Well-wishers sign guestbooks for Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, October 13, 2016. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Well-wishers sign guestbooks for Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, October 13, 2016. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

The Thai government’s efforts to discourage rumor and speculation over the health of King Bhumibol Adulyadej have had little effect.

The stock market and the currency have been driven down and social media has been flooded with messages of devotion for the world’s longest serving monarch.

Since Sunday’s announcement from the palace that the 88-year-old king’s health was “unstable,” the question of succession has once again come to the fore, although not publicly in a country with strict lese majeste laws that carry prison sentences of up to 15 years.

The heir apparent to King Bhumibol, who has been on the throne since  1946, is his son Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, 64. However, he lacks the popularity of his father and his commitment to the role has been questioned. However, he appears to have the backing of the military junta which seized power in 2014.

Many Thais would prefer to see the king’s second daughter, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhornn, 61, succeed. Known among Thais as “Princess Angel,” she is known for her charitable works and compassionate nature.

Choosing the monarch

Although the king named the crown prince as heir apparent in 1972, the constitution was altered two years later to allow the princess to succeed to the throne should the monarch choose.

Even the new constitution, drawn up by the military junta and approved in a national referendum in August, 2016, allows the king to choose another successor. Or in the event he’s not being able to make a choice, the Privy Council can submit the name of a person to hold the office of the Regent to the National Assembly for approval.

However, Prince Vajiralongkorn is widely expected to become king. “The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has put the crown prince front and central in an orchestrated campaign since the coup,” said a source in Bangkok.

“For example, in the 2015 ‘Bike for Dad’ event to celebrate the king’s 88 birthday as the father of the nation, the crown prince was prominently at the head of the Bangkok leg of the mass bicycle ride.”

At the time, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha announced that the ride was in response to Vajiralongkorn’s wishes “to encourage Thai people from all walks of life to express their gratitude and loyalty.”

“The junta’s aim is to stay in power and they see support for the prince as one of the ways of securing that,” said the Bangkok source.

“As for the other political powers, the PDRC will back the prince,” the source said in reference to the Peoples Democratic Reform Committee, known as the Yellow Shirts, who led the 2013 protests against then prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s caretaker government that resulted in the military coup.

“The junta has also just appointed 33 legislators, the majority of them soldiers, in preparation for any law changes that may be required.”

Wait and see

Meanwhile, the Red Shirts, formally known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, who began as supporters of deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — the brother of Yingluck who was ousted by a military coup in 2006 — are taking a wait and see approach.

The source said everything depends on how long the succession takes. “If the succession becomes a drawn out affair, giving the junta an opportunity to delay promised elections in 2017, then the Red Shirts will react,” said the source.

In what could have been a pre-emptive tactic, the prominent Red Shirt chief Jatuporn Prompan was put back behind bars earlier this week for allegedly breaching his bail conditions by being sarcastic about the work of the junta during a television show.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister cut short a trip to return to Bangkok on Wednesday “in order to prepare for an audience with His Royal Highness the Crown Prince for a routine presentation on the government’s work in progress,” Prayuth’s office said in a statement.

It urged Thais “to rely on official announcements for an update on situations, rather than uncorroborated information in social media circles.”

Prayuth wasn’t planning any statement on Wednesday, government spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd said, without discussing the subject of any rumors. Late Wednesday afternoon, Prayuth waved to reporters and said “Go home, go home!”