Is King Bhumibol still in charge?

Is King Bhumibol still in charge?

As the centre of the nation's spiritual and moral authority, is the ailing king still in charge in the worsening political crisis?

The defiant Thai opposition is intensifying its fight to bring down Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's government. The protesters -- a mix of royalists, southerners and the urban middle-class -- are united in their loathing for former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup over allegations of corruption and disrespect for King Bhumibol.

Yingluck's Pheu Thai-led government cleared a political hurdle after surviving a no-confidence vote in Parliament last week, but the relief was short-lived. The protesters are demanding the replacement of the government with an unelected "people's council". By creating chaos, they hope the military -- at times a key player in the nation's tumultuous political history -- will intervene and take power from the government.

Coming up is the revered King Bhumibol's birthday tomorrow. One of the wealthiest men of his time, King Bhumibol was at the top of the list of 20 great Asians in Asiaweek in 1995. He has enjoyed popular support, although his power is largely ceremonial.

The king has actively promoted development projects and has been a stabilising force in the country's turbulent politics, intervening several times to resolve governmental crises or criticise government leaders.

The king influences politics without being political. In doing so, he has made an ancient monarchy into a crucial component of a progressive and prosperous democracy.

When Bhumibol ascended to the throne in 1946, just 14 years after the absolute monarchy had been overthrown, the institution of the monarchy had nearly been eclipsed by new political forces. At that time, the nation's problems largely stemmed from conflicts brewing in neighbouring Cambodia and Vietnam.

By the 1960s, during Sarit Dhanarajata's dictatorship, pro-royalists allied with the Thai military and succeeded in revitalising the royal institution. This was intricated by periods when secular voices became louder and pulled the kingdom into another direction, especially in the 1930s, the early 1970s and around 1990. The king also endorsed at least a half dozen coups between 1957 and 1991.

From 1992 to 2005, as military coups became less popular around the world, the network monarchy "refined" its approach, subtly undermining democratic institutions and prime ministers, and portraying the monarchy as "an alternative source of legitimacy to the electoral democracy".

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