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02-03-2017 11:42 | Read 771 times

New Thai King is asserting his rule

FROM requiring constitutional changes to pushing for unity in the divided country and reshaping the royal household, Thailand's new king is putting an assertive stamp on his rule.

New Thai King is asserting his rule

King Maha Vajiralongkorn has made it clear to the generals running the country that he will not just sit in the background as a constitutional figurehead since taking the throne in December from a father treated by Thais as semi-divine.

"His majesty has proven himself to be very adept at managing the junta and the military," said academic Paul Chambers at the Institute of South-East Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai.

King Vajiralongkorn started from a very different place to his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died on October 13 last year.

When the teenage Bhumibol took the throne in the late 1940s, the future of the monarchy itself looked in doubt. Building alliances, he quietly re-established the royal aura and authority, becoming ultimate arbiter during coups and spells of chaos as Thailand changed from rural backwater to middle-income country.

King Vajiralongkorn, 64, has spent years abroad, his private life complicated by three marriages, and he has yet to win the public adoration received by his father. But the king's background puts him on different terms with the generals: he went through military academies; he saw combat against insurgents in the 1970s; he can fly a fighter jet.

The junta was quick to obey when the palace asked for constitutional changes, the first such request in decades. Changes relating to current royal powers were pushed through within days. So was the ability to make further changes to a new constitution that is in the works.

Behind the palace walls, the royal household is being reshaped. Over 20 appointments and promotions have been made by the new king and published in the Royal Gazette. This includes reshuffling senior members of the household, many of whom had held posts for decades under King Bhumibol, and promoting military officials with ties to the new king.

The big question is what happens when there is a resumption of political competition, suspended after the last military coup in 2014.

The king has stressed unity within the divided country, both in his New Year address and at a late night meeting with the country's leadership in January to push for more help for flood victims, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said.

That meeting also coincided with the government's moves to set up a reconciliation committee ahead of elections expected next year. The aim of the panel is to listen to different political factions, to establish some common ground between them and then come up with an agreement all would sign to ensure a peaceful transition to civilian-led democracy. One name above all polarises Thais: Thaksin Shinawatra. The former "Ceo prime minister" was a hero for poorer Thais loyal to his populist movement. Overthrown in 2006, he lives in Dubai to avoid a jail sentence for corruption. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was prime minister from 2011 until just before the 2014 coup.

Mr Thaksin, a self-made billionaire, is reviled by a Bangkok-based, royalist and pro-army elite. Conservative politicians voice fears in private of any unity deal that would allow Mr Thaksin to return.

Both Shinawatras have been ahead of many other Thai politicians in adopting gold framed pictures of King Vajiralongkorn as the banners on their Twitter feeds. Nobody from their political camp would comment about the monarchy.

"There is a palpable sense of urgency with regard to reconciliation that some politicians say stems from the new king's call for peace and unity," said Michael Vatikiotis, regional director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, which has been involved in reconciliation efforts.

"The military government is under some pressure to deliver on the king's request, which may even speed up the transition back to civilian government."

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