Thai King offered ‘pretext for unity,’ now country faces uncertain future

King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, the world’s longest-reigning monarch and a revered figure in Thai politics, died earlier today. Cornell experts are available to talk about King Adulyadej’s legacy and impact on Thailand’s politics and society.

Tom Pepinsky, a Southeast Asia expert and associate professor of government at Cornell University, refers to the king’s death as a landmark event in Thai politics, but argues that the idea the king has been a stabilizing force in domestic politics belies the decades of coups that have plagued modern Thai history.



Pepinsky says:

“The death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej is a landmark event in Thai politics, with stark implications for that country’s political stability. The vast majority of living Thais has no memory of any other king, and also only knows the monarchy as an almost sacred institution that pervades Thai politics and society.

“The dominant narrative among many observers is that the king has been a stabilizing force, but this belies the decades of coups that have plagued modern Thai history. His death means that the Thai political system must find an alternative focal point around which to unite the country’s factionalized population.

“One particular challenge is for the country’s royalists, who face a dilemma between the line of succession that runs to the unpopular Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn – and hence might undermine the monarchy’s popularity– and alternatives within the royal family who are more popular, but whose installment might undermine the institution itself.” 


Tamara Loos, professor of history and Thai studies at Cornell University, says the king’s role may now be examined with greater openness.



Loos says:

“The king’s immense popularity has provided a pretext for unity and the veneer of legitimacy to the military regime, which staged a successful coup in 2014. With his death comes the end of the monarchy as we have known it in Thailand since the 20th century and the beginning of a reappraisal of his seventy-year reign.

“His role, symbolic and otherwise, in this kingdom’s divisive political events such as the 1976 massacre of university students and protesters, may finally be examined with greater openness.

“Yet, it is also possible that Thailand will witness an intensification of repression as the country, including its military generals, adjusts to the reign of Thailand’s new king, current Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, whose brutish behavior has prevented him from attaining the respect his father once commanded.”


For interviews contact:

Rebecca Valli

office: 607-255-7701

cell: 607-793-1025