Thailand's constitutional monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej, spent much of the past seven years living in an infirmary in the royal heart of the capital, Bangkok. During that time the palace pumped out nearly 40 updates about the 88-year-old sovereign's treatment — but normally only after each health scare had passed. So when authorities announced on Oct. 9 that the king's condition was "not stable," his subjects knew what was coming.
By the evening of Oct. 12, a large crowd of well-wishers had gathered to pray in the courtyard of Siriraj hospital; many came dressed in yellow and pink, two auspicious hues. The next day they were told that the world's longest-reigning monarch had died.
King Bhumibol's passing is an important moment for many Thais, most of whom have known no other monarch. The staunchest royalists revere the monarch with a quasi-religious fervor. The king's portrait is displayed outside public buildings and at the entrance to myriad villages. Millions of homes, and almost all hotel rooms, contain a picture of him too.
The country's many constitutions have been vague about the palace's proper role in public life, but few doubt that the succession is a milestone in Thailand's fractious politics. In particular, 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 that has roiled Thailand's politics for 10 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?
Commerce put on hold
Prayuth Chan-ocha, the junta leader, declared a mourning period of one year, during which time civil servants will be expected to wear somber clothes. He asked the public to refrain from any celebrations for a month, which could mean some entertainment venues might be closed. Many businesses will hope to avoid lengthy enforced shutdowns. Some multinationals and international organizations have been preparing in case their staff must spend the next few weeks working from home.
Prayuth also confirmed that crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, 64, would step into his father's shoes. That clears up one uncertainty. Though the prince's claim to the throne is clear, he is unpopular among commoners and widely loathed by the elites. For years it was rumored that after King Bhumibol's death bigwigs might decide to delay the succession in the hope of elevating a better-loved royal instead.
Fears about how Thailand will change under the crown prince go a long way to explaining why Bangkok's powerful conservative establishment — a loose clique of soldiers, bureaucrats, rich businessmen and royals — have been dreading the royal handover. Thailand's stuffy aristocrats find him shamelessly unregal. He has married and divorced three times, including twice to commoners. He has chosen to spend much of his time living outside Thailand, generally in the countryside around Munich, Germany.
The rumor that has most blackened the prince's reputation is that he gets along well with Thaksin Shinawatra, a divisive former prime minister who was toppled by a coup in 2006 and whom the ruling junta blames for the deep divisions that have destabilized Thailand ever since.