King losing grip on Thailand
A battle over Thailand’s future is raging, but the one man who has been able to resolve such intractable conflicts in the past has been notably silent: King Bhumibol Adulyadej, long a unifying father figure for his nation.world Updated: May 17, 2010 01:24 IST
A battle over Thailand’s future is raging, but the one man who has been able to resolve such intractable conflicts in the past has been notably silent: King Bhumibol Adulyadej, long a unifying father figure for his nation.
Thailand is convulsed by a bitter struggle between the nation’s elite and its disenfranchised poor. The ailing 82-year-old king finds his power to sway events ebbing as the fight continues over the shape of a post-Bhumibol Thailand.
“It’s bigger than the issue of succession,” said Charles Keyes, an expert on Thailand at the University of Washington in Seattle. “It’s a collapse of the political consensus that the monarchy has helped maintain.”
As his country suffers through its worst political crisis in decades, the king has disappointed many by saying nothing that might calm the turmoil, as he did in 1973 and 1992 when with a few words he halted eruptions of political bloodletting.
For more than two months now, demonstrators known as the red shirts, who represent in part the aspirations of the rural and urban poor, have occupied parts of Bangkok, forcing malls and hotels to close as they demand that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva dissolve Parliament and hold a new election. Soldiers and protesters continued battling Saturday.
After taking the throne nearly 64 years ago, King Bhumibol expanded his role as a constitutional monarch without political power into an enormous moral force, earned through his civic work and political astuteness.
He has also presided over an expansion of the royal family’s now vast business holdings. With the monarchy at its heart, an elite royalist class grew up including the bureaucracy, the military and entrenched business interests. A palace Privy Council has exerted power during the current crisis.
It is this elite class that the protesters are now challenging.
Those who seek to maintain the status quo have proclaimed loyal to the king and have accused the red shirts of trying to destroy the monarchy as they seek changes in society. For their part, most red shirts say they respect the king but want changes in the system he helped create. The politicisation of the king’s name “has ensured that the monarchy cannot play a central conciliatory role any more,” said Chris Baker, a British historian of Thailand.
More broadly, the divisions in society may have become too deep and the anger too hot to reconcile for years to come. Many analysts say a lasting class conflict has been ignited between the country’s awakening rural masses and its elite hierarchy.
With the king confined to a hospital since September with lung inflammation and other ailments, concern about the future has sharpened. The heir apparent to the throne, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, has not inherited his father’s popularity.