A couple weeks back, the Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej died after years of prolonged illness. Given the king’s reputation, the massive outpouring of grief was unsurprising. Government employees have been ordered to wear black for a year, the infamous red light district in Bangkok has all but shut down, and the mourning has gotten so severe that there is a shortage in black clothing.
The response makes sense, given how much the Thai people loved him. For many Thais, Bhumibol was a people’s king, and one who worked tirelessly in support of his subjects’ welfare. According to one griever to CNN, “He was a father to everybody. A father who worked every day for 70 years without holiday, even without vacation.”
Even though Bhumibol was able to keep the politically unstable country united, as well as increase support for the monarchy, his efforts to preserve the monarchy have put Thailand in a vulnerable position.
In contrast to the respect and prestige the monarchy has now, when Bhumibol came to power, it was in shambles. The first major blow came when military generals staged a coup in 1932, forcing the king, whose subjects dared not look directly at him, to accept the transition to a constitutional monarchy. By 1946, the nation was in ruins after the Second World War, and the young king Ananda Mahidol was found dead in his bedroom from a mysterious gunshot wound to the head. The young Bhumibol, who has spent much of his life in Switzerland, became the king.
Although the new king was expected to be a pliable pawn to the variety of power-brokers in Bangkok, Bhumibol instead brought the failing monarchy to levels of prestige unseen since before 1932. Instead of going directly against the generals and parliamentarians in Bangkok, he went towards the poor in Thailand. Throughout the years, he consistently supported major works, especially in the impoverished northern regions of the country. As a result, he was able to present himself as an incorruptible father figure to the Thai people. Furthermore, he was able to present himself internationally as a contrast to the various populist and communist regimes springing up in Southeast Asia.
Yet the description of a people’s king is inaccurate. Throughout his reign, he has supported more conservative and elitist policies and governments, only welcoming democratic policies when it became clear that the country would politically collapse if the hyper-conservative status quo was maintained. The best example of this was in the early 1990s, when Thailand transitioned into a more democratic society. However, Bhumibol reverted to his more elitist ways once IT mogul Thaksin Shinawatra become premier in 2001. Bhumibol publicly criticized his government for corruption, signaling to the military to oust him. They did, using lèse-majesté laws.
On top of that, it became clear that Bhumibol was annoyed at the concerns of may Thais over how their society was run. Although the country became a middle income economy in the late 20th century, there has been massive inequality, where a quarter of the population is in poverty, while one percent of the population controls fifty percent of the nation’s wealth. As these concerns grew, more people were arrested on breaking lèse-majesté laws.
Those same lèse-majesté laws have been used to justify many crackdowns and coups, and the most recent one, which ousted Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014, is no exception. The new premier is Prayut Chan-o-cha, an army officer who declared himself premier after ousting the Shinawatra government. The new government has severely curtailed the speech rights of Thais, and has barred most political activity.
To make matters worse, there is the crown prince, Maha Vajiralongkorn. In contrast to his father, Vijaralongkorn is disliked by the Thai people. In contrast to the conservative Bhumibol, Vajiralongkorn is seen as a playboy who has spent much of his time partying in Europe. Even with the lèse-majesté laws in place, many Thais were simultaneously fixated on and disgusted by the scandals affecting the reclusive crown prince. It seems likely that the deference that was given to Bhumibol will not be given to his son.
All of this creates a perfect storm. The massive inequality and the political instability has led to a populace deeply dissatisfied with the Thai government. On top of that, the democratic advancements in the past twenty years have been undone in one speedy coup. The Thai people are furious, and the only thing preventing pandemonium was a beloved king. Now that he is gone, Thais have no reason not to protest.