Thousands cheered Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej as he checked out of the hospital for the first time in four years on Thursday afternoon. Tearful crowds holding flags shouted “Long live the King!” as he passed by, en route to his seaside residence in the town of Hua Hin, around 280 km south of the capital. The 85-year-old royal is the world’s longest-serving monarch and widely revered in the Southeast Asian nation as a moral, unifying figure. But with the King still frail, and the country’s politics poisonously polarized, many Thais wonder what lies beyond the reign of their beloved sovereign.
Born in Cambridge, Mass., King Bhumibol as a young man became renowned for his love of popular music — he has played saxophone with such jazz legends as Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton and Jack Teagarden — and touring the world with the glamorous Queen Sirikit. Decades of humanitarian work with impoverished northern Thai communities followed. But since he was admitted to Siriraj Hospital in 2009 for what was officially said to be a lung inflammation, King Bhumibol has almost disappeared from public life. Rumors regarding his deteriorating health spread after he did not attend the Royal Ploughing Ceremony for the very first time this year, and Queen Sirikit is also believed to be unwell. Succession is a fraught topic in Thailand as the heir apparent, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, is a controversial figure whose more lavish lifestyle contrasts with the ascetic bearing associated with his father.
Even though the King is traditionally viewed as above politics, in recent years the crown has been used by feuding factions for political purposes. Entrenched elites donning yellow shirts (yellow is considered the King’s color in Thailand) have faced off against red-shirted supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin, a business tycoon, was ousted in a military coup in 2006 despite twice being elected on populist policies supported by the rural poor. He was convicted of corruption in absentia and now lives in self-imposed exile, although a proxy party run by his cohorts swept to power in 2011 with his sister Yingluck Shinawatra as Prime Minster. Thaksin’s marginalization of the Bangkok-centric Thai establishment made him both the darling of the working class and deeply unpopular in the traditional corridors of power, including royal circles.
Three consecutive election victories for various Thaksin-backed political parties show the enduring power of Thaksin’s populist politics. And so the Thai People’s Army — a newly formed coalition of yellow-shirt groups that loathe the ruling Pheu Thai party — will instead take their fight to the streets of Bangkok. The object of their ire is an amnesty bill proposed for the new parliamentary session later this month. Thai politics has been characterized by shows of popular force; mass yellow-shirt protests immediately preceded the 2006 coup, and a red-shirt rally that engulfed central Bangkok in 2010 was violently crushed with more than 80 civilians killed and around 2,000 injured. Since the election of the Yingluck government in 2011, there has been little progress in holding those responsible for the bloodshed to account.
The amnesty bill ostensibly aims to reconcile differences between both groups by quashing charges for low-level participants of either allegiance. However, royalists believe that it could be a backdoor attempt to allow their nemesis, Thaksin, to return home. Thousands of royalist supporters are preparing to converge on Bangkok’s National Parliament building on Sunday to protest the bill, leading to the Internal Security Act to be invoked for 10 days in three central neighborhoods. Protesters are expected to don white masks in an attempt to mirror the global Occupy movement, although their goals are far removed from highlighting social and economic inequality. Nevertheless, an editorial in the Bangkok Post on Friday accused the government security forces of “an act of paranoia against a nonexistent threat.”
The monarchy has also become increasingly central to the debate regarding free speech. Thailand’s controversial lèse majesté legislation governing criticism of the monarchy is considered among the world’s toughest. Those guilty of defaming any member of the royal family can face three to 15 years behind bars. This is because the “elite fears that any attack on the monarchy will remove the keystone of their power, and that the whole system will come crashing down,” says a spokesman for the Political Prisoners in Thailand campaign group. Not only Thai citizens have been targeted; Thai-American Joe Gordon recently spent over a year in prison for translating excerpts of an unauthorized and banned biography of the King. Despite Yingluck suggesting that she would consider reforming lèse majesté laws — the King said during his 2005 birthday speech that he was not above criticism — she is “engaged in a delicate balancing game with military and royalist foes who oppose the changes,” according to Freedom House, and has yet to make any such move.
While King Bhumibol has not taken any overt stand in the fluctuating strife that followed the 2006 coup, some believe that the royal family’s decision to leave town now — despite staying at home during previous troubles — is a no-confidence vote against the Yingluck government. Others, however, are less concerned. “It is important not to read too much into this trip out of Bangkok which is not unprecedented during his prolonged hospitalization,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, tells TIME. Whatever its significance, thousands greeted the royal couple upon their arrival in Hua Hin, and the Royal Thai Navy deployed five ships to stations nearby. The royal palace in Hua Hin is called Klai Kangwon in Thai — “far from worries.” That may now be so for Thailand’s beloved King, but not yet for a nation divided.