Thursday, December 25, 2008

What Will Happen When the King of Thailand Dies?

His Majesty King Phumiphol Adulyadet of Thailand

Since leaving Thailand, where I lived from 1975-1978, I have not followed political events there too closely. In the last couple of years, events in Thailand have received international attention as two prime ministers have been deposed in the face of public unrest. During my time in Thailand in the 1970s, I witnessed two coups as the nation struggled to begin the transition from military rule to democracy. While Thai politics has been far from stable, the one constant has been the King.

King Phumiphol Adulyadet (Rama IX of the Chakri Dynasty) has reigned as the King of Thailand for over six decades. He became King upon the sudden death of his brother in 1946. He and his queen, Sirikit, are beloved like no other sovereign or head of state that I know of. The Kingdom Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, where the King is a figurehead, similar to the Queen of England. Unlike England, however, Thailand has a strict lese majeste law which prohibits criticism or acts of disrespect toward the Royal Family. There has been little need to enforce it, however, as the King and Queen are universally revered by the Thai people. (Traditionally, Thai kings have been considered semi-divine.)

And for good reason. During their reign, Phumiphol and Sirikit have done many good things for their people, helping the poor, contributing to the agricultural development of the poorer regions in the north, and stepping in when needed in periods of political upheaval to provide a calming hand to the political rulers and prevent bloodshed.

Interestingly, Phumiphol was born in the United States (Cambridge, Massachusttes)The King and Queen's eldest daughter, Ubolratana, was married to an American, a subject not discussed in polite society in Thailand. After her divorce, she returned to Thailand. The King and Queen have two other daughters and a son (about whom more will be said later).

In the latest crisis, Phumiphol worked quietly behind the scenes in 2006 to calm a political crisis surrounding Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was accused of corruption. Public unrest surrounded calls for his resignation. He was deposed by the military with the tacit approval of the King, who let it be known that he was not in favor of Thaksin remaining. In September 2006, Thaksin was deposed by the military in a bloodless coup while he was attending a UN meeting in New York. Facing various charges, at home, he is currently out of the country.

Thaksin's successor, Somchai Wongsawat didn't fare any better. Denounced as a corrupt hack of Thaksin, protesters took to the streets and the two principle Bangkok airports, shutting them down in the process. Eventually, the country's Constitutional Court ruled that Somchai had to step down due to numerous irregularities.

The presence of the King is an important stabilizing and unifying influence in Thailand. Unfortunately, his long reign appears to be coming to an end. With the king aging and in ill health, the day of national mourning appears to be looming on the horizon. In addition, the question of succession hangs over Thailand.

Ordinarily, the question would be easy. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, who is now in his 50s, stands next in line. The unfortunate fact is that the Crown Prince is hardly a worthy successor to his father. It is an open secret-though rarely spoken in open- that the Crown Prince has lived his life as a spoiled woman-chaser and general all-around thug. His accession would deal a psychological blow to the populace and probably deal a blow to the institution of the royalty itself.

There has been much talk for many years that the King and Queen would prefer that their daughter Sirindhorn become Queen and sole regent. She is everything that her parents have been in her role as princess, working for years on various projects that benefit the populace. She has earned the affection of the Thai people, and her accession would maintain the reverence that the Thai people have for their royal family. To my knowledge, this issue has not yet been resolved.

One can only wish King Phumiphol a long life, and when that sad day comes, the country finds a way to maneuver around Vajiralongkorn.


Findalis said...

One can only hope that when the son finally does ascend the throne he changes his behavior. Or he will be thrown down fast and another put in his place.

Gary Fouse said...

Yes, and that would ultimately be a trajedy for Thailand if the monarchy itself is overthrown. Everyone in Thailand, whether they will talk about it or not, knows that it is a serious problem.