News analysis

Thailand tries to stay the course in extraordinary times

The kingdom mourns amid uncertainty over royal succession

As the Thais grieve over the passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, his daughter, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, took time out on Monday to present awards to model farmers in the Asia-Pacific. Yesterday, the Thai Cabinet also met after four days of mourning.

Thailand is trying to stay the course in extraordinary times.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o- cha declared that his military government's "road map" back to democratic rule would be unaffected by the bereavement.

"Nothing has changed," he told reporters. "The policies of this government, the laws - including elections - will be according to the road map."

But many things have changed.

Thai Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn at a mass cycling event held to celebrate the birthday of the late King in Bangkok last year. The Prince has asked for his ascension to the throne to be delayed. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

King Bhumibol accepted the crown in 1946, on the same day that his brother, King Ananda Mahidol, was shot dead under mysterious circumstances. His coronation took place four years later.

When the world's longest- reigning monarch died last Thursday, triggering an outpouring of grief in the kingdom of 68 million people, his heir apparent, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, abruptly asked for time to mourn with the people before taking the throne.

The request activated a legal clause where the president of the Privy Council - a group of royal advisers - then stands in as regent. The council head is former prime minister and army general Prem Tinsulanonda, 96, who was a confidant of King Bhumibol.

Key ministers have tried to explain who is really in charge.

Over the weekend, Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, the legal brains of the Cabinet, told reporters that "the continuity of the royal line is uninterrupted because the start of the new reign would be counted from Oct 13", the day King Bhumibol died. General Prayut, citing his Saturday meeting with the Crown Prince together with Gen Prem, then relayed the heir apparent's words asking people not to be confused or concerned.

Given King Bhumibol's popularity, some quarters have taken kindly to the Crown Prince's request for more time.

"He would like to pay the last homage to the King as a son, not as a monarch," Mahidol University peace studies academic Gothom Arya told The Straits Times.

It is unclear when the new king will ascend the throne. Gen Prayut yesterday said it would be appropriate to proceed once funeral rites are over. He said the new king would sign off on the new Constitution, which was approved by Thais in a referendum in August and will usher in an elected government under keen junta oversight.

The body of King Bhumibol is lying in the Grand Palace, where Thais from all over the country are turning up to pay their respects. The Crown Prince reportedly assigned his sister, Princess Sirindhorn, to oversee the arrangements for cremation. An entire crematorium needs to be built in an open field next to the Grand Palace.

With the official mourning period set to last one year, the erstwhile bright and colourful kingdom has turned monochrome. There is a run on black clothing. State-run banks will distribute black shirts to eight million low-income earners. People are being taught how to dye their clothes black. On television, black-clad newscasters stand before screens that air images in black and white. Websites are getting the same treatment.

Near the Grand Palace, volunteers are offering free food and drinks in the spirit of "doing good deeds for our father". But the fervour has a darker edge: mobs who intimidate and assault people deemed to have insulted the monarchy.

Some guidelines are getting a relook. The government initially told people to refrain from entertainment for 30 days, but later said entertainment businesses can operate behind closed doors. Media agencies, which have halted commercials out of respect for the late king, are monitoring public sentiment nervously to decide when it would be appropriate to restart ads.

In the weeks ahead, Bangkok will have a delicate job of figuring out how far it should - or can - go in honouring its late monarch.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2016, with the headline Thailand tries to stay the course in extraordinary times. Subscribe