Country anxious over Thai king's illness

October 19, 2009 8:26:38 AM PDT
As Thailand's ailing 81-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej begins the second month of a hospital stay Monday, his countrymen are wondering just how sick he really is.Concern for his well-being reflects the reverence and affection the Thai public holds for the king, who ascended to the throne in 1946 and is the world's longest-serving head of state. But of equal yet generally unspoken concern to Thais -- most of whom have known no other monarch -- is the question of what lies ahead in the post-Bhumibol era, whenever it comes.

Thailand is still reeling from more than three years of almost constant and sometimes violent political turmoil and there is worry about what effect the loss of the king would have. Bhumibol checked into Bangkok's Siriraj Hospital on Sept. 19 with fever, fatigue and lack of appetite. Terse daily statements from the royal palace insist he is in no danger and is now recovering from inflammation of the lungs.

But that is a symptom of pneumonia, and investors last week registered their skepticism with a short but sharp sell-off of shares on the Thai stock market. In 2007, Bhumibol was hospitalized for three weeks with symptoms of a minor stroke, and last December he was unable to make his traditional birthday speech due to what was said to be inflammation of the esophagus.

Partisans of Thaksin Shinawatra, the elected prime minister ousted by a 2006 military coup, continue a bitter battle for power with his opponents. Last year saw protesters occupy the prime minister's offices for three months, and seize Bangkok's two airports for a week. This year, other demonstrators forced the premature termination of a summit meeting of Asian leaders, and rioting in the Thai capital had to be quashed by the army.

The government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva now routinely invokes an emergency law to allow the military to deal with protest rallies.

"I am praying for his good health. What would happen to this country, who would put an end to this division, if he doesn't?" 29-year-old nurse Nisara Lertchaiwattana said of the king. "Thailand has been peaceful as long as he has been king. It's not perfect but we are happy. I don't know what will happen next and I don't want to think about it."

But with no end to the political turbulence in sight, the prospect of losing Bhumibol threatens a crisis of its own. He has traditionally served as the country's only trusted conciliator in times of crisis even though he is a constitutional monarch with moral authority rather than legal powers.

The king's 57-year-old son and heir apparent, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, does not yet have that moral authority or the popularity of his father, known for his hard work and diligence.

"The market's skittishness is traceable to the possibility of a destabilizing power vacuum if the monarchy's power diminishes" after Bhumibol dies, the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group said in an analysis of last week's stock slide.

"A mishandled succession and the rise of a less-respected monarch could lead to an intense round of political jostling as key players try to increase their power relative to the monarchy," it warned, suggesting that a worst-case scenario could split the ruling class and trigger popular unrest.

Thai media, discreet in discussing the state of the king's health, have been virtually silent on the issue of succession. The throne is sacrosanct by tradition as well as law -- lese majeste carries a maximum penalty of 15 years imprisonment for insulting the monarchy.

Following the market's dive, Abhisit ordered an investigation into the source of the rumors driving prices down, though no official was actually willing to go on record as saiding the rumors concerned a possible deterioration in the king's health.

"I think that the prime minister's order for an investigation misses the point," said Thitinan Pongsidhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "It's going to be a recurrent issue, the king's health. ... The issue is what is going to happen to Thailand, not who spreads the rumor."

It was telling, Thitinan added, that the market calmed down only after television showed the king's youngest daughter, Princess Chulabhorn, saiding that the king was recovering well and remained hospitalized mainly for physical therapy. The turmoil of the past few years has brought a nearly unprecedented questioning of authority to Thai politics and society.

Thaksin's opponents frequently identify themselves with the monarchy and claim the former prime minister disrespected the throne, which has badly polarized the nation. On one side are Thaksin's opponents: assorted royalist groups, big business, middle-class Bangkokians and elements of the military, many of whom felt their privileges under threat from Thaksin's populist brand of politics as well as his massive business empire.

The other side includes anti-coup activists who resent the military's meddling in politics, and Thaksin's followers, especially among the poor who benefited from his policies. Millions of mostly poor and rural Thaksin supporters helped him to two romping election victories and remain grateful for the social welfare policies initiated under his government.

While they, like virtually all Thais, are steadfastly loyal to Bhumibol, they have started to question why what they term the "aristocracy" cannot seem to accept a democratically elected leader of their choice.

"For a country with a semi-democracy, semi-feudal political system, the end of the present reign puts everything in uncertainty," said Thongchai Winichakul, a Thai studies scholar at the University of Wisconsin. "As democratic institutions are undermined and all political powers are dependent on the monarchy, the future of the whole country sadly hinges on this transition."

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