 18 months ago, political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak described the tensions as a 'battle of attrition for Thailand's soul' but warned that transitional and institutional issues could not be properly debated. 'It is clear now that Thailand's democratic institutions are too weak, divided and politicised to manage the succession effectively,' the scholar wrote. 'Unless clearer signs appear of what will happen after King Bhumibol, all bets are off as to where Thailand will be headed ... Both sides are well aware, as all Thais fear but dare not say in public, that Thailand's future is up for grabs. What happens after the king leaves the scene could be the most wrenching crisis yet.' Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra, a Democrat, minor royal and academic, noted in a study seven years ago that the royal succession meant Thailand's politics would grow more complicated. 'The monarchy will remain, but its future capacity to act as the guardian angel of Thailand's political process may not necessarily be the same,' he wrote. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, an avowed democrat who nonetheless took power after courts disbanded an elected pro-Thaksin government, has acknowledged the challenges. In rare comments in Hong Kong last May, Abhisit said Thailand would have to show 'maturity'. 'When you have a leader for more than six decades and one who has built up so much reverence and respect from the people, there is always going to be anxiety,' he said. 'I don't know of any country or society or organisation where there has been an inspirational leader who has been there a long time, that doesn't have anxiety. I have no illusions that whenever it happens it will be a very difficult time because we are very attached to His Majesty, but we have to prove our maturity as a society and to the rest of the world that we can deal with these changes.' Days after the worst political violence in two decades and amid continuing coup rumours, tensions and talk of civil war, it is far from clear Thailand can show that maturity. Remarks such as Kasit's will have to become a lot more common from officials if the challenges are to be met.