Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn assists Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej (C) as he delivers his birthday speech from the balcony of the Grand Palace together with Queen Sirikit (3rd R), Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn (2nd R), Princess Chulabhorn (L) and other members of royal family in Bangkok in this December 5, 2011 file photo. Reuters

The death of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej today will institute a long period of mourning in the country but questions remain about who will succeed him.

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

The heir apparent to King Bhumibol, who became monarch in 1946, is his son Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, 64. While he lacks the popularity his father enjoyed and his commitment to the role has been questioned, 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. She is known among Thais as “Princess Angel,” because of 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 junta during a television show.