With the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand has entered a season of grief and deep uncertainty.
Stock market instability and heightened security measures in the country reflect the fact that mourning the loss of a revered monarch is accompanied by fear of what the future will bring.
Long expected because of his many years of incapacitating illness, the death of the world’s longest-reigning monarch is nevertheless a great shock. After his 70-year reign, only the very oldest Thais can remember a time when he was not king.
The monarchy’s last succession and the beginning of King Bhumibol’s reign took place in 1946, when William Lyon Mackenzie King was prime minister of Canada and Harry Truman was in the White House.
While many of the world’s monarchies have become more like television reality shows than revered national institutions, King Bhumibol was regarded as the indispensable guarantor of national unity and stability in turbulent times.
He was a constant, reassuring presence through 15 military coups, nine of them successful, including the one that brought Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to power in 2014.
While he was on the throne, Thailand was transformed from a poor agricultural backwater into an important regional economic power with an economy 4,000 per cent larger than it was in 1946.
Waiting for a new king
Shortly after King Bhumibol’s death was announced, Prime Minister Prayuth confirmed that Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn is expected to succeed his father — but said the prince had asked for a delay before being crowned king so that he could “join the public in grieving.”
The mystique of the Thai monarchy is protected by a severe lèse-majesté law that punishes even the slightest perceived insult to the royal family.
News reporting in Thailand on the subject is strictly censored, and negative comments online or even in private conversation can mean years in prison.
That has not stopped the crown prince from becoming exceptionally unpopular among Thais and widely regarded as unfit to be king.
Married many times and the father of several children born to women who were not his wives, Vajiralongkorn leads a lavish jet set life, spending much of his time outside Thailand.
A video of a birthday party he once threw for his pet poodle — featuring his third wife wearing nothing but a G-string and singing Happy Birthday to the dog — was published online overseas. Many Thais saw it, and more whispered about it.
Although the royal family has accumulated great wealth, estimated at about $ 50 billion under King Bhumibol, he was regarded as a temperate family man and a moderating influence on the corruption of civilian politicians and military leaders.
Many Thais are concerned the reign of Prince Vajiralongkorn, who will be known as King Rama X, will usher in a new era of cronyism and excess.
Red Shirts versus Yellow
Vajiralongkorn is thought to be close to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been in exile since being overthrown in a 2006 coup.
During Thaksin’s years in power, Thai politics became irreconcilably polarized. A populist billionaire, Thaksin was supported by peasant farmers and city workers in a movement known as the Red Shirts.
On the other side of the political divide was the rising middle class, as well as deeply entrenched elite families. Yellow is the royal colour in Thailand, and the movement adopted yellow shirts to symbolize the suggestion that Thaksin was a threat to the monarchy.
In the king’s twilight years, the Red-Yellow divide deepened. Election results led to violent street confrontations followed by military intervention.
Many Thais are concerned that Prince Vajiralongkorn has neither the willingness nor the capacity and temperament to bring about any reconciliation.
They also worry that the military junta led by Prime Minister Prayuth will exploit the perceived weaknesses of the new monarch to remain in power indefinitely, bolstered by a new constitution adopted in a flawed referendum in August.
King Bhumibol had his own failings, including a tolerance for human rights abuses. But decades of devotion to development projects and relentless government propaganda painting him as the soul of the nation gave him a status close to the divine right of the absolute monarchs of old Siam.
Even while he was unconscious for months in a hospital bed, he was capable of holding the country together.
Mourning the past and fearing the future, many Thais feel that Thursday was the end of a golden era.