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Thailand: In the Footsteps of the King

A look at the life and legacy of Thailand’s King Bhumibol and the challenges facing his successor.

Thailand’s new King Maha Vajiralongkorn assumed Thailand’s throne on December 1, more than a month after the death of his father, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The 64-year-old had been expected to ascend to the throne immediately, but asked for time to grieve.

He accepted the throne following an invitation from parliament formalising his accession, but the official coronation won’t take place until October 2017 – after a year of mourning for King Bhumibol.

Vajiralongkorn succeeds a man described as Thailand’s peace broker and champion of democracy. The much respected King Bhumibol succumbed to his illnesses at the age of 88 and his death set off widespread grief throughout the country.

Serving since 1946, King Bhumibol was the country’s symbol of national unity. Since the transition to a constitutional monarchy in 1932, the country has had 20 constitutions, 29 prime ministers, witnessed 19 attempted coups, 12 of them successful.

Yet, in these turbulent political waters, he was a constant anchor and was the one credited for keeping Thailand from plunging into political anarchy.

His passing comes at a time when the country is once again facing familiar challenges to its democracy: increased military control of the political system and ever-growing divisions in Thai society.

The same will be expected of the new king.

King Vajiralongkorn, educated in the UK and at Australia’s Royal Military College, holds high-ranking posts in the Thai army. Currently single, he has been married three times and is father to seven children.

He did not participate in most public and political duties, leaving them to his revered father; now, without the country’s familiar guiding hand, many worry that Thailand’s deep divisions will resurface. 

The new king will need all his father’s political acumen and authority to guide Thailand through what most predict will be challenging times ahead.

“When a person has set such a high standard, and is much loved and respected and admired for his accomplishments and for what he did, it’s always difficult for a successor,” says Anand Panyarachun, former Thai prime minister.

So will he be able to fill the shoes of his father and become Thailand’s moral and spiritual authority?

We look at the life and legacy of King Bhumibol and the challenges facing his successor, King Vajiralongkorn.