Thailand Gets New King, but Few Clues to What's Next

Thailand announces its new king, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. He succeeds his father King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died at age 88. Photo: Reuters

BANGKOK—As King Maha Vajiralongkorn takes over from his late father, the focus in Thailand is whether he will strengthen the palace’s long alliance with the army or step back from politics as other royal houses around Asia have done.

The 64-year-old career military officer formally accepted an invitation from the National Assembly to become king on Thursday, which officially makes him the 10th king of the 234-year-old Chakri dynasty.

While having little formal power, he now becomes one of the country’s most influential figures and will control the monarchy’s investment fund, the Crown Property Bureau, which academics value at over $ 40 billion. He also takes a longer formal name: King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun.

Little is known of how King Vajiralongkorn intends to reign over his sun-beaten, Buddhist kingdom, a U.S. ally at the strategic center of the patchwork of countries between India and China, or how closely he will work with former army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha’s ruling junta.

As crown prince, he spent much of his time overseas. Strict lèse-majesté laws, which criminalize any criticism of the monarchy, make many here reluctant to discuss his role.

He has already surprised some people by not taking over immediately following King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s death on Oct. 13, after over 70 years on the throne. As per custom, Gen. Prayuth, who is also prime minister, had brought the appointed legislature together that night to smooth the succession, but then-Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn asked for some time to grieve.

Thailand's new king paid his respects to a portrait of the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Thai Queen Sirikit at the Dusit Palace in Bangkok on Thursday. ENLARGE
Thailand’s new king paid his respects to a portrait of the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Thai Queen Sirikit at the Dusit Palace in Bangkok on Thursday. Photo: Bureau of the Royal Household/Associated Press

“The new sovereign surprised everyone by refusing to take the throne immediately, and generally showing all political actors that he is no one’s pawn but will act on his own terms,” said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand.

Other monarchies in Asia, notably Cambodia’s, have taken a less central role in their countries’ affairs in recent years. Bhutan’s 36-year-old King Jigme KhesarNamgyel Wangchuck has overseen a gradual shift to democracy in his mountain kingdom.

The Japanese monarchy has developed a clear constitutional role since World War II, which isn’t really the case in Thailand. On paper a constitutional monarchy, Thailand has been many times—including now—run by a military that draws on the country’s royal heritage for its legitimacy.

The new sovereign surprised everyone by refusing to take the throne immediately, and generally showing all political actors that he is no one’s pawn but will act on his own terms

—Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute for Southeast Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University

In wake of the outpouring of emotion that accompanied King Bhumibol’s passing, Gen. Prayuth emerged as a decisive and influential figure, telling grieving Thais quickly and clearly that then-Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn would definitely become king, and that there would be a one-year mourning period.

The junta, which seized power in 2014, is planning elections for 2017 and Gen. Prayuth has made it clear that he is open to returning as prime minister once a new government is formed.

King Vajiralongkorn could help the junta’s aims by lending his moral support. Christine Gray, a cultural anthropologist and expert on Thailand, suggested the new king would attempt to build alliances with the military police much as his father did in the 1960s and 1970s, when communism was spreading into Southeast Asia from China.

Mr. Chambers and other analysts say that Thailand’s new sovereign might aim to reinforce the monarchy’s long-term importance in Thailand by opening lines of communication to supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist tycoon who once led Thailand, and whose sister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government was overthrown in the most recent coup.

The Shinawatras and their backers, many of whom are members of a grass-roots group known as the Red Shirts, have won every election in Thailand this century.

“It is too early to predict the future, but a savvy monarch would likely not want to disappoint the Reds, at least as a way to balance all political actors off of each other in order to promote the institution of monarchy,” Mr. Chambers said.

Write to James Hookway at james.hookway@wsj.com

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