News analysis

Thailand's new King has big shoes to fill

Heir-apparent Maha Vajiralongkorn is now poised to step up to the throne at the age of 64. PHOTO: EPA

In many scenes from the grainy footage about King Bhumibol Adulyadej aired on Thai television following his death last month, villagers prostrated before the monarch's feet touch the ground with their foreheads. It is a physical symbol of the formal phrase used to address the King - phra bat somdet phra jao yu hua - meaning literally "the feet of the lord above (my) head".

While Thailand's post-millennial generation may be less expressive in their fealty, many continue to value the monarchy.

King Bhumibol was the demi-god that many Thais looked to for answers and blessings. His development work transformed the institution into a moral authority commonly held up as a standard for leaders of the country.

Heir-apparent Maha Vajiralongkorn, who lived in the long shadow of his father's achievements, is now poised to step up to the throne at the age of 64.

"We will have to give the new King time," says retired Police General Vasit Dejkunjorn, who served as a royal court police officer under King Bhumibol for more than a decade and has known the Crown Prince since his childhood.

But he tells The Straits Times he is "optimistic" that the towering legacy of his father will not prove a hurdle for the new monarch.

The new King will be the sovereign of a country at a key juncture. Thailand has been ruled by a military government for more than two years. It will soon promulgate a Constitution ushering in a guided form of democracy in the politically polarised country. Even as its generals try to keep a lid on discussions that sow discord, it will be increasingly difficult to avoid scrutiny of the distribution of wealth in a country where 10 per cent of all landowners own more than 60 per cent of the land, and which also has one of the richest monarchies in the world.

Thailand's harsh lese majeste law automatically tempers discussion about the royal family. But observers will be closely watching the kind of relationship the new monarch will strike with the military, and if he will use his influence to nudge the kingdom towards a rules-based, democratic order.

King Bhumibol formed key relationships with senior military officers during his reign. One of his closest confidantes was General Prem Tinsulanonda, a former army commander who served as prime minister for eight years, and was immediately absorbed into the privy council when he stepped down in 1988.

As president of King Bhumibol's privy council, he assumed the role of temporary regent when the Crown Prince delayed his accession to the throne last month.

Another former army commander Surayud Chulanont was already a privy councillor when he was asked to be premier in 2006, shortly after a coup overthrew the government of elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

"In Thai history, arguably prior to the 1970s, the military was the dominant player in the political equation," says Thailand-based military analyst Paul Chambers. "It was only during the reign of the previous sovereign that we have seen the military become a junior partner of the palace."

Now, he says, "the military has become ascendant again".

The generals who staged the 2014 coup have always maintained that they seized power to end political unrest. What is often left unsaid is the military's role in smoothening the royal transition.

Last year, the military government organised two mass cycling events in Bangkok led by the Crown Prince in honour of his parents. It gave the masses a rare glimpse of the future King - dressed in cycling pants and sunshades - outside the stiff confines of a royal ceremony.

King Bhumibol's passing on Oct 13 gave the country a rare respite from the political feuding. Grieving Thais found spontaneous ways to show their loyalty, like distributing free food to mourners, tattooing their bodies or walking to the capital to pay respects. Police General Vasit thinks this bodes well for the future of Thailand's monarchy, though much will also depend on what the new King does.

Royalist social critic Sulak Sivaraksa suggests: "He needs (to select) privy councillors who are men of moral courage, who are willing to tell him what he should listen to, not tell him what he likes to hear."

If the new King can make his reign "transparent and accountable", as well as "distance himself from the army, then the next reign will be prosperous", he says.

The new King has big shoes to fill, but he may yet grow into them.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2016, with the headline Thailand's new King has big shoes to fill. Subscribe