This evening my Thai family and their friends are gripped by rumours that the end of near for their King.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej has ruled since 1946, but has been out of the public eye in recent years due to a range of health issues. The palace has released more frequent updates of his health this year.
Today the Crown Prince arrived back in Thailand from his near permanent home in Munich and the royal family have gathered at Siriraj Hospital; together with a large media contingent and well-wishers.
It is clear that Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn will soon become Rama X. He appears to have formed an alliance with coup and NCPO leader General Prayuth that will manage the transition and ensure an extended period of military rule.
Last Sunday’s medical report was unusual as, rather than the customary comforting tone, the announcement said that the King was “unstable” adding that doctors had told the king to stop working and suspend his royal duties because of his health. Of course he has not worked for some years but this was a coded report of a significant deterioration.
The Thai stock market plunged more than six percent at one stage today after General Prayuth announced that he was cutting short a visit to Chonburi to urgently return to Bangkok. It may be that this was more to do with a summons to meet the Crown Prince rather than an imminent announcement. The market rallied slightly and ended the day just over three percent lower.
The indications are that the Thai King, who is 88, has little time left. Most Thais have known no other monarch. He is genuinely revered as the result of a remarkable campaign to manage his image through the decades of his rule. Little is known about what he really thinks as he has rarely spoken candidly.
A part of his strength is that he is held as being above politics; meanwhile the politicians are widely seen as venal and self-serving. For most Thais the King is the nation’s moral compass.
In a pre-birthday speech in December 2005 he refuted the long-accepted tradition of constitutional monarchy that the King can do no wrong.
He said: “If the King can do no wrong, it is akin to looking down upon him because the King is not being treated as a human being. But the King can do wrong.”
Yet it remains a violation of the law to criticise the monarchy in Thailand where criticising the King amounts to committing lese majeste, liable to punishment by the law.
Unfortunately this law has been used by successive governments more to silence opponents and critics than to protect the royal institution.
How the law is used under the new ruler will be a concern.
Thais will be in mourning. For many this will feel like, and be portrayed as, the death of a close family member.
There will be a long period of mourning. Initially this will include a closure of all entertainment venues – though given the Thai economy’s dependence on tourism this may not be for more than a couple of weeks.
Businesses will also open after a short period.
But a longer general mourning period could be up to 999 (a significant figure) days. There will be no election during the mourning period which will be a long transition to establish a new monarch and then eventually some form of monitored/controlled, and largely ineffective, coalition democracy.
The most recent royal death was of the Kings’ eldest sister – Galyani Vadhana, Princess of Naradhiwas, who died on 2 January 2008, at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand. There was a mourning period of 100 days, starting from the day of her death. All government officials and agencies wore black for 15 days while the cabinet would wore black for the full 100 days.
Her funeral was not until November 2008.
No Thai King has died in the age of modern air travel and communications. It is reasonable to assume that world leaders and royalty will be expecting, and expected, to attend the funeral.
Until that event has passed Thailand will be a saddened nation.