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What to Know Now That the King of Thailand Has Died

Political uncertainty and potential unrest follows the death of the beloved Bhumibol Adulyadej

Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as King Rama IX of the Chakri Dynasty (Wikimedia Commons)
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Yesterday, Bhumibol Adulyadej, better known as King Rama IX of the Chakri Dynasty, died in Bangkok at the age of 88. He ruled his native Thailand for 70 years, the longest span of any modern monarch, and though his position was largely ceremonial, the king was beloved by his people and often served as a mediating force between rival political parties and protest groups.

Still, politics in Thailand has been rocky for the last few decades—since the end of World War II a succession of military juntas has ruled the nation with the latest of 12 coups taking place in 2014. But with Bhumipol gone, pundits and Thai citizens worry that a new period of instability may take hold. Here are the biggest political problems the country faces:

The Crown Prince: In 1972, Bhumipol anointed his son, Maha Vajiralongkorn, as crown prince of Thailand, reports Danielle Belopotosky for The New York Times. But the crown prince is nowhere near as popular as his father; in fact, he’s openly scorned, though strong anti-defamation laws make criticizing the royal family a serious offense. The Guardian reports that the 64-year-old scion of the Chakri Dynasty is seen as a jet-setting playboy. He’s been divorced three times and promoted his pet poodle Foo Foo, who died last year, to air chief marshal in the Thai military. Elites hoped that Bhumipol would eventually change the succession to favor his daughter Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, a more serious-minded and engaged royal. But that was not the case and Vajiralongkorn is expected to take the throne after an extended period of mourning.

The Guardian reports the political class not only worries about the prince taking power because he may embarrass the nation, but because they do not know exactly what to expect from him. “Vajiralongkorn has over the years demonstrated little interest in political and royal affairs,” Professor Pavin Chachavalpongpun of Kyoto University tells The Guardian. “[His] life is an elusive study because Thais know little about his views on politics, or his vision of the future of the monarchy.”

Belopotosky reports that many have interpreted the 2014 coup as an attempt by the military to strengthen its hold on the country before the uncertain royal transition.

Populist Uprisings: In 2006, Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted from power in the first of two military coups (so far) in 21st-century Thailand. Thaksin and his sister Yingluck, were considered populist champions of Thailand’s poorer classes. According to James Hookway in The Wall Street Journal, Thaksin introduced a plan dubbed Thaksinomics, which included low-cost health care and low interest loans. It was a boon to Thailand’s depressed rural population. But Shinawatra’s reforms were seen a destabilizing force by wealthier, more conservative Thais and supporters of the military and monarchy. After the coup, Shinawatra’s supporters formed the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, also known as the red-shirts. Thaksin’s opponents formed a group known as the yellow-shirts. Since 2008, protests and clashes have flared up, with the red-shirts setting up mass demonstrations in Bangkok in 2010. In 2011, Yingluck was elected prime minister, but was tried for corruption and deposed in 2014 and banned from office for five years.

But the rift between the red-shirts and yellow-shirts, suppressed since the 2014 coup, has not been addressed, The Financial Times reports and it threatens to flare up without the guiding hand of Bhumipol.

Democracy Delayed: In August, Thailand voted on a referendum to change its constitution, giving more power to its military, which can now appoint senators, which in turn appoint prime ministers. The idea is to calm political tensions in the nation after a decade of conflict and to help get the economy pointed in the right direction, reports Jake Maxwell Watts and Nopparat Chaichalearmmongkol at the Wall Street Journal. But critics argue the new constitution guts democracy. Measures to suppress criticism of the government in force since the 2014 coup are stoking a nascent democracy movement.

While the military planned to hold elections in 2017 to begin returning the government to civilian control, Huileng Tan at CNBC reports that a year-long mourning period and the destabilizing effect of a new king will likely push elections into 2018. “The palace, together with the military government have to ensure that the royal transition, which is happening right now, would be smooth,” Pavin tells Tan. “If it's smooth, then maybe we could see election as planned.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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