After a year and two weeks since his death, the former Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej has finally been cremated, ending a year-long mourning period, and making the reign of his son Maha Vajiralongkorn official. During the cremation, hundreds of thousands of Thais, all dressed in black, mourned along the procession in Bangkok, hoping to see the elaborate golden royal urn. Once the king’s ashes were interred, people went back to work in a Thailand that has been in political limbo.
One issue is the new king himself. Through political maneuvering and massive agricultural projects, Bhumibol was able to amass massive prestige. This allowed him to act as a stabilizing force throughout the many coups, referenda, and constitutions that have been enacted in his seventy-year reign.
His son, in contrast, doesn’t have that prestige. His work as crown prince is not as extensive. On top of that, before ascending the throne, Vajiralongkorn has been plagued by scandals, usually revolving around his personal life. As a result, his ability to stabilize Thailand isn’t as strong as his father.
This isn’t good, given the political situation in Thailand right now. In 2016, a referendum was passed allowing for a new, semi-democratic constitution. By this point, the military had taken over the government, with former commander-in-chief Prayut Chan-o-cha as prime minister and a military junta running the country. The previous premier, Yingluck Shinawatra, was ousted by the military on corruption charges (according to the constitution of the time, public officials can be ousted on corruption charges without proof).
This has inflamed issues within Thai society, ever since the ousting of Thaksin Shinawatra (both Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra are siblings and colleagues within the same populist center-left movement), there has been a major division within Thai society. There are the Red Shirts, who support the Shinawatras and tend to come from rural Thailand, and the Yellow Shirts, who lean conservative, support the monarchy, and are from the urban middle class. There have been violent clashes between the two groups, and it’s possible that those clashes could begin again.
It’s likely that the military, emboldened by the transition from one king to another, would side the Yellow Shirts in this scenario, much like they did in previous clashes. Since the 1930s, the military had used their relationship with the king to justify their control over Thai society. With a new, less powerful king in control, it’ll be easier for the military to gain more control over the country. Given everything going on, it’s unlikely that this trend will reverse.