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Thailand Prepares For First Coronation in Seven Decades

Soldiers are seen during a changing of the guard inside the Grand Palace days before the King's coronation in Bangkok, Thailand Apr. 30, 2019.
Soldiers are seen during a changing of the guard inside the Grand Palace days before the King's coronation in Bangkok, Thailand Apr. 30, 2019.

The coronation, estimated to cost upwards of $30 million, will be the first in the lifetime of most Thais.

Thailand's teeming capital is gearing up for three days of elaborate ceremonies starting Saturday for the coronation of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, amid an ongoing tug-of-war among the country's entrenched political factions over the results of the country's first general election since a 2014 coup.

The coronation, estimated to cost upwards of $30 million, will be the first in the lifetime of most Thais. It follows the record-breaking reign of King Vajiralongkorn's father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who took the throne in 1946 and died in October 2016 at the age of 88.

While Thailand's constitutional monarchy wields limited political power, most Thais revere their royals as near-deities. Strict lèse-majesté laws also render the king virtually unassailable and have landed many in court or jail.

For the past few weeks, work crews have been sprucing up the routes around the Grand Palace, officials have been collecting and consolidating waters from across the country for the king's ablutions on Saturday — the day his is officially crowned — and major roads have been closed off for rehearsals for the main procession on Sunday. The king will meet the public and foreign dignitaries on Monday, which has been declared a public holiday.

The hundreds of thousands expected to turn out for the ceremonies have been invited to wear yellow, the king's color.

"It's highly important because it's the first coronation in 70 years, since the Second World War, so in this sense it's historic," said Prajak Kongkirati, a political science lecturer at Thammasat University in Bangkok.

"And also it represents [the] beginning of [a] new era, two new eras — not only the change of reign but also real change of new political order," he said.

While the king is meant to float above the country's contentious politics, the monarchy is rarely far from the fray.

The powerful military, which has been running Thailand since it toppled the elected government in 2014, sells itself as a bulwark against those — real or imagined — who would turn the country into a republic. And in the color-coded protests that have periodically rocked Bangkok over the past decade, the "red shirts" of the mostly rural, anti-military camp have faced off against the largely urban, pro-military "yellow shirts" draped deliberately in the royal hue.

King Vajiralongkorn also placed his stamp on the latest election after his elder sister made a surprise bid for prime minister with a party aligned with the anti-military camp.

Only hours after the princess announced her candidacy in February, the king issued a statement calling the move "highly inappropriate" and unconstitutional. The Election Commission soon disqualified her and a court dissolved the party that backed her run.

The commission is due to announce the full official results of the March 24 poll on May 9, three days after the coronation ceremonies conclude.

While the pro-military Palang Pracharat party won the popular vote, with prime minister and coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha vying to hold on to his post on its ticket, control of the House of Representatives remains up for grabs.

Both Palang Pracharat and its main rival, Pheu Thai, which ran a close second, have already claimed the right to form the next government and are cobbling together coalitions hoping to secure enough legislative seats to do it.

Paul Chambers, a political analyst and lecturer at Thailand's Naresuan University, said the coming coronation has helped keep the contest from spilling into the streets as it has in years past, given the reverence most Thais have for the monarchy.

"The coronation is keeping the lid on... pent up frustrations," he said.

"The junta, and its aristocratic allies, realizes that people are not going to be happy with the [election] result that the military wants the outcome to be. But if in the period before the election outcome is announced, if during that period the coronation is going to happen, well, then Thai people are not supposed to create disorder and, you know, break the peace. So in a sense this really helps the military in that they can sort of compel Thai citizens to be peaceful," he added.

"On the other hand, the fact that the election is actually happening is really the result of the king wanting to have a democratic atmosphere prior to his coronation. So it is kind of an interesting confluence."

Though the junta has always promised to return Thailand to civilian control, it has postponed tentative election dates several times. And considering how divided the country remains, as the election proved, there was little pressure on the military to hold a vote any time soon, said Chambers — except from the royal palace.

Many expect Prayuth to secure enough combined votes in the House and the military-appointed Senate to hold on to the premiership. But if he does, he will be doing so after a tainted election and may have to manage with a minority coalition in the House.

"The importance of the coronation is that it forced the election to happen," said Chambers. "And then, after the coronation... and most likely Prayuth is the prime minister, people are not going to be happy, and it's going to create more problems for Prayuth."