“Thailand’s military government will become untenable after the cremation and as the new reign begins in earnest,” he added. “The pendulum is likely to shift back to representative government.”
King Bhumibol’s reign marked Thailand’s emergence as a modern nation. Already, a nationalist dictator, Field Marshal Phibun Songkhram, had ordered Thais to wear Western clothes and banned the traditional chewing of betel nut, which stains mouths and teeth crimson.
During the Vietnam War, the West depended on Thailand as a military operational base and bulwark against a rising tide of communism in the region. As a result, the Thai generals’ habit of subverting electoral politics through coups never elicited too much international criticism.
While King Bhumibol was said to hover impartially above politics, both putsch-makers and democratically elected leaders needed him to sanctify their time in office. The public became accustomed to images of generals and politicians prostrating themselves in front of their constitutional monarch.
Concerned about rising consumerism, King Bhumibol preached an ascetic lifestyle, even as the crown oversaw a property business that reaped billions of dollars from its ownership of prime Bangkok land, among other ventures.
The deceased king’s signature development philosophy was called “sufficiency economy,” and it married support for various agrarian enterprises with a sense of financial prudence.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn has not pursued such projects.
Criticism of the royal family and royal institution is a serious offense in Thailand, and the number of such lèse-majesté cases has multiplied since the country returned to military rule three years ago. The army has presented itself as the foremost guardian of the Thai monarchy.
One of those charged with lèse-majesté is Sulak Sivaraksa, an 84-year-old social critic and Buddhist campaigner. In 2014, Mr. Sulak questioned the details of a 16th-century elephant battle between a Thai king and a Burmese crown prince. On Oct. 9, he was charged in a military court with insulting one of King Bhumibol’s ancestors. He faces up to 15 years in jail.
“When the government and military are insecure, they think the best way is to lock people up,” Mr. Sulak said. “Then they divert people’s attentions with all this decoration and ceremony. Is this what our monarchy is for?”