Thailand to celebrate birthday of assertive new King

A portrait of Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn is seen at a shopping mall on the eve of his 65th birthday in Bangkok.
A portrait of Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn is seen at a shopping mall on the eve of his 65th birthday in Bangkok. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK - Drapes are being carefully hung around royal portraits and saplings primed for planting in the ground. At the stroke of noon on Friday (July 28), 21-gun salutes will ring out from Bangkok as Thailand marks the birthday of a new monarch for the first time in seven decades.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn turns 65 on Friday, sitting at the apex of a constitutional monarchy that is enjoying more freedom from government oversight.

The King is expected to be ceremonially crowned sometime after a grand funeral and cremation of his father Bhumibol Adulyadej in October. But he has already assumed direct control over palace administration and asserted his influence in relation to the military government.

A legal amendment earlier this month (July) gave him full control over the crown's multi-billion dollar holdings. It granted him the right to appoint individuals to manage the Crown Property Bureau, including the chairman, a position previously held by the finance minister. Assets of the CPB, one of the largest landowners and biggest corporate investors in Thailand, were estimated to be worth US$43.8 billion in 2014.

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The new monarch has shaken up the palace. A law quietly passed in April by Thailand's interim assembly allowed him to consolidate control over five agencies which handle palace affairs and security. These agencies, which previously reported to the prime minister and defence ministry, remain funded by the state, but need not return revenue to the treasury.

A Straits Times examination of over 100 notices published on the Royal Gazette website since January shows the palace has promoted over 200 employees, removed or demoted over a dozen, as well as appointed over 100 more - many of them senior government servants.

All these moves have taken place amid tighter enforcement of Thailand's lese majeste law, under which individuals have been jailed not just for insulting or defaming royalty, but also for trying to profit from their connections to the palace. Open discussion about the king, already constrained under the previous reign, has withered.

The late King Bhumibol died at the age of 88 after a long illness last October, triggering an outpouring of grief in a nation that had grown to revere him during his 70-year reign. In government offices, his portrait continues to adorn the walls, alongside that of his surviving wife Queen Sirikit, as well as King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

But the new king, who keeps a home in Germany, has been putting his own stamp on Thai public life. He visited the restive southern border province of Pattani last November, shortly before ascending the throne. In May, when alleged separatists staged a car bomb attack there, he sent an aide to present gifts to some of the victims.

When flooding hit Pattani as well as neighbouring southern provinces in January, he dispatched privy councillors - high-ranking royal advisors - to monitor the situation and deliver aid to victims. Greeting cards bearing hand-drawn cartoons by the monarch were sold to raise funds for the relief effort.

Thai premier Prayut Chan-o-cha has urged Thais to mark the monarch's birthday, which is now a public holiday. "The government hopes all people will join to do good deeds," he told reporters on Tuesday.

The King has also drawn another set of cartoons, which will be distributed on the cover of a booklet for a religious ceremony on Thursday evening.

"Happiness starts from our mind and a good attitude towards others," says one of his handwritten messages, printed alongside a depiction of a smiling family by a car, a house and pet dogs. "If one is happy to devote oneself to the public, it makes others, and the public, happy."