Monarchy at a crossroad

BANGKOK — Thais are increasingly worried about how much longer their widely revered king will be able to play the role of the wise voice of national unity and political propriety.

The soft-spoken and bespectacled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who turned 77 in December, is the world’s longest-reigning monarch. He commands such enormous respect and authority in predominantly Buddhist Thailand that the Hollywood musical “The King and I” — which starred Yul Brynner as King Rama IV, the current king’s great-grandfather, singing and dancing with a young English teacher — is still banned.

In recent years, as advanced age and health problems have slowed the king, he has handed off more official duties to his son, the twice-divorced Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, whom most Thais view with unease at best.

At the same time, the king has shown subtle but sure signs of discontent with Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications tycoon whose populist policies have endeared him to the masses, but whose autocratic tendencies have raised concern among reformers and investors.

“There are all the reasons to believe a possible competition could develop … a symbolic competition, between the prime minister and the king,” said Maurizio Peleggi, a historian at the National University of Singapore and author of a book on the Thai monarchy.

The king’s immense popularity far outstrips that of any politician or other figure, but the prince, who has a reputation for being a hot-tempered womanizer, has a long way to go to earn the same level of respect.

“With a much less popular king and an increasingly popular prime minister who has huge personal and political ambitions, you can see some degree of friction may develop,” Mr. Peleggi said.

Thailand is among the closest U.S. economic and military allies in Southeast Asia, a relationship stretching from the war in Vietnam to the war on terrorism. In a visit to Bangkok in 2003, President Bush and the king shared a warm public toast.

“Your majesty, the world has changed greatly since your reign began 57 years ago,” Mr. Bush told the king. “Yet thanks to your enlightened leadership and steady hand, the friendship between our two nations has remained constant.”

For now, the throne remains the main symbol of Thai identity.

Portraits of the king and his wife, Queen Sirikit, hang in virtually every home, office and business in Thailand. Their birthdays are national holidays. Everyone, including foreigners, must stand for the king’s song before movies are shown at the cinema.

Those rare people who get an audience with the king must kneel, never allowing their head to be higher than the king’s. The same rule applies for any visual representation of the king, meaning whenever his picture appears in print, it must be at the top of the page or at the top of a building.

The king’s annual birthday speech is broadcast live on the radio. Thailand’s 64 million people listen eagerly for his views on the country’s development and, specifically, the government.

The king has rarely intervened in politics, but in recent years, he has used the speech to make thinly veiled criticisms of the government — specifically of the prime minister.

In 2003, he showed even greater dissatisfaction when he refused to sign a bill on education reform, sending it back to parliament, ostensibly for minor flaws, for the first time in history. Although his signing of bills is merely ceremonial, it was seen as a major rebuke to Mr. Thaksin’s government.

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