The Darker Road

July 10, 2009

Thailand’s prime minister pauses briefly and swallows hard as he addresses the question few of his compatriots dare contemplate: life without King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch.

“I am under no illusion — it will be a very difficult time for all of us,” says Abhisit Vejjajiva, who in December patched together a multiparty coalition government and became troubled Thailand’s fifth prime minister in four years.

American-born King Bhumibol, 81, whom many Thais regard as semi-divine, ascended the lotus throne in 1946, when Harry Truman was in the White House and Josef Stalin ruled the former Soviet Union. He has been the lone stabilizing presence in a land that has been rocked by 15 successful or attempted coups d’etat, 16 different constitutions and 27 changes of prime minister during his reign. The stern-faced monarch with few official powers but much influence has at least twice intervened to halt bloodletting.

Thailand’s need for stability has grown more acute with the emergence of a seemingly unbridgeable, color-coded societal chasm between wealthier city dwellers and those that live in the countryside — warring factions that use symbolic hues to literally wear their allegiances on their sleeves.

On one side: the urban elite, based largely in Bangkok, who have adopted the king’s traditional color of yellow. On the other: the majority rural poor, who pledge equal loyalty to the king yet sport red shirts to show their support for billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist prime minister overthrown in a 2006 coup.

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