Following Bhumibol will be challenging
The death last year of Thailand’s popular king Bhumibol Adulyadej brought to a standstill the instability that had plagued the nation. Now, with a year of national mourning over, uncertainty returns, with a cloud over relations between the new monarch, the governing military and political elites
Thais have said their final goodbye to the only king most of them have known, Bhumibol Adulyadej. The five days of elaborate ceremonies centred around his cremation on Thursday mark the end of a year of national mourning. It also brings uncertainty, with a cloud over relations between the new monarch, the governing military and political elites. There needs to be understanding and tolerance on all sides to avoid a return of the instability that the death of the beloved ruler brought to a standstill.
Following in Bhumibol’s footsteps will be challenging for his successor, King Maha Vajiralongkorn. The late monarch’s charisma and fatherly image alone would be difficult to match. But coupled with these was popularity borne from 70 years on the throne during which close bonds were formed with the monarchy, military, business and the wealthy. His social projects and development programmes addressed the needs of urban and rural populations and he was a unifying force in politically tumultuous times, making him so beloved that he attained near godlike status.
Vajiralongkorn has none of that cachet. He has a reputation as a playboy and spends much of his time in Germany. His reign so far has focused on consolidating power and his ties to the army – which overthrew prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s democratically elected government in 2014 and that of her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, eight years earlier – are uncertain. Equally unknown are his views on democracy, ability to broker peace between disparate political groups and standing with the influential royalists who were so supportive of his father.
The military has announced elections for November next year, although will still hold ultimate power under the constitution. Yingluck, like her brother, has fled into exile to avoid a prison sentence and their influence has waned. The year of mourning for Bhumibol brought much-needed calm for a nation too often in recent years wracked by political infighting that led to protests, violence and deaths. Stability will largely depend on how much public support there will be for the proposed political arrangements.