An elaborate five-day cremation ceremony for late Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej concluded on Sunday, marking the end of a year of mourning for the country’s much-loved monarch.
And while Bhumibol’s son, 65-year-old Maha Vajiralongkorn, ascended to the throne last year, the late king’s presence continues to dominate the country and his portraits remain ubiquitously on display.
Exuding moral and fatherly authority, Bhumibol was considered a unifying figure amidst Thailand’s numerous military coups and political conflicts during his seven-decade reign.
Now some are quietly wondering what kind of future Thailand’s 68mn people will face.
Their questions are not being asked publicly due to fear of Thailand’s strict lese-majesty law.
Political analysts see an uncertain future gripped by anxiety.
“Many Thais are apprehensive and anxious about what is to come, as Thailand as we know it comes to an end,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a political science professor at Kyoto University, said: “Under Bhumibol at least Thai politics was predictable. Now things are different. Nobody can predict what the new reign will bring.”
On the one hand, such anxiety might be natural following Bhumibol’s lengthy period of rule in which he firmly established the monarchy as “the soul of the Thai state,” said Paul Chambers, a lecturer in South-East Asian studies at Naresuan University in northern Thailand.
“His son has extremely large shoes to fill and there will be enormous popular expectations of what he is supposed to do,” Chambers added.
Thais often cite Bhumibol’s numerous development projects in remote, poor areas of the country, his moral compass and his modest lifestyle as reasons for their deep admiration for the late monarch.
“His Majesty [king Bhumibol] was a genius. Look at all the projects he initiated,” a 65-year-old taxi driver in Bangkok said.
“Now, we don’t know if the [new] king will be as good as his father was in terms of developing the country. We have to wait and see. We have to give him time,” the driver added.
On the other hand, given the Thai monarchy’s steady influence on the country’s politics under Bhumibol, the confidence or lack thereof in the new monarch inevitably extends to politics.
“Under the new reign, a new king will oversee a more turbulent Thailand where the monarch is not as tried, tested and perhaps trusted as much by the people as the previous one,” Chambers said.
Thailand has faced increasing political polarisation over the past decade, marked by massive street protests and two military coups.
Since overthrowing an elected government three and a half years ago, the military regime currently running the country has acted as a protector of the monarchy, using lawsuits and other means to strip power from the political opposition.
The junta has promised to hold general elections by November 2018.
But after several postponements, and with no date officially given, such a promise has been met with scepticism by Thailand’s political parties, whose activities have been suspended under the military.
Even after the elections, analysts see prolonged military influence through the new constitution, which was drafted by the junta and approved by Vajiralongkorn and seeks to weaken major political parties and install military influence in the Senate.
The monarchy’s relationships with major players, especially the military, will likely dictate the future of Thai politics, according to analysts.
“The previous symbiotic relationship between the military and monarchy through the Cold War thus holds the key to future Thai politics,” Thitinan said.
But analysts also see an urgent need for balance between the monarchy and military by giving room to democratic institutions currently suppressed by the military.
“Thai people benefited from [Bhumibol’s] reign by having more education, information and exposure to the outside world. So they want more voice and representation,” Thitinan said.
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