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"The Death of a King", a Commentary by Terence Chong

Commentary 2016/66, 14 October 2016

It is difficult to understate the momentousness of King Bhumibol’s passing. Although his death had long been anticipated in light of his absence from public life, the finality of the situation will mark a watershed for many Thais. Since his ascent to the throne in 1946, King Bhumibol has seen over a dozen coups, approximately the same number of constitutions, and numerous governments. To say that the king has been a figure of stability in the face of decades of political unpredictability is putting it lightly. For many Thais the king was a symbol of all that was pure and good about the country. The monarchy was an institution that existed above the squalor of petty politics and politicking, a moral beacon to turn to when politicians of different stripes descended into indulgences of different types.

First will come the mourning. The public outpouring of grief will be heartfelt not least because a particular way of life will have ended. Heavily stirred into this grief will be long held frustrations over the economic and political state of the country. Systematic mismanagement and wastage have frittered away all the advantages associated with a country so rich in natural resources. And without this iconic personality to look up to, the immediate future will seem just the bit gloomier.

After the mourning, enter uncertainty. The coup of May 2014, ostensibly to bring in law and order, was also argued to ensure a smooth succession. This succession, however, was always more than the replacement of the monarch but also the succession of the power, fortunes and influence of the country’s traditional elite. Will the inner circle of the junta see King Bhumibol’s death as the end of its raison d’etre or will it clamp down further still in the coming months in the hopes that the silence of critics will pass for deference for the new king?

Significantly less charismatic than his father, the newly crowned Rama X will have the chance to set the tone for public life in Thailand. That the Thai monarchy will retain influence over national politics and other public institutions in the country is a given. Perhaps more interesting is that, after his father’s long reign, the actions of King Rama X in the coming months will determine if the monarchy will continue to exist above political squalor or be tainted by it.

Terence Chong is Head, Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre, and co-coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.