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The King's Death Points To Thailand's Paradox

Two women cry as they pray for Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej outside Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok on Thursday. The king's death was announced shortly afterward. The world's longest reigning monarch, the king was on the throne for 70 years.
Sakchai Lalit
Two women cry as they pray for Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej outside Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok on Thursday. The king's death was announced shortly afterward. The world's longest reigning monarch, the king was on the throne for 70 years.

Here's one image of Thailand: A magnet for Western tourists. One of Asia's more dynamic economies. The land of smiles. And until Thursday, home of a beloved monarch who united Thais throughout his 70-year reign.

And here's another view: A coup-plagued nation where the military ousted an elected government two years ago and suppresses dissent. A country accused of human rights abuses. A land with an authoritarian undercurrent where anyone can be jailed for a negative comment about the royal family.

So which one is the real Thailand?

Answer: they both are, and often on the same day.

The death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej at age 88, after years of failing health, illustrated this Thai paradox and raises fundamental questions about where the Southeast Asian nation is headed now that he's gone.

The nation grieved over the loss of the king, who assumed the throne in 1946, when Thailand was a sleepy backwater. He presided over its dramatic development into a modern, sophisticated, outward-looking state.

Shortly before his death was announced, hundreds of Thais gathered outside Bangkok's Siriraj Hospital. They prayed, burned incense and clutched photos of him.

"I really love my king because he's done so many things for Thailand," said Anpan, a 32-year-old woman who lives in Bangkok. "He's worked tirelessly for our country."

Above the fray

As a constitutional monarch, he remained far above the fray of daily politics, yet was also known as a ruler who could roll up his sleeves, walk into a rural village and connect with ordinary Thais. His gold-framed portrait was omnipresent, from skyscrapers in Bangkok to bamboo huts in the country's most remote corners.

His royal touch does not appear to have passed to his son and successor, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, 64. The crown prince is not publicly criticized due to the strict laws protecting the monarchy. But in private conversations, many whisper that he doesn't live up to his father, or for that matter, a much-loved sister.

Married and divorced three times, the crown prince has lived for extended periods abroad, mostly near Munich, Germany. He had a poodle named Foo Foo, which held the rank air chief marshal until its death last year, according to media reports.

"He has not shown any interest in the development of Thailand, in the institution itself and how it should be shaped. There are a lot of bad stories, his misbehavior in past, people not only dislike him, they fear him and that's a recipe for a real disaster if he's not kept in check," says Paul Handley, the author of The King Never Smiles, a 2006 book on the monarchy that's banned in the country.

Military rule

The royal succession also draws renewed attention to the country's military rule. Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who was the army chief, led a 2014 coup. He is now prime minister.

The Economist summed it up nicely:

"Esteem for the monarchy has made it easier for Thailand's meddlesome army to excuse its frequent coups. It is widely assumed that the succession could tilt the balance in a deep feud which has roiled Thailand's politics for ten years — a sporadically violent class war of sorts that has pitted middle-class urbanites against the rural poor, and which in 2014 brought a particularly oppressive junta to power. The question on everyone's lips is, in which direction?"

Thailand has had so many coups that there's no consensus on exactly how many there have been. It's around a dozen, in addition to many attempted coups since Thailand went from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

The economy has expanded for decades (aside from a wrenching financial crisis in the late 1990s) and while Thailand has had occasional upheavals, it has never suffered a major war, either at home or with a neighbor.

A pattern

But its domestic politics have always been messy, oscillating between competitive elections and a press that's mostly free to military control where the generals impose rules as they see fit. The king generally remained in the background, though he intervened decisively when it appeared events might be spiraling out of control.

This pattern has played out time and again. Eventually the generals decide that they can return to the barracks and let the politicians have another shot at running the country.

All the while, the economy tends to hum along. Foreign companies keep investing, tourists keep flocking to the beaches.

But Thailand is now facing a transition it hasn't had to make in seven decades.

Paul Handley, the biographer of the monarchy, says Thailand needs a king who can modernize the throne, put an end to military coups and use his authority to restore democracy and make it durable. And that's a tall order.

Greg Myre is the international editor for NPR.org. You can follow him @gregmyre1

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.