With the death of Thailand’s beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej on October 13, the country has entered a new political era similar to what its neighbor, Cambodia, experienced four years earlier with the passing of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk, a Southeast Asia analyst has said.
Chheang Vannarith, chairman of the advisory board of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies (CISS) told Hello VOA’s “New Voices” program last month that despite the admittedly different contexts, both royal leaders had played a crucial role in maintaining unity during troubled times in their respective countries.
“This is a new turning point for Thailand, because seventy years is two to three generations of people who have known only one king. So this is a loss of the soul of a nation that is very hard to replace,” he said. “Cambodia has also faced the loss of its national father figure, King Norodom Sihanouk, four years ago. Their role, leadership, and public legitimacy are very important and difficult to replace.”
During his 70-year reign, King Bhumibol lived through some 19 coups, even famously intervening in one coup in 1992 to seek a peaceful solution, which led to a new election being called.
King Sihanouk also acted as a unifying force in Cambodia, and is especially remembered for shepherding the country through its independence struggle from France in the 1950s, and through the tumultuous years of the Vietnam War and after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.
After the King’s position was restored in the 1990s, he also played a role as a mediator during disputed elections in 1998 and 2003.
But the delicate balance between neutrality and the political is important. King Sihanouk’s direct involvement in Cambodian politics and later involvement with the Khmer Rouge has tarnished his political legitimacy.
Similarly, King Bhumibol’s relationship with the Thai military is seen as controversial. Although neutral, the monarchy's moral authority is often co-opted by competing politicians and the military to attack opponents.
Chheang Vannarith says this balance is particularly important to the successors who are tasked with maintaining the role of the traditional institution for a younger generation growing up in democratizing societies.
“For the monarchy to stay relevant, it needs to adapt to be compatible with democratization. The King has to stay absolutely neutral,” Vannarith said in an email.
However, Princess Norodom Soma, a Cambodian-American columnist and author, said remaining neutral could damage the relevance of the monarchy in the long-term.
She said that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party had limited the role off the monarchy, making “the monarchy less popular to the Cambodian youth because they don’t see the active roles and positive roles that the monarchy can play.”
Vannarith said that the successors to King Bhumibol and King Sihanouk may never gain the towering status of their forebears, but rather than pure political maneuvering, the limitations placed on Cambodia’s monarchy were constitutional and institutional in nature.
“The government law states that the King cannot have power, just limited power, and therefore cannot be a unifying figure during turbulent political times. If he does steps in, he will be criticized by the [Prime Minister] and government.”
“The King has a legal and moral authority to be the pillar of national reconciliation and unity. Political reconciliation between the two main political parties is critical ahead of the local election in 2017 and general election in 2018,” he added.