Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn Becomes New King of Thailand

Thailand's Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn watches the annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony in central Bangkok, Thailand, May 13, 2015.  REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom
Thailand’s Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn watches the annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony in central Bangkok, Thailand, May 13, 2015. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn was proclaimed king of Thailand late Thursday, opening a new chapter for the powerful monarchy in a country still mourning the death of his father.

Vajiralongkorn, 64, who inherits one of the world’s richest monarchies as well as a politically troubled nation, ascends the throne 50 days after King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s death.

After weeks of complex palace protocols the prince was invited by the head of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) to ascend the throne in an event broadcast on all Thai television channels.

“I agree to accept the wishes of the late king… for the benefit of the entire Thai people,” Vajiralongkorn, who was named heir for more than 40 years, said.

The sombre ceremony at his Bangkok palace was attended by junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha, the powerful head of the privy council and the chief of the NLA.

Red-jacketed courtiers looked on as a palace staff member shuffling on his knees presented the new king with a microphone through which he delivered his few words of acceptance.

Buddhist temples across the country have been asked to beat drums and gongs after his proclamation.

He becomes Rama X of Thailand’s Chakri dynasty, but will not formally be crowned until after his father’s cremation, which is expected next year.

Bhumibol’s reign, which ended on October 13, spanned seven turmoil-laden decades, pockmarked by a communist insurgency, coups and street protests.

To many Thais Bhumibol was the only consistent force in a politically combustible country, his image burnished by ritual and shielded by a harsh royal defamation law.

– Into the limelight –

Vajiralongkorn does not yet enjoy the same level of popularity.

He spends much of his time outside of the public eye, particularly in southern Germany where he owns property.

He has had three high-profile divorces, while a recent police corruption scandal linked to the family of his previous wife allowed the public a rare glimpse of palace affairs.

Thursday’s ascension ends a period of uncertainty which followed a shock junta announcement after Bhumibol’s death that the prince had asked to delay his official proclamation so he could mourn.

Thailand’s constitutional monarchy has limited formal powers.

But it draws the loyalty of much of the kingdom’s super-rich business elite as well as a military that dominates politics through its regular coups.

It is also protected from criticism by one of the world’s harshest lese majeste laws, carrying up to 15 years in jail for every charge of defaming the king, queen, heir or regent.

That law makes open discussion about the royal family’s role all but impossible inside the kingdom and means all media based inside the country routinely self-censor.

In a sign of the extreme sensitivity of all royal matters inside Thailand, the BBC World News segment on the kingdom was pulled by censors with the words “programming will return shortly” replacing its report.

Convictions for so-called “112” offences — named after its criminal code — have skyrocketed since generals seized power in 2014.

Experts say most have targeted the junta’s political opponents, many of whom support the toppled civilian government of Yingluck Shinawatra.