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In villages scattered through the green rice fields of northeast Thailand, a stronghold of support for former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his opposition “red shirt” movement, people have put politics on hold to mourn King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Thailand was plunged into grief when the 88-year-old king died on Thursday last week, a monarch seen as a father figure for generations of Thais of all political persuasions.
“People are crying, but crying and tears are part of life,” said monk Kane Rattanapo, resting in the shade by his temple in a village in Khon Kaen province. Thaksin, who lives in self-exile offered his condolences upon the death of the king in a Facebook post but made no other comment. The former telecoms tycoon, who was ousted in a 2006 coup, has sent no messages to his beleaguered supporters in Khon Kaen, former red shirt activists say. “All the leaders are gone. We hear no news. We’re doing nothing,” said one.
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The activist declined to be identified fearing tough security laws aimed at curbing political unrest. The government has declared a year of mourning for the king. And on the streets of Khon Kaen city, everyone is wearing black or white, the colours of mourning in mainly Buddhist Thailand.
Thaksin’s supporters said political activity would cease during the mourning period. They were pinning their hopes on an election the military government has promised at the end of 2017. “We shouldn’t do anything provocative. We have a conscience, we don’t want chaos,” said a second red-shirt organiser.
Worry about the end of King Bhumibol’s seven decades on the throne has clouded a 10-year struggle between Thaksin and the military-led establishment.
Thaksin, who faces a jail term for a corruption conviction he says was politically motivated, is loved in the rural north and northeast for his pro-poor policies but despised by a Bangkok establishment that sees him as a corrupt populist who squandered taxes to buy rural votes.
Thaksin was also accused of disrespecting the monarchy and even harbouring republican leanings, something he and his supporters deny.
Strict lese-majeste laws that forbid criticism of the monarchy have left little room for public discussion of the succession.
“The people hold the king so high, they put him above politics. But the politicians and people close to the king, they’re just like us,” said a third red-shirt activist, explaining how they differentiate between the king and the royalist establishment.
The government has said Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn will succeed his father soon, after an unspecified period of mourning. His formal coronation will take place after the king’s cremation, following a year-long mourning period. The 96-year-old president of the royal Privy Council, Prem Tinsulanonda, has been named as regent during the interregnum.
The delay in the prince becoming king has raised speculation among Thailand scholars and analysts that the succession may not be as smooth as the government has said it will be.
Thaksin or his parties have won every election since 2001 only to see governments overthrown, prime ministers dismissed by courts, parties disbanded and supporters shot in protests or arrested.
Thaksin’s loyalists brought the capital to a standstill for weeks in 2010, descending from the north and northeast in a fleet of buses and trucks festooned with red flags. They occupied a central Bangkok district in a bid to force a pro-establishment government out and win back power Thaksin thought was rightfully his.
Today the opposition has been cowed by the military.
“They’re not in a position to do anything,” David Streckfuss, a Thailand-based scholar and expert on the monarchy, said of the red shirts. “They’re in residual pockets with no organisational capacity.”
Thaksin, based in Dubai, has not been available for comment since the king’s death. Amnuay Klangpa, a former member of parliament from Thaksin’s party, said security restrictions make it difficult to contact its base.
“We haven’t forgotten our supporters but we can’t even meet among ourselves,” Amnuay said.
Human Rights Watch said hundreds of people expressing dissenting views have been subjected to arbitrary arrest and prosecuted.
“People aren’t happy but it’s better to keep quiet,” said Khon Kaen lawyer Boonyong Kaewfainok, who has defended red shirt activists.
The junta, whose 2014 coup brought down a government led by Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, has justified its crackdown by saying order must be maintained and an election held under a new constitution.
While most Thais mourn the only king most have ever known, the red shirt activists said they doubted shared grief could engender reconciliation. “Sadness does not bring politics together,” said the second activist. “For reconciliation, we need elections.”