Thailand is entering a new chapter in its history. The country's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej died Thursday after a long battle with illness, ending his 70-year reign as the ninth king of the Chakri dynasty and opening a new era of profound uncertainty for Thailand.
The king was a singular figure whose reign illustrates the delicate nature of royal power in the modern age. When he took the throne in 1946, the Thai monarchy was in crisis at a time. For decades prior, sequential military governments had suppressed the Thai monarchy, and Bhumibol's ascension followed the mysterious death his brother, the young King Ananda Mahidol. Revolutionary fervor was beginning to sweep the broader region. But over the subsequent decades, his carefully cultivated image of royal infallibility restored the role of the monarchy as guardian of Thai culture and values, ideally placed to protect the standing of traditional establishment and to serve as a bulwark against the regional spread of communism. This cemented backing by the military, as well as outside powers like the United States, who poured resources into the country and helped fuel its economic rise.
This put him at the center of both the development of modern day Thailand and the emergence of Southeast Asia over the past half century from Cold War-era tumult. He wielded power sparingly, focusing primarily on preserving the delicate balance of power among the monarchy, the military and the political classes. In doing so, the king managed to maintain his popularity and sway — and that of the Chakri dynasty — in his country, even as royal families across the globe saw their own influence wane. It would be difficult to overestimate the place King Bhumibol holds in the modern Thai psyche.
His successor, expected to be the deeply unpopular Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, will face considerably different challenges than his father did. The paramount struggle will be finding a way to amass and wield royal power without the esteem that his father enjoyed while the country's political landscape acclimates to a monarchy that will almost certainly be weak.
For now, however, the king's death will likely keep unrest at bay in Thailand. A yearlong state-mandated mourning period has been declared, and the military junta, which has tightened its grip on power since taking over in the 2014 coup, is poised to enforce stability and prevent major disruptions in the capital. The next general election — currently scheduled for mid-2017 — will almost certainly be delayed. Most important, junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha's announcement that the crown prince will assume the throne has allayed some of the concern that a destabilizing power struggle would ensue after the king's death.
Still, a smooth transition is not guaranteed. An unexpected power struggle in the military and unusual maneuvering in the palace over the past few months indicated that the prince's enemies in the royalist establishment had not given up their efforts to thwart his ascension. An emergency National Assembly session concluded Thursday evening without a formal invitation for the crown prince to take the throne. It remains to be seen whether the crown prince will can assert his authority and neutralize his many powerful opponents without destroying his ability to play the unifying and balancing roles of his father. A contentious transition, even one that plays out primarily behind the scenes, could lay the groundwork for a return of the deep political fractures, regional rivalries and military divisions that paralyzed Thailand for much of the past decade.
Even if the succession proves orderly, Thailand will face a longer-term problem: an erosion of royal prestige during a time of stark social, political and strategic challenges for the kingdom. The crown prince will likely never gain the reverence that his father did, and the main players in Thailand's deeply divided political scene will be left to determine the monarchy's future role.
Since the turn of the 21st century, Thailand's political scene has become increasingly split between the poor rural population and the Bangkok-centered political establishment — a combination of bureaucrats, the military and the monarchy. More and more, the rural masses, eager to challenge the elites' rule, are countering the establishment that once dominated the country's political economy. Their newfound electoral clout precipitated the rise of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose populist ambitions have been at the center of the protests, occasional military and judicial interventions, and frequent power transitions that have characterized Thai politics since the mid-2000s. Now that the monarchy's role as ultimate arbiter is fading in the wake of King Bhumibol, the political stability in Thailand will be severely tested if these warring political factions fail to reach a compromise. At the same time, the royal succession could provide an unprecedented opportunity for reconciliation.
Thailand is also at a turning point in its history as a leading power in Southeast Asia. The country has benefited from its central location in Indochina and its relatively unified ethnic makeup throughout history. In fact, the country's influence once reached from northeastern Myanmar to Laos, instilling a strong sense of national pride in its people. This gave Thailand the flexibility to withstand external shocks — colonization, communist revolution and the violent internal turmoil that plagued most of its neighbors throughout the 20th century — under the nimble leadership of its successive monarchs.
But the turmoil linked to King Bhumibol's uncertain succession has compelled the kingdom to turn its focus inward, while the rest of mainland Southeast Asia increasingly looks out. After decades in isolation, Thailand's ancient rival, Myanmar, is embracing the international community. Vietnam's relatively stable government hopes to replicate Thailand's path to development and has started chipping away at its competitor's business opportunities, as have Cambodia and Laos to a lesser degree. On top of that, the competition over the Asia-Pacific region is heating up among countries such as China, the United States, Japan and India. These dynamics will test Bangkok's ability to defend its position in the hotly contested region, particularly if the balance of power in Thailand remains unsettled.