How Will Thailand Fill its Royal Vacuum?

Filling the shoes of the country’s revered monarch will be no easy task.

Shawn W. Crispin
How Will Thailand Fill its Royal Vacuum?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Amid widespread prayers for a miraculous recovery, Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 88, died of natural causes on Thursday after a long bout of ill-health. The world’s longest serving monarch, Bhumibol leaves behind a royal institution he revived and redefined as a semi-divine source of political power and moral authority in a kingdom long plagued by abusive officials, corrupt politicians and overreaching soldiers. They, and his heir, will be challenged to fill the massive vacuum left in the widely revered Bhumibol’s absence.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha declared a year-long period of mourning hours after the announcement of the death, an interregnum that will bring national life to a virtual standstill for at least a month, perhaps longer, amid elaborate and prolonged royal funeral ceremonies expected to draw millions of grief-stricken Thais to the national capital. On Friday, the military’s media regulator banned all entertainment programming on national television, a blackout filled with golden documentaries chronicling Bhumibol’s life and accomplishments.

Once the eulogies fade and ceremonies close, attention will shift more squarely on the delicate process of crowning the Chakri dynasty’s tenth king, or Rama X. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, Bhumibol’s only son and anointed heir apparent, is expected to assume the throne, though palace law allows in certain scenarios for the crowning of a princess. Many believe Prayut’s coup-installed government seized power in mid-2014 to ensure royalist generals were in charge to steer the succession. A day after Bhumibol’s passing, however, there are already indications that the process and outcome are not wholly preordained.

Soon after the Royal Household Bureau announced Bhumibol’s death, Prayut said on national television that his government would proceed with the transition in line with the king’s appointment of Vajiralongkorn as his heir on December 28, 1972. Hours later, Prayut said that Vajiralongkorn, 64, needed time to deal with his grief and that he preferred to wait for a more “appropriate time” to be announced the next king. The prince, who spends most of his time in Germany, flew to Thailand on Thursday after the bureau said Bhumibol was “not stable” and doctors advised the monarch to suspend his royal duties.

A special session of the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly, expected to officially invite Vajiralongkorn to become the next king on Thursday evening, instead observed a symbolic moment of silence and adjourned in late evening. Interim parliament chairman Pornpetch Wichitcholchai was quoted in reports saying that the legislature would reconvene to endorse a new king after “royal ceremonies” are completed. It was unclear if he meant the one-year period of mourning or the royal funeral ceremonies that will be conducted at Bangkok’s Grand Palace and Sanam Luang.

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Royal precedents may or may not be a guide. Historical accounts show that parliament endorsed Bhumibol as king approximately 12 hours after the death by gunshot wound of his elder brother, King Ananda (Rama VIII). Vajiralongkorn’s request for time to mourn, as reported by Prayut, appears to break with that most recent succession precedent. Thai royals, moreover, are not cremated until many months after their deaths. Bhumibol’s mother, known affectionately as the Princess Mother, passed away in July 1995 but was not officially cremated in an elaborate religious funeral ceremony until March 1996.

The vacant throne will be managed in the interregnum by Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda, who by law was appointed regent on Friday. The 96-year-old Prem, a former prime minister and army commander, has served as Bhumibol’s top royal advisor since 1988. Prem commands residual respect within the armed forces, with recent indications he has reached a special accommodation with Prayut. The surprise promotion of General Chalermchai Sittisart to army commander was viewed as a nod towards Prem in light of their mutual backgrounds in the army’s “red beret” special forces.

Chalermchai’s appointment came ahead of an elite Queen’s Guard regiment soldier believed to be backed by the junta’s second ranking member, defense minister General Prawit Wongsuwan. While Prawit still commands significant influence among the military rank and file, and remains respected with top cops through his former police chief brother’s connections, diplomats and analysts believe his power vis-à-vis Prayut was diminished at the reshuffle, which came into effect on October 1. Analysts have long speculated that the politically astute Prawit is well-placed for a prestigious royal appointment under Vajiralongkorn.

Whether Prem’s regency will ensure a smooth or cause a rocky transition is uncertain. Before Bhumibol’s passing, Vajiralongkorn had asserted growing influence over the Royal Household Bureau, seen in the recent appointment of his known loyalists to top deputy positions in charge of operations, royal residences and security. The appointment of Crown Property Bureau director and known Prem ally Chirayu Isarangkun Na Ayuthaya as the bureau’s Lord Chamberlain, on the other hand, was seen as a calibrated rotation to maintain continuity and balance between old and new during the transition.

Vajiralongkorn would once crowned have the power to dissolve the current 18-member Privy Council, comprised of distinguished former judges, officials and soldiers, and replace the advisory body with his own appointees. He would also have the power to pardon, an authority some in the coup-ousted Peua Thai party say they hope he would use to bring home the self-exiled, criminally convicted ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra in the name of national reconciliation. Any such move would be anathema to royalists who have tacitly backed two military coups, in 2006 and 2014, to strip Thaksin’s and his sister Yingluck’s elected political power.

In his address announcing Bhumibol’s passing, Prayut warned against anyone using the royal transition as a pretext to incite unrest. While Thais mourn what many view as the end of a righteous era, Prem’s regency will seek assurances that the heir’s accession will not be attended by a drastic purge of his father’s appointees and trusted aides at royal institutions. While many diplomats and analysts believe the transition will be calm and gradual, until a king is crowned and new monarchal order firmly consolidated Thai history shows a number of destabilizing scenarios could yet play out.