An empty throne
As Thais mourn their king, confusion swirls over the succession
Source: The Economist
Oct 22nd 2016
WHITE tents encircle Sanam Luang, a vast grassy parade ground in the heart of Bangkok. From their shade volunteers distribute simple meals, cold water and ice creams to crowds dressed in black or white. Off-duty rescue workers stir deep basins of diced chicken, turning the sizzling mixture with scoops the size of spades. A soldier in camouflage hands out sweets.
The refreshments have been laid on for mourners waiting to pay their respects to Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand’s king, who died in hospital on October 13th. His body rests in the Grand Palace, an enormous white-walled complex just across the road, where it will stay for the next year. Visitors to the palace kneel before a picture of the king; soon they will be allowed into a throne room containing his coffin. Next year Sanam Luang will be the site of the royal cremation pyre—an ornate wooden pavilion which will probably take weeks to build.
Immediately after the king’s death was announced all television stations suspended their normal programming in favour of documentaries about him, streamed in monochrome from a government pool. Newspapers and magazines started publishing in black and white; many websites did too. Funereal bunting now hangs from government buildings, as well as some banks and big department stores. Ads have stopped gushing from video billboards; noisy concerts and some festivals are postponed. Authorities have declared an end to the professional football season, abandoning several rounds of matches.
Yet while grief is deep and genuine, in most practical ways Bangkok chugs on. Authorities declared a public holiday on the day after King Bhumibol’s death, but only after some commuters had already left for work. Bangkok’s stock exchange opened as usual, earning back some of the losses it had incurred earlier in the week. Public services and almost all businesses are operating normally, though some bars remain subdued. Everyday life has returned quickest outside the cities and in less royalist provinces, far from the capital, where black-clad mourners are rarer.
There are limits
Sensing the mood—and probably eager not to harm the economy—the military junta which has ruled Thailand since 2014 has toned down some of its early edicts. After negotiations with TV bosses the junta decided that stations would be entitled to run their own programming from the evening of October 14th, rather than waiting 30 days as planned (they have promised not to air anything too frivolous). The government wants public servants to wear mourning garb for a year; it says it will hand out black shirts to the poor, as well as teach them how to dye clothes they already own. But it is possible that simpler gestures, such as sporting a black ribbon, will eventually suffice.
Little flexibility is evident, however, in the enforcement of Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté law, which in practice criminalises all but the most banal analysis of the palace’s influence, and which can make it risky to intimate that esteem for royalty is uneven and nuanced. The government was quick to “deplore” foreign coverage of the occasion. It accused journalists of playing down the size of mourning crowds, but probably only because it did not dare mention even more vexing content, including analysis of the king’s questionable democratic credentials and the crown prince’s louche personal life. Cable providers have temporarily interrupted local transmission of the BBC’s international news channel when it has covered the mourning.
The government has asked local internet providers to monitor their networks around the clock, warning that it would pursue those found to be carrying content which might offend the grieving. It advertised e-mail addresses and phone numbers allowing Thai web-users to report worrisome content directly to the ministry of communications. Prompted by royalist groups, it says it will renew vain efforts to persuade foreign governments to extradite Thais whom royalists accuse of insulting the royal family from abroad.
Of most concern are a handful of cases in which mobs of mourners have gathered outside the homes of Thais accused of making comments they consider insensitive. One man was beaten, his assault streamed on social media by a bystander; police forced a woman to prostrate herself in apology before a picture of the king, watched by a jeering crowd. The junta has condemned such incidents, but on October 18th the justice minister appeared to agree that “social sanctions” were a good way of dealing with Thais who refuse to respect the monarchy.
Thailand will find it easier to get back to business once the next king’s reign begins. For the moment the succession is strangely stalled. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the coup leader turned prime minister, says Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn has asked not to be proclaimed king until after the country has had more time to grieve. By law Prem Tinsulanonda, the 96-year-old chief of the former king’s privy council, will serve as regent in the interim.
This turn of events has surprised everyone, apparently including the junta. It is not unusual for a new king to postpone his coronation until mourning for his predecessor is over, nor even unheard of to leave affairs in the hands of a regent (in the early years of his reign the young King Bhumibol did both). But delaying the formal acclamation of the new monarch by parliament is a strange decision indeed.
The wildest speculation is that the crown prince is still deciding whether or not he wants the job—or that aristocrats inside the court are trying to persuade him to decline it. Prince Vajiralongkorn is not much loved by the masses and widely loathed among Bangkok’s elite, who fear his reign will dent the monarchy’s prestige. For years there have been rumours of efforts to elevate a better-loved royal.
The longer Thailand’s odd interregnum persists, the more credible these theories will become. For the time being the prevailing view in Bangkok is that the succession will eventually proceed. The prime minister has assured Thais that the crown prince will accept the throne. Mr Prayuth says he may be acclaimed within days; other officials suggest the wait will be longer. Some commend the prince’s decision to forgo the crown briefly, seeing it as a sign of humility and respect. But for many Thais the gesture appears not to be dispelling misgivings but sowing confusion.
From the print edition: Asia
Three dictators and a prince: Thailand