BANGKOK — On October 13, shortly after 6pm, came the news that millions of Thais had long expected but prayed would not come.
After 70 years on the throne, the king was dead. Aged 88, Bhumibol Adulyadej was the world’s longest reigning monarch. Harry Truman was in the White House when the young king was crowned in 1946, Éamon de Valera was Taoiseach and it would be another 7 years before Queen Elizabeth II, the second longest serving monarch, was crowned.
Scenes of mass grief followed the announcement of the death — both outside the Bangkok hospital where the ailing king had spent the past 7 years — and then the following day when hundreds of thousands black clad mourners lined the streets as the king’s body was taken to the palace where he will lie in state for up to a year before cremation.
And then on into the following week, as tens of thousands of people visited the king’s resting place each day, and hundreds took days off work to hand out snacks and drinks and to help clean up around the palace.
One volunteer, giving her name as Nittaya, was part of a group scraping a footpath clean — trowel in hand. “Our king served for 70 years, he was like a father, so we can do this small thing for him,” she said.
But criticising the monarchy is illegal in Thailand and media reporting in the country has to pull its punches. Lèse-majesté, or insulting the king, is punishable with up to 15 years in jail.
Despite this cult of personality, Thailand is officially a constitutional monarchy. The king is meant to be above the grimy compromises and corruption of electoral politics.
An avid photographer and saxophone player, in his younger days the late king Bhumibol regularly took to the road to see first hand how rural life was in the rice and rubber growing Thai countryside.
But as he became more prominent over the decades, he varyingly sanctioned and opposed military coup and elected government alike, sometimes intervening to pacify antagonists.
During the past 10 years, Thailand’s politics have become bitterly divided along class and regional lines. A cycle of violent street protests pitted hardline royalists against supporters of a billionaire demagogue named Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thaksin turned Thai politics upside down, winning the support of millions of poor farmers through social spending.
But royalists saw him as a threat who could turn Thailand into a republic. Thaksin was deposed in a 2006 coup and later led the country. But his parties, which he funded in absentia, remained unbeatable at the polls.
2 years ago the army seized power again, unwilling to have Thaksin’s people in government as the king faded. Some harsh repression followed as the army tried to exert total control. But now the generals — their legitimacy based on protecting the monarchy — look unsure about what to do with the royal succession.
The heir is 64 year old Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. But he spends most of his time abroad and has divorced 3 times. He does not seem to have the same respect among Thais as his late father.
Some whisper that Sirindhorn, the 61 year old princess who shares her father’s keenness for photography and visiting farms, should succeed. But that could be seen as contradicting the revered late king – politically dangerous even for a military junta.
The crown prince could take the throne by the end of the month, or it could be in a years time, after his late father is cremated. The prince himself has not spoken, but he initially request, via the junta, that his succession be put on hold so he can mourn his father.
The army has asked people not to worry about any delay. But there have been at least 12 new cases of lèse–majesté since the king died and the government has sanctioned public shaming of people accused of disrespecting the monarchy. And with the king dead, it could be that the ruling military will use the uncertainty around the succession to deepen its control of the country.
For World Report, this is Simon Roughneen in Bangkok.Show