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Opinion | Thai king’s successor could threaten the future of the monarchy

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Pavin Chachavalpongphan is an associate professor at Kyoto University and currently a research associate at the University of California, Berkeley.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej's magical reign is over.

Thailand's King and the world's longest-reigning monarch passed away on October 13 at the age of 88. The King was a symbol of unity and stability in Thailand, but his death leaves a gaping hole in Thailand's political landscape and is filled with uncertainty about the country's future without its charismatic king.

Born in 1927 and ascending to the throne in 1946, King Bhumibol led an authoritative reign that saw him compete fiercely with the civilian government for political power and the loyalty of the Thai people. The King was considered sacred and inviolable, and was protected by strict lèse majesté laws that made any insulting remarks against him punishable by up to 15 years in prison. But his divine image did not prevent him from acting as king to his people. His royal development projects were undertaken to improve the lives of countless Thais. To them, the King meant everything.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha announced the death of King Bhumibol on state television afterwards. Confirmed It was announced that Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn would succeed to the throne as King Rama X. The announcement was met with great trepidation, as many feared that Prince Vajiralongkorn would not be able to bring the same stability as his father.

Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn will face serious problems if he tries to succeed the former king without possessing the necessary qualities of his father. He does not enjoy the love and respect from the people that his father enjoyed. He does not have the moral authority and charisma of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and the overwhelming attention on King Bhumibol has kept King Vajiralongkorn in the shadows. King Vajiralongkorn has shown little or no enthusiasm to work on democratic institutions or be a champion of democracy. He enjoys an exotic and lavish lifestyle where no one dares to look into how he spends taxpayers' money. He has been ruthless in dealing with his enemies. One of his confidants, the famous fortune teller Sriyan “Mo Yong” Sucharitporwongse, said: Died Suriyan died mysteriously while in custody. He was accused of using the crown prince's name for personal gain.

With a weaker prince on his way to becoming king, the military may become the final arbiter in Thai politics.

During his reign, King Bhumibol allied with the military to create a “network monarchy” that placed the monarchy at the top of Thailand's political structure. The monarchy and the military worked together to design a political system that would leave the elected government weak and vulnerable, and where elected civilian rulers were challenged, they would be overthrown in a military coup.

However, uncertainty surrounding King Vaicharalongkorn and his ability to provide security for those in the network royal family prompted the military to intervene in politics, as evidenced by the 2014 coup in which the military attempted to seize the throne.

Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn has cultivated a unique relationship with the current military junta, recognizing the military's importance as a key partner to the monarchy. After the 2014 coup, he presided over the military-appointed Legislative Council and praised the military for ensuring peace and order in the country.

But Vajiralongkorn's new alliance with the military could have serious implications for Thailand's democracy. Under King Bhumibol, the monarchy never operated within the bounds of the constitution, but the public gradually came to accept the system as part of Thailand's political culture.

King Vajiralongkorn's alliance with the military may be the reason why the succession will go ahead without a hitch, at least in the short term. After all, the whole country will be in endless mourning. Thais have been told to wear black for a year. Months of mourning may postpone public discontent with the incoming king. It may also help legitimize King Vajiralongkorn's controversial succession.

In the long term, King Vajiralongkorn's poor performance could further stoke anti-monarchy sentiment in Thailand. Some in the Red Shirt camp, supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, have already floated the idea of ​​a republic. They foresee the end of Thailand's monarchy and see King Vajiralongkorn as a symbol of the failure of the constitutional monarchy model. Even among royalists, King Vajiralongkorn's choice is a disappointment. They preferred his sister, the popular Princess Maka Chakri Sirindhorn, as king. But the constitution limits women's succession to the throne.

For King Vajiralongkorn, the path forward is clear: if he maintains his alliance with the military and refuses to cooperate with a democratic government, his rule will be contested and may not survive. If he decides to go ahead with reforms and bring the monarchy strictly within a constitutional framework, the monarchy has a better chance of becoming a viable institution. King Vajiralongkorn needs to make this difficult decision; the future of his rule depends on it.

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