More than one year since the passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand has said its final farewell to a revered monarch seen by many Thais as a demigod. Bhumibol’s cremation, which began on Thursday, symbolises the end of a 70-year reign during which the king – Rama IX – helped transform Thailand into a middle-income country. The sustained growth of the Thai economy under Bhumibol, which took place despite much political instability, has been attributed by many observers to the king’s ideas on the Sufficiency Economy, a personal philosophy emphasising the middle path as a principle for appropriate conduct by people at all levels.
WATCH: Thousands queue to visit coffin of late Thai King Bhumibol
Since Bhumibol’s death, fears have grown both for the state of the country’s economy – which has shown signs of stuttering since a 2014 military coup – and for its political balance of power under Bhumibol’s heir, Vajiralongkorn, now Rama X.
Vajiralongkorn ascended the throne in December last year but public life has slowed remarkably over the past 12 months as the country mourned the late king. Vajiralongkorn’s official coronation is not expected until later this year, leaving the junta to oversee a sensitive transition period.
“The reason the junta could keep power for so long, compared to previous coups, is the passing of the king,” said Kan Yuengyong, executive director at the think tank Siam Intelligence Unit. “[After the coronation] it will be time to get back to normal politics.”
Thailand has been politically divided since its former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a coup in 2006. For the past decade, pro and anti Thaksin groups (the red shirts and yellow shirts) have taken to the streets on various occasions and the old oligarchy has tried to erode the tycoon’s support base among rural and lower income groups in the northeast.
“The political conflict still exists. A lot of grass roots people are still very upset and more and more will get upset because of the [bad] economic condition”, said Kan Yuenyong.
“I think we will see more and more tension after the cremation and the royal coronation,” he added.
WATCH: Military ruled Thailand votes on new constitution
The end of the mourning period will test the new political framework in Thailand and a controversial new constitution, which was drafted by the military government and entered force after receiving the royal blessing in April.
Critics say the constitution, which was also approved in a public referendum in August 2016, will ensure the military retains a prominent political role, particularly during the five-year transition period that must follow the next general election before full civilian rule is restored. That election has been promised by the government for the end of 2018 but has already been delayed several times. During the transition period, the new legislation leaves the door open to an outsider becoming prime minister even if he has not run in elections.
The current prime minister, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the 2014 coup, has not ruled out the possibility of taking the job again.
“[The constitution] is a mechanism [for the Thai junta] to restore, maintain and prolong its power,” said Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, associate professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University, who defined the new legislation as promoting a “hybrid regime, not a democracy”.
The constitution, the 20th since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, also weakens civil powers and ties their hands with a 20-year national strategic plan and a National Steering Committee that will set the economic guidelines of the country for the next two decades.
The new political framework is yet to be completed, but some scholars say it is designed to avoid a strong majority that could again hand power to the Shinawatra family and their allies.
“It is a very practical plan to capture power and prevent politicians from dominating the country [and preventing the Shinawatras from coming] back to power”, said Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee.
That task might prove difficult, given every election in Thailand for the past decade has been won by Thaksin-backed parties.
Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, won a landslide election in 2011 but her government was overthrown in the 2014 coup.
The future of the Puea Thai party founded by Thaksin is now up in the air, as Yingluck fled the country in September after receiving a five-year prison sentence on corruption charges regarding her government’s rice subsidy programme.
“The real enemy of the junta is its own constitution [not the Puea Thai]”, said Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, a constitutional law scholar from the university of Bristol. He said even if Prayuth were elected as prime minister the limitations the constitution sets on civil powers would hinder his progress and policies. “It won’t be smooth for him”, he said.
In this tumultuous scenario, many see the monarchy as key to bridging the political divide, even though the new king is yet to win the devotion shown to his father.
“Monarchy is the centre of Thai politics. Literally the heart and minds of Thai people”, said Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang.
He said that since Bhumibol’s passing, the military and the rest of the ‘network monarchy’ had been “working in unison” and the junta had looked for royal approval “to make the constitution more legitimate”.
Under the new constitution, the king’s role remains as ceremonial head of state. However, in the year since ascending the throne, Vajiralongkorn has already made several political moves – including changing the constitution itself – to preserve some of his royal rights.
In a country where issues related to the monarchy cannot be openly discussed due to punitive lèse-majesté laws, that leaves a big question over the real role that Vajiralongkorn will play.
The final test will come with the next election.
“[The junta] will maintain their power as long as possible but this will cause more tension among political factions in the country,” Kan Yuenyong said.
The risk, he said, was that disaffection would lead to another Black May, the 1992 popular protest against the military government of General Suchinda Kraprayoon that ended in the deaths of more than 50 people, disappearances and more than 3,500 arrests. “The situation now is different to back then,” he said. “If it happens again, it will be a bigger problem.” ■