Elderly confidant of late Thai king named as temporary regent

A 96-year-old confidant of late King Bhumibol Adulyadej has been formally confirmed as the regent to manage the throne in the place of the crown prince and heir apparent, but it wasn't clear how long the caretaker arrangement would last.

A portrait of Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the heir to King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Picture: Getty
A portrait of Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the heir to King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Picture: Getty

In a speech late on Saturday, prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said that Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn invited him and regent Prem Tinsulanonda for an audience to discuss the situation “as his royal highness was deeply concerned for the Thai people during this time of national bereavement”.

Mr Prem heads the Privy Council, a body of advisers to the monarchy, and was the closest adviser of King Bhumibol. Prince Vajiralongkorn has asked for more time to grieve along with the nation before taking over the monarchy. The constitution dictates that the Privy Council head be the regent in such a situation.

“His Highness’s only wish is to not let the people experience confusion or worry about the service of the land or even the ascension to the throne because this issue has the constitution, the royal laws and royal traditions to dictate it,” Mr Prayuth said in his ­message broadcast on television.

Analysts said the question of succession is important because the late king had been the unifying glue that had held Thailand’s often fractious politics together, and diffused tensions during crises when the dominant military was pitted against the civil society.

While the institution of monarchy is generally revered and respected in Thailand, it is more so because of King Bhumibol’s popularity that no other royal member commands.

“His death means that the Thai political system must find an alternative focal point around which to unite the country’s factionalized population,” said Tom Pepinsky, a South-east Asia expert at Cornell University in the US.

King Bhumibol’s death after 70 years on the throne was a momentous event in Thailand, where the monarch has been glorified as an anchor for a fractious society that for decades has been turned on its head by frequent coups.

A one-year mourning period for the government has been declared together with a 30-day moratorium on state and official events. But no substantial demands have been made of the private sector.

The government has only urged people to refrain from organising entertainment events for a month, apparently mindful of the need to ensure that the sputtering economy, which relies heavily on tourism, does not suffer too much.