Since Bhumibol Adulyadej inherited the throne of Thailand's Chakri dynasty in 1946, the country's civilian politics have been famously fractured. The military staged more than a dozen coups (or coup attempts) during his reign, the most recent in 2014. Since then, a military junta has presided, promising elections next year.
The king was the glue that bound Thailand together for seven decades. Held in reverence by most Thais, he was the only monarch most of them had ever known. A fledgling republican movement notwithstanding, Bhumibol was beloved, even worshiped, by many in the country. Despite the monarch's lack of any significant decision-making power, his popularity allowed him to exert considerable influence using deft, understated maneuvers to arbitrate the nation's political battles.
Those battles have only intensified in recent years. Bhumibol (whose full name is pronounced poo-me-pon ah-dun-ya-dey) has sided with the military in the two most recent coups, which deposed members of the powerful Shinawatra family. Thaksin Shinawatra and sister Yingluck ran a sprawling telecommunications empire before winning elections on a brand of populism that gained widespread support in Thailand's rural north.
But the country transformed during Bhumibol's tenure, with rapid urbanization and a growing middle class. Many from that new Thailand oppose the Shinawatras, and rallies by hundreds of thousands of protesters were not uncommon in the capital, Bangkok, in the lead-up to the last coup. Those protests were so debilitating that the military intervened. After decades of cyclical protests and coups, many Thais question the efficacy of democracy in their country.
The new junta claims to have the blessing of the king. Although the Thai monarch is in large part a figurehead, he is the nominal head of the armed forces and has to sign off on all high-level military appointments. Bhumibol's son, Vajiralongkorn, a career soldier, was named successor by the junta leader and prime minster, Prayuth Chan-ocha, on Thursday after the death of the king.
Vajiralongkorn is likely to be closely aligned with Prayuth but is unlikely to unify the nation in the way that his father did. Bhumibol, lacking much hard power, focused instead on building a broad base of support across Thailand by investing in development projects. It was not unusual to see him with his sleeves rolled up, walking through a paddy field with farmers, inspecting their irrigation methods.
His son, on the other hand, has been the subject of much scandalous speculation. A lot of that chatter happens anonymously online, because Thailand has a strict “lèse-majesté” law that prohibits even the slightest insults against the king or his family. Vajiralongkorn has divorced or separated from three wives and spends much of his time in Europe. Because of the defamation laws, it is impossible to tell how much support Vajiralongkorn has, but lèse-majesté arrests have spiked since the 2014 coup. The junta has also used military tribunals to try protesters and pro-democracy activists, with no right of appeal, and has banned gatherings of more than five people.
Given the intensity of the crackdown, which occurred as Bhumibol became sicker and sicker, it seems likely that the military sensed that it had to consolidate its power before a less popular monarch took over. And despite its promise of elections next year, the junta announced a full year of mourning for Bhumibol, throwing that eventuality into doubt.
It is hard to imagine that Vajiralongkorn can immediately garner the type of devotion that Bhumibol accumulated over seven decades. The power that comes with that kind of reverence cannot be simply inherited.