The passing of King Bhumibol has brought out the best in Thais, but also the worst.
Alongside heartwarming stories of unity and kindness, of volunteers handing out water and snacks to the hundreds of thousands of mourners gathered outside the grand palace gates, there are also alarming videos of angry mobs. One mob surrounded a police station, demanding the arrest of a woman who allegedly committed lese majeste by insulting the late king on social media. Another mob stormed a food stall in search of the owner’s son who also posted offensive remarks. The crowd eventually agreed to disperse, but not before singing the royal anthem.
The cultish reverence Thais express for King Bhumibol has been the tenuous bond bridging the political divide over the years. During the brief decade of democratic rule between the mid-90’s and 2006, now-exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra emerged as a divisive figure in Thai politics: his populist policies made him highly popular amongst the rural poor, while the urban middle class saw him as corrupt. His critics also accused the pro-Thaksin faction of aspiring to the establishment of a Thai republic — an aspiration that was perhaps prevalent among just a subset of Thaksin supporters. Of course, Thaksin was not the source of division, but he certainly catalyzed the polarization of fragmentary tendencies.
Love of the king was at times brandished as a political weapon, perhaps like patriotism in America. To be accused of being disloyal to the monarchy would have elicited a social wrath similar to (or more extreme than) what Donald Trump faced when he derided Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star mother who accompanied her husband onstage at the Democratic National Convention.
However, another side of this collective respect for the king was its ability to bring people together. Concerned that conflicts and disunity would burden the king, Thais have kept turmoil from boiling over and descending into violence — or, they at least preserved the rarity of such occurrences.
King Bhumibol earned the love and respect of his subjects by devoting himself to development projects and making himself visible and accessible during his active years. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, however, does not enjoy the level of reverence that his father did. This begs the question: can a king who is deemed less legitimate in the eyes of the Thai public maintain unity? Or will existing political fault lines reemerge, freed from any need to respect the wishes of a revered king?
If the latter plays out, the monarchy as an institution may be at stake and, because of the historical political alliance between the military and the palace, it is the junta who stands to lose the most. Thailand has been under military rule for most of its history since becoming a constitutional monarchy, but even during democratic rule, the military was never far removed from politics. It has managed to maintain political legitimacy by claiming to defend the interests of the crown.
With the accession of the Crown Prince, underground anti-royalist factions may start gaining traction. Whether the public will acquiesce to the accession — and if not, what the military’s response would be —remains among the many questions in the minds of Thais during this disorienting period. The death of King Bhumibol marks the end of an era, a definitive shift in the monarchy’s place in the hearts of the Thai people, and possibly edges Thailand closer towards institutional reform.
Originally published in The SAIS Observer, the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Newspaper, on November 6, 2016.