World, Asia - Pacific

Thailand in shock after king’s death

Highly revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 88, seen as controlling factor in kingdom's turbulent political history

Ekip   | 13.10.2016
Thailand in shock after king’s death Thai Royalist hold portraits of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand on October 13, 2016. Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej reportedly died aged 88. King Adulyadej is the world's longest reigning monarch and the most unifying symbol for Thai people. ( Guillaume Payen - Anadolu Agency )

Banghok

By Max Constant

BANGKOK 

Thailand is in a state of paralysis after the death on Thursday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a towering figure whose 70-year reign was the longest of any Thai monarch and one of the most prestigious.

Hundreds of people gathered within the compound of Bangkok’s Siriraj Hospital after the official announcement of the 88-year-old king’s death, most wearing pink shirts -- a color associated with the monarch -- and brandishing portraits of Bhumibol while crying.

In an announcement broadcast on all Thai television channels at 7 p.m. (1200GMT), the Royal Household Bureau said the monarch died at 3 p.m. in Siriraj Hospital, where he had been almost continuously hospitalized since 2009.

He had also been the world's longest reigning living monarch.

Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, aged 64, is expected to ascend the throne to become the tenth monarch of the Chakri dynasty.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said in a televised announcement that the country's new monarch had long been selected. He also declared that flags would fly at half-mast for 30 days and a one-year mourning period would be observed.  

Prior to the Royal Household announcement, Thai newspapers had reported that the National Assembly was due to hold a special meeting at 9 or 10 p.m.

Bhumibol, who had been suffering from a range of ailments from regular lung infections to spinal cord problems, had been treated for several months with continued renal replacement therapy, which is usually used for patients with acute kidney problems.

The king was highly revered in the country of 67 million, but since his Golden Jubilee in June 2006 chaos has prevailed in the Thai political world, resulting in erosion of the royal family prestige.

The image of Bhumibol was utilized extensively by the Yellow Shirts, opponents of popular former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who led the country from 2001 until he was overthrown by a coup in September 2006.

The king endorsed the 2006 coup, as well as that of May 22, 2014, which ousted another elected pro-Shinawatra government.

The politicization of the king deeply affected the magic of the monarchy, with Bhumibol no longer appearing as unifying factor for all Thai people but simply as an idol revered by a part -- although a large majority -- of the population.

The Red Shirts, as are called the supporters of Shinawatra, had the impression -- true or false -- that the monarch had abandoned them, particularly after he did not intervene when the military shot into a crowd of pro-Thaksin protesters in April-May 2010.

In 2005, Scottish academic Duncan McCargo wrote that the political interventions of a “network monarchy” -- privy councilors, judges, high ranking bureaucrats and military affiliated to the palace -- exacerbated a decline in the royal family's popularity.

David Streckfuss, an independent academic, has also said that in Bhumibol's reign the rule of law has been debased again and again through coups and "the actions of extra-constitutional figures connected to the palace and the abuse of one of the most severe lese-majeste laws seen in the world in centuries”.

For King Bhumibol -- for decades the unifying factor between all social groups in a strictly hierarchical society with little equality -- the tarnishing of his aura has been a tragedy.

For years, his interventions in times of major crisis made him an exceptional monarch in the eyes of his subjects.

After a massacre of students in October 1973, he ordered the dictator Thanom Kittikachorn to leave the country. He then summoned a national convention to give a stronger democratic basis to his country.

But in the following years, the rise of communism in Indochina seemed to temper his democratic fervor.

He did not intervene during the massacre of students by ultra-royalist right-wing groups at Thammasat University in October 1976, and in the 1980s, he supported semi-democratic regimes.

In the last years of his reign, disrupted by the fight between supporters and opponents of Shinawatra, Bhumibol tried to be neutral, even if he did not hide his irritation in front of the flamboyant billionaire politician.

But the Yellow Shirts and affiliated groups such as the People Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) -- who demonstrated for months in Bangkok in 2013-2014 -- kept dragging the image of the king into politics to weaken Thaksin and his sister Yingluck, then prime minister, whom they accused of being disloyal to the monarchy.

Deeply affected by these divisions, the king kept silent, but his moral authority was clearly affected. 

His death can only aggravate political tensions in a country searching for a new identity. The succession will be all the more difficult for the crown prince.

“The current system has been so much crafted by Bhumibol, has become so much attached to his own person that it is difficult to imagine how this kind of ethos could be reproduced by the following monarch. Even a young Bhumibol would have problems for this,” Streckfuss has written.

Former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun has also admitted that the unquestioning respect Bhumibol commanded from his subjects – “a feeling that foreigners cannot fully understand” had been weakening.

Such remained his popularity in his final years that his death has created a vacuum which his successor will have trouble filling.

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