- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 26, 2006

BANGKOK — Concern about the royal succession in Thailand grows each day as the health of revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 78, becomes more precarious and the need for his guiding hand seems greater.

King Bhumibol has been on the throne longer than any living monarch and although he has little constitutional power, he commands enormous respect among the Thai people. He has used his stature to defuse a series of political crises in a country that has been a key U.S. ally in Southeast Asia since he inherited the throne in 1946.

The monarch, who has been a heavy smoker, was hospitalized in 1995 with a heart problem; he travels less and makes fewer public appearances as he ages.

The United States hopes to nurture Thailand’s fledgling democratic institutions while maintaining stability in a country that is no stranger to military takeovers. King Bhumibol has proved to be a force for attaining both these goals. But it could be a different story under his successor.

Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, 53, is in line to inherit the throne. While he is never disparaged in Thailand’s circumspect press, the crown prince will not inherit his father’s reputation as a protector of the people. Unlike his father, he is seen as a hot-tempered, remote figure whose private life has failed to live up to his father’s example.

The crown prince holds the ranks of general, admiral and air marshal — titles that are negatives for many Thais, given the military’s past coups and insensitivity to human rights.

It is unlikely that the crown prince, if he were king, would have acted as his father did recently to clip the wings of Thailand’s assertive prime minister, telecommunication billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra. Mr. Thaksin has tried to muzzle his political and press critics by filing libel suits.

In his annual birthday message to the nation last month, King Bhumibol insisted that no one is above criticism, not even the king. As a result, Mr. Thaksin dropped a half-dozen lawsuits against his most vociferous critic, media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul.

The king also has asserted himself by refusing to appoint a replacement for Auditor-General Jaruvan Maintaka, leaving her to aggressively pursue Mr. Thaksin, whose cronyism many Thais compare to that in the Philippines under the late President Ferdinand Marcos (1965-86) and his wife Imelda.

Meanwhile, opposition to Mr. Thaksin, who was re-elected to a second term last year, seems to be growing. Several thousand demonstrators turned out in Bangkok on Jan. 13 to protest what they see as corruption and authoritarianism under the prime minister, and another anti-Thaksin rally is planned in the Thai capital on Feb. 3. They may feel emboldened by King Bhumibol’s willingness to step in during times of crisis to protect protesters.

Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn has two sisters, one of whom, Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, 50, has many of the traits of her father. She often accompanies the king on his travels promoting economic and cultural development, shares his interest in the arts and languages, and is highly regarded by ordinary Thais.

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