Bangkok: Authorities here expected 500,000 Thais to pay their respects to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Saturday, the first full formal public day of access as he lies in state in the Grand Temple complex.
The 88-year-old monarch ruled this nation of 67 million for seven decades and is revered as a figure of unity and stability. He will be ceremoniously cremated but a date has not been set, and it could be up to a year or more away. In the interim, the government has confirmed that the 96-year-old head of the Privy Council, Prem Tinsulanonda, will act as regent. He is a former prime minister and army general, a combination that reflects the Thai military’s long-standing involvement in the political affairs. King Bhumibol ruled through a dozen coups since ascending to the throne in 1946.
Prem has a reputation for clean governance and for favouring compromise over confrontation.
He became prime minister reluctantly in 1980, and stayed at the helm for eight years, guiding the country through economic problems and a series of military challenges, including two coup attempts.
At a time when Thailand was a front-line state in the Cold War, and seemingly threatened by Soviet-backed Vietnamese expansion, Prem kept the country on a pro-West course, but also forged closer relations with China.
He came up through the ranks of the powerful military and first achieved national prominence in 1974 when, as army commander in Thailand’s rural northeast, he favoured development and civic action instead of military might against communist insurgents. He later became army commander-in-chief and defence minister before parliament installed him as prime minister as the only viable candidate at a time of political turmoil.
In later life, his career has been defined by his relationship to two men: Bhumibol, to whom he was unswervingly loyal, and Thaksin Shinawatra, a twice-elected prime minister. Thaksin’s supporters believe that Prem instigated the coup that removed the populist prime minister from power in 2006.
The military government, led by former general and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, has said that Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn will become king, and issued a statement yesterday that he wants time to grieve his father’s death.
Thailand’s 1924 palace law has set out the process for succession. It and tradition rule out a female head of state. In 1972, King Bhumibol had also named his son as heir.
Yesterday, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn came to the complex to pay her respects to her late father.
Authorities have banned criticism or commentary on the current succession, and the country’s tough lese-majeste laws leave little room for analysis.
The Crown Prince though has been absent from Thailand for prolonged periods and his three marriages and life in Germany make for salacious gossip among Thais out of earshot of authorities, including giving his pet dog the rank of Air Force Marshal.
King Bhumibol was the ninth monarch of the Chakri dynasty, a line that dates back 234 years and the construction of the Grand Palace complex marked its coming to power.
“The king was so good to all Thais,” Nicha Charamakitchom told Gulf News yesterday as she waited to enter the complex. “He made sure that we had schools and hospitals. He looked after each of us like his own family.” Indeed, she credits the late king’s influence in improving conditions in the rural north west of the nation, helping her family to modernise and give up their previously difficult life in a mountain village.