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Death of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Spells Period of Uncertainty

UPDATED: The world’s longest reigning monarch, Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej died Thursday aged 88.

The Nation announced his death with the headline: “Nation Weeps Over His Majesty’s Departure.” The Bangkok Post said: “HM The King Passes Away.

The news briefly crashed some websites. BBC television reports were blocked.

King Bhumibol had reigned for some seven decades and was widely regarded as a father figure in the middle income South East Asian nation. Many in Thailand considered him to be a god. There will now be a year long period of mourning starting Oct. 14. Many educational and entertainment sites will be closed in the near time.

King Bhumibol died after a prolonged period of illness– recent medical bulletins pointed to respiratory problems as well as kidney and liver troubles – and he has rarely been seen in public for years.

His death will – at best — mean a period of political, cultural and economic uncertainty. The prospect of worse outcomes, including civil unrest or fighting, is real. Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn has now been proclaimed as the new King.

While King Bhumibol was alive most political and social groups felt an obligation to maintain some kind of social compact, even if this has meant bowing down to a military regime which deposed a civilian government in 2014.

Without the respected figure of the King, it will be difficult to keep a lid on all of the different forces that could re-emerge or be created in the aftermath.

These include: tussles between monarchists and democrats; battles between Bangkok based elites and the poorly educated masses, especially in the North of the country; the possible return of exiled former prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra; armed Muslim separatists in the deep South of the country; and between traditional religious groups and secular modernizers.

The military junta which goes by the name of National Council for Peace and Order has offered an anti-corruption drive as a fig leaf of credibility for engineering Thailand’s 12th military coup since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932.

Whether the NCPO has reduced corruption or merely replaced its chain of command is a moot point. It has certainly proved deeply illiberal; increasing censorship, reducing free expression and wielding draconian ‘lese majeste’ laws to silence even the mildest critics. All that supposedly in order to build a regime strong enough to withstand the upcoming explosions.

There is also the unedifying prospect of a battle for succession within the Thai royal family. As heir apparent Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn was not popular. He currently appears to have the support of the NCPO, but it is possible that the generals may oversee an enforced abdication and handover of the monarchy within a couple of years to sister, Crown Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.

The uncertainties are likely to have effects on the Thai economy which is a major food exporter, a major manufacturing sub-contractor (especially for Japanese and Korean cars and electronics firms), a top tourist destination and a facilities hub for the film industry in the region.

After remaining strong for most of the past year, the Thai currency weakened 3% in early October as palace bulletins on King Bhumibol’s health became bleaker.

Further uncertainty would increase the risks of doing business in Thailand, while further falls in the value of the Baht would make it cheaper. Nevertheless, for tourists and film makers the choice of staying away for a while would be a relatively easy one.

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