King Bhumibol, political crisis and succession in a nation at a turning point
Deep political and social divisions run through the country. Treated as a semi-god, the aging monarch is the only guarantor of national unity, and his succession could exacerbate divisions. A source talked to AsiaNews about the military and the shadow they cast over the crown prince to legitimise their power. An expert might be picked to lead the transition.

Bangkok (AsiaNews) - In recent years, Thailand has seen a series of political and social upheavals, pitting two opposing camps: the financial and government elite in Bangkok, linked to the military, embodied by the Yellow Shirts, against the Shinawatra clan, popular in the rural areas of the north-east regions of the country, backed by the Red Shirts.

At the height of the violent confrontation, street clashes left hundreds of people dead and wounded. Since May of last year, power has been in the hands of the military, after it overthrew the elected government in a bloodless coup and imposed martial law.

In such a deeply divided country, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 87, is the only rallying point for all Thais. On the throne for 60 years, a record that has made him the longest serving monarch in the world, he is revered as a demi-god, and is the only factor of national unity. However, he is old and ill, and the issue of his succession - a taboo in the country - could lead to new and deeper contrasts.

Thailand has some of the toughest Lèse-majesté laws in the world to protect the king's persona. Sentences can reach up to 15 years in prison. Critics note though that the military junta has used such laws in recent months to suppress dissent and rule the country with an iron fist.

In order to understand future developments in Thailand, their political context and the balance of forces in the country, it is necessary to analyse the future of the monarchy and the scenarios associated with the process of succession.

A diplomatic source in Bangkok spoke to AsiaNews, anonymously given the extreme sensitivity of the issue. "No one questions the persona of the king, not the Thaksin Shinawatra clan, nor the Red Shirts," the source said.

Indeed, accusations of "poor loyalty" towards the king have often been used to attack the other side. The military too has been blamed for "exploiting the king's persona in a phoney show of loyalty to operate behind the scenes and legitimise their power."

In recent years, those who "hide behind the monarchy" and "exploit the institution" to maintain power - the military, Bangkok's old aristocracy, and the city's haute bourgeoisie - have come under criticism.

"The most divisive issue in Thailand today is the struggle for the legitimisation of power, which is taking place in the shadow of King Bhumibol," the source said. "The leading party in this fight is the military, its top brass and the great families, the movers and shakers in the economy."

As for the king, "it is impossible to forget that for the past 60 years he has been the symbol of national unity, guarantor of the constitution, and the protector of religion. Even Muslims in southern Thailand, who are fighting the central government, respect him and see in him the true Thai soul."

"In theatres, before the start of a movie, people get up to pay tribute to the king and listen to the national anthem. A man who failed to do so was tried recently. It was in all the papers."

Although he was born in the United States and educated in Switzerland, and is not fond of spicy food as most Thais are, preferring instead Western food - something that is still taboo in the country - he still embodies the country's soul.

The monarchy will continue as an institution and will probably not change, but "His death will be the end of an era," the diplomat said. Inevitably, his successor "will not have the same moral and political weight," especially if Prince Vajiralongkorn becomes the new king.

A "certain level of dissatisfaction already exists among Thais" in his case "because he does not have his father's charisma." Unlike King Bhumibol, who was never been touched by whiff of scandal, rumours have tarnished the crown prince's image, the latest being his recent divorce from his third wife.

By contrast, people are fond of his sister, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, commonly referred to by the title of "Phra Thep", meaning 'princess angel', who is popular like her father. She is known for her concern for ordinary people and her social and civic activities.

Ordinary Thais would "prefer by far a queen," the source told AsiaNews, "but the prince is backed by the military."

Ultimately, Thailand is getting ready for a crucial moment in its history, one that could exacerbate even more existing tensions and conflicts, which the regime imposed by the military has so far only papered over.

"One of the solutions under consideration is the appointment of an expert at the helm of the government for a certain period of time," said the diplomat.

"Eventually, power would go back to civilian hands, ending a stalemate that cannot last much longer." Meantime, "This person, from outside mainstream political life, would be neither 'Yellow' nor 'Red', or involved in economic and social issues . . . but such a choice is not going to be easy." (DS)