Thai King in Health Crisis?

Thailand’s ailing king Bhumibol Adulyadej was quietly transferred by helicopter on Sunday, May 31, from his summer palace in Hua Hin, 200 km south of Bangkok, to Siriraj Hospital where he has spent much of the last decade, sources said.

There has been no public announcement of the ailing, 87-year-old king’s condition. He and his equally ailing Queen Sirikit left Siriraj, Thailand’s best hospital, in early May for the seaside palace. At the time, although the couple waved to cheering couples, their appearance raised serious concerns about their health. Both appeared nearly comatose.

“Our king is being flown back, hopefully nothing bad is going on,” said a business source with connections to the palace.

When the king dies after ruling for 69 years since 1946 as Rama IX, the passing is expected to set off a wave of mourning that can be expected to last for months. His condition is of enormous emotional importance to Thailand’s 67-million people, given that, according to a statement by the government, he has never left the country since introductory trips after his coronation and since he has publicly adopted a posture of supreme humility despite the vast wealth of the palace.

The report that he is being helicoptered back from Hua Hin raises new fears over the possibility of his looming death and who or what will follow, and indeed whether the royal institution will survive, given both the behavior of the crown prince and the infighting going on secretly in the palace over the forthcoming reign. He is known to be despised by much of the palace guard.

The king went into the hospital eight months ago to have his gall bladder removed. He had previously been confined to the hospital for four years before coming out for a brief period

Both he and the queen are believed to have had a series of strokes that have left them basically incapacitated.

As the health of the two has waned, and as reports of machinations and intrigue continue to seep out of the palace, however, the public is losing its awe of the monarchy. The army has sought to preserve that reverence in the wake of the year-old military coup that brought Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha to power with ever-tightening controls on civil and human rights.

Although the king has no formal political role, his replacement, assumed to be the 62-year-old crown prince, Maha Vajiralongkorn, has inspired little confidence and considerable criticism for his profligate womanizing and seeming irresponsibility in a country that has worshiped the royalty for centuries.

Thailand’s public have long been aware of the behavior of the crown prince, raising continuing problems for a junta seeking to justify its coup as ratified by the palace. The prince was widely believed to be allied with Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire telecommunications tycoon who was deposed as prime minister in 2008, but late last year is said to have switched his allegiance to Prayuth and the military.

The king made a rare public appearance in a wheelchair on May 5 to mark the 65th anniversary of his coronation as Buddhist monks chanted prayers. As he has over the past three years, the king didn’t speak in public. Nor has Queen Sirikit. Because of his increasing weakness, the king’s customary New Year’s speech has been replaced by a written statement often read by Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, who accompanied her father and mother on the trip to Hua Hin. The 60-year-old Sirindhorn, a potential if unlikely heiress to the throne, is currently running the day-to-day royal affairs while Vajiralongkorn remains in Germany, where he spends the bulk of his time. Most of the palace, according to sources, would prefer to see Sirindhorn made the queen, although there is no precedent in Thai history for a female monarch.

Meanwhile, in a draconian bid to stop any criticism of the monarchy, the government has continued to rely on its lese majesté law, which allows for penalties up to 15 years in prison for anybody who might have insulted the royalty, although the law is so broad that anyone can accuse anyone else of lese majesté. Critics say the law is used as a weapon against political enemies not just of the royalist elite but of the military now running the country.

There are times when the crackdown appears to reach the burlesque. On May 12, a Thai court jailed a 65-year-old woman for a year despite the fact that she was deemed to be mentally ill for allegedly insulting a picture of the king. Thitinan Kaewjantranont was first detained nearly three years ago but her sentence was suspended when she was deemed to be suffering from mental health problems. However, the Court of Appeals nullified the suspension after prosecutors appealed. Scores, perhaps hundreds, of other lese majesté offenders are said to be in jail although the true figures are unknown.

In the meantime, Prayuth, who is now the country’s prime minister, appears fully in charge and intending to stay that way into the foreseeable future despite a promise to hand back power to a civilian government. The timetable, however, keeps receding into the future. There is a continuing controversy over the writing of a new charter and whether its provisions should be taken to a public referendum. Given the antipathy to both the junta and the business elite in Bangkok, it is questionable if a referendum would pass, since the charter appears designed to thwart any pretentions of a return to democracy. On the personal and press freedom front, rights have continued to shrivel. Human Rights Watch in January said rights were “in free fall.”