Thailand prepares to crown King Maha Vajiralongkorn amid political tensions

04-May-2019 Intellasia | | 7:29 AM Print This Post

New king, who has taken unusual step of intervening in turbulent Thai politics, will be crowned in ceremonies over weekend

His imposing image stares out from government buildings, bridges, billboards, shops and tuk tuks as Thailand prepares for its first coronation in seven decades.

This weekend, two years after he ascended the throne, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, also known as Rama X, will finally be officially crowned.

The ceremony, which will last three days, is a historic moment for Thailand. The monarchy is considered the spiritual protector of the people and commands, particularly among older generations, a deity-like reverence. The death of Vajiralongkorn’s father, the widely beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 2018 aged 88, was marked by a national outpouring of sorrow and an official year of mourning.

People walk past a portrait of Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn in Bangkok (AFP/Getty)

People walk past a portrait of Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn in Bangkok (AFP/Getty)

“The coronation is highly significant. Thailand is a country where historical periods are still thought of in terms of the reigns of monarchs,” said Dr Patrick Jory, a senior lecturer in south-east Asian history at the University of Queensland.

The three-day ceremony, which begins on Saturday and is expected to cost upwards of $30m, will be a mix of Buddhist religious ceremonies and Hindu Brahmin rituals, symbolically marking the king’s consecration as a Devaraja, a “god-king” and the upholder of Buddhism in Thailand.

Civil servants have been ordered to attend and hundreds of thousands of people are expected to line the streets wearing royal yellow, while the whole event will be broadcast across Thai television channels. Preparations began back in April when water was collected from 76 provinces, blessed in a sacred rite and then held at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

On Saturday, Vajiralongkorn will be anointed with these waters before the ceremony of assumption will take place at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, where the Great Crown of Victory, weighing over 7kg, will be placed on his head. The king will then issue his first command.

Sunday afternoon will see the newly crowned king riding round the city in a procession to greet the people, passing by some of Bangkok’s most sacred temples and on Monday afternoon he will then grant a public audience on the balcony of Suddhaisavarya Prasad Hall in the Grand Palace. It is unclear whether Vajiralongkorn will use the coronation to make a speech setting out the direction of his rule, as his father did in 1950.

‘He will monitor and guide policy-making’

When his father died in 2016, Vajiralongkorn requested some time to mourn before ascending the throne, leaving Thailand without a king for 47 days. Since then, even after officially being named king, it is only once his coronation is complete that he is considered to have symbolically taken possession of the kingdom.

For the past two years, Vajiralongkorn has remained mainly in Munich, where he owns a $13m mansion. He returns to Thailand only for brief official duties, rarely making public appearances or comments. In a last-minute surprise ceremony on Thursday he married his fourth wife, former flight attendant Suthida Tidjai, in order to be able to name her Thailand’s new queen in time for the coronation.

Vajiralongkorn’s lifestyle marks a stark contrast to Bhumibol, who positioned himself as a man of the people and spent most of his reign travelling up and down the country, inspiring a level of devotion not yet commanded by his son.

Nonetheless, while he has remained largely absent from Thailand and Thai public life, over the past two years Vajiralongkorn has taken significant steps to consolidate his power. This has included assuming personal control of the massive $40bn wealth of the country’s Crown Property Bureau, making him one of the richest monarchs in the world. He is also pushing for changes to the Thai constitution to give the king more executive decision-making powers and greater control over the army and the appointment of the country’s most senior monks. He is protected from criticism in the media and public realm by some of the strictest lese-majeste laws in the world.

“He will be a very interventionist king,” said Thailand specialist Eugenie Merieau. “He might not intervene too often directly in policy-making but he will monitor and guide policy-making through the control of the senior civil and military bureaucracy.”

This has also extended to making his presence felt in the political realm. It is widely acknowledged that it was the king who pushed the military to hold Thailand’s first general election in eight years last month, in order to return the country to some semblance of democracy after five years of military rule.

He twice made his views heard during the election. First he stepped in when his older sister Princess Ubolratana put her name forward as the prime ministerial candidate for the Thai Raksa Chart party, stating categorically that he would not allow it. Then on the eve of the election, he released a statement urging Thais to vote for “good people”, widely seen as a push for the pro-military ruling party.

With the election results still undeclared and marred by allegations of rigging and corruption, Thailand is in the midst of mounting political turmoil. People are unsure whether the coronation will unite or further divide polarised political factions. Some, such as the new party Future Forward, have set themselves up in opposition to monarchical influence over government.

“Just as King Vajiralongkorn looks set to rule in the style of the old absolute monarchs, Thailand’s democratic forces, which have been bottled up for much of the last 12 years during the protracted political crisis, appear increasingly impatient with the frequent political interventions of the monarchy and the military,” said Jory.

“How this tension is resolved is the key question of the new reign.”

But on the streets of Bangkok on Friday the anticipation was growing. Sitting outside her Bangkok picture framing shop, where ornate images of Vajirakongkorn and faded portraits of Bhumibol stared down from every wall, Pearl Arunchot, 63, said she was “very excited” about the coronation. “This is history for Thailand. I believe King Vajiralongkorn will look after and protect the Thai people just as his father King Bhumibol did.”



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