United in grief but divided in politics: What next for Thailand?

Thailand’s great unifying force, its deeply beloved Royal Family, are mourning with their people this week at the loss of the King after seven decades of dedicated rule. His death leaves a deep wound on an already divided nation and may hand yet more power to the country’s military government. 

By Dung Phan

Thailand is covered in a shroud of black; with tens of thousands of people expected at the Royal Palace to pay their respects every day for some time. In a country which has been politically divided, the only thing that unites today’s Thais is their shared reverence and devotion for King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Born in the United States and educated in Switzerland, Bhumibol hardly expected to be king. As a child, he was regularly exposed to Western culture, from being an accomplished sailor, saxophonist, painter to having a passion for jazz, skiing and fast cars. At the beginning of his reign, Bhumibol was more familiar with Europe than his own native country.

As such, his long reign appears an unlikely story in the history of Thai monarchy. Many sons of the great King Chulalongkorn died young and without heirs. His father, Prince Mahidol, died at the age of 37 and his uncle, the childless King Prajadhipok, abdicated and died in exile in England.

His elder brother, King Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII), who was born in Germany, came to the Thai throne as a nine-year-old child when still living in Switzerland. He came back to Thailand after the war but was tragically found dead in his bedroom with a bullet hole in his forehead. Upon hearing of the still-unexplained death of his brother, Bhumibol switched his studies from science to political science and law. And so was born an accidental but eminent King.

The boy that became king

Bhumibol was not crowned under an inherited right. “He was not born to be a king you know. So he has worked at it, and he has been very successful,” said Thailand’s former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun. Under the view of the military-dominated government the king initially had little political power and served mostly in a ceremonial role. But his commitment and character were strong, embracing the nationalist formulation of ‘the nation, its religion and its king.’ King Bhuibol rose to take the role of “dhammaraja,” (Virtuous King or Godking), a Buddhist concept in which the king will uphold ten virtues including sacrifice, integrity and restraint.

And the young king took these to heart to make the most of every opportunity to improve the life of his people. He dedicated himself to development projects for the poor; travelling into the countryside with doctors that would visit villages along their route. In most Thais’ eyes, he is the king who did not hesitate to tramp through rice paddies with muddied trousers and even muddier boots.

Acknowledging that the lives of his people was heavily dependent on agriculture during that time, he personally researched rice and fishing methods, dam-buidling and irrigation. Fuelled with knowledge carefully gathered from his Western education, the monarch held a number of innovative patents for rain-making and waste-water aeration technology.

His influence on national politics was displayed most strikingly in 1992, when on national television he gracefully insisted on reconciliation between the prime minister and the pro-democracy demonstrators. In a few simple moments he dismantled a conflict between the two which had caused the death of forty people. And his country loved him for it.

Unending devotion 

The king believed in the unifying and healing power of a Dharmaraja rather than the western-style model of democracy. Paul Handley, the author of “The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej” wrote, “his engagement reinforced the perception that he was a sovereign dedicated to his people, especially Thailand’s poorest peasants, whom the government seemed to have forgotten. For King Bhumibol, that was democracy.”

During his reign, the country witnessed 19 coups d’états, many of which were launched under the guise of protecting the monarchy. For beneath the country’s accelerated development in recent decades lies a conflict between institutions with partially democratic legitimacy and the power of the army. It is a war between yellow shirts representing pro-loyalist groups and red shirts, supporting Thaksin Shinawatra and his family – a telecoms billionaire widely known for a range of policies that are highly popular in rural Thailand. He was ousted in a military coup in 2006.

“We will hear people in power asserting that they will continue his legacy by following his examples. Will this be just more lip service?” wrote a columnist in the Bangkok Post this week. The question at hand as the country comes to terms with the loss of their King is whether Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, seen by many Thais as lacking the deep public devotion that his father enjoyed, can hold the country together after a year of mourning.

While the answer emerges, and the country mourns, the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is likely to retain its power after drafting a new constitution that ensures the military will have significant control over the power of any elected government. With the passing of King Bhumibol – a unifying figure, a father of a nation and a symbol of peace – Thailand’s divisions are getting worse.