After political and economic instability saw unprecedented demands for reform of the Thai monarchy, King Maha Vajiralongkorn is seeking to burnish his image in what is shaping up as another year of tension in the country.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha oversees an economy with tourism decimated by the coronavirus pandemic, factories shedding workers and exporters slammed. Farmers have struggled under the worst drought in four decades. Gross domestic product contracted an estimated 6.6% last year.

While some recovery is forecast for 2021, it’s set to be relatively anemic for an economy that’s been sluggish for years. A new wave of coronavirus infections has seen an extension of a state of emergency until the end of February. Meanwhile, Thailand’s biggest opposition party plans to pursue a no-confidence vote against the government for its alleged “mismanagement” of the country, including the COVID-19 response.

Looming over everything is the months of rallies where protesters have openly criticized the monarchy, Thailand’s most powerful institution. Right now the streets are relatively quiet — with small protests over the weekend — but student leaders have vowed to return until their demands are addressed: Less royal power, a more democratic constitution and the resignation of Prayut, a former army chief who staged a coup in 2014.

Vajiralongkorn has boosted his presence in Thailand since the unrest broke out. He returned in October from Germany, where he had spent much of his reign. The king and his entourage have since attended religious ceremonies, handed out diplomas to graduates, greeted kneeling supporters clad in yellow shirts, and even swept the floor at one of his charity projects.

While Vajiralongkorn automatically inherited vast power and wealth when he ascended the throne in 2016, many Thais also subscribe to a concept of informal authority — what Buddhists term barami, or virtue — that must be earned rather than bequeathed. Over the course of his 70-year reign, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej accumulated and demonstrated his own barami.

“The moral authority and informal power of King Bhumibol was not transferable,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “There is not the same kind of ability to summon the different sides to put an end to conflict. In fact, the opposite is happening — the monarchy has become a party in the conflict. This is something that is very alarming.”

The police use water cannons against protesters in Bangkok in October. | ADAM DEAN / THE NEW YORK TIMES
The police use water cannons against protesters in Bangkok in October. | ADAM DEAN / THE NEW YORK TIMES

During one appearance in early November, Vajiralongkorn called Thailand “the land of compromise” in a rare public comment to foreign reporters. The Bureau of the Royal Household did not respond to a request for comment and subsequent calls to the Bureau went unanswered.

Unlike past tumult — Thailand has had about a dozen coups in the last century — the protesters aren’t seeking power for themselves: They want the military and monarchy to become more accountable to the country’s 70 million citizens.

The stakes both politically and economically are high: Even before the unrest, Thailand’s wealth gap had widened, while poverty was on the rise. A 2019 study by the Bank of Thailand’s research institute found about 36% of corporate equity is concentrated in the hands of just 500 people.

The government has so far avoided a bloody crackdown like those during some past demonstrations, although at least a dozen protest leaders face charges of insulting the monarch.

A Thai court on Tuesday sentenced a former civil servant who was arrested in 2015 to 43 and a half years in prison for sharing clips on social media of an online talk show that allegedly defamed the monarchy, which human rights group Amnesty International called the harshest conviction under the statute to date.

Prayut’s administration is enforcing existing laws and hasn’t focused on using one particular statute to target protesters, government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said when asked about use of the lese majeste law.

Sulak Sivaraksa, a Buddhist activist who has studied the monarchy for decades, said Vajiralongkorn already has moral authority among royalists and is attempting to now burnish his image with the rest of society. He noted the king was “very shy” compared with his father, even though he similarly carries out charitable activities.

“A lot of people criticize the king because he spent too much time abroad and too little time within the kingdom — I think he realizes that now,” Sulak, 87, said. “People used to be afraid of him you know, but now he walks around and talks to people, allowing people to photograph him and his royal family and having a good chat with them. I think that earned him a very good reputation.”

Thailand's king and queen preside over a ceremony in Bangkok on Dec. 5. to commemorate the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s birthday. | ADAM DEAN / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Thailand’s king and queen preside over a ceremony in Bangkok on Dec. 5. to commemorate the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s birthday. | ADAM DEAN / THE NEW YORK TIMES

Traditionally the level of esteem of a Thai monarch has depended on adherence to ten virtues of kingship, including generosity, self-sacrifice, honesty and integrity.

During his lifetime, King Bhumibol was careful to appear in step with ordinary Thais even as he oversaw a fortune worth an estimated $40 billion. He met often with hill tribesmen and farmers, sponsoring programs aimed at cutting opium production and bringing irrigation development to far-off regions.

Bhumibol preached a lifestyle of moderation befitting his semi-divine status and spiritual role within Buddhism, the religion of more than 90% of all Thais. In the last four decades of his life, Bhumibol traveled outside Thailand only once to preside over the opening of a bridge crossing into neighboring Laos.

At the apex of his power in 1992, Bhumibol intervened — despite limited legal authority — to end deadly clashes between the military and protesters, Paul Handley wrote in his 2006 book, “The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej.”

“King Bhumibol had accrued the authority to summon the country’s most powerful men to his feet and, with a few deliberately spoken words, expel them from politics,” Handley wrote.

Married four times, his son’s personal life has for years been the subject of gossip. In July 2019, he designated an official royal consort for the first time in almost half a century, three months after he announced his fourth wife, Suthida Bajrasudhabimalalakshana, as queen. Shortly afterward he stripped the consort of her titles, only to reinstate them again last year.

Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn at The Grand Palace in Bangkok in October. | REUTERS
Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn at The Grand Palace in Bangkok in October. | REUTERS

Since taking the throne, Vajiralongkorn has spent most of his time out of the country while taking command of some army units and gaining greater control of the Crown Property Bureau’s assets worth tens of billions of dollars through legal changes he approved. He also intervened in politics, rebuking a popular ex-leader who is now in exile but still holds sway over the country’s main opposition party.

While the previous king’s interventions brought stability, they also often validated the military’s role in politics, said Michael Montesano, coordinator of the Thailand studies programs at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

“The variant of stability that King Bhumibol’s moral authority allowed him to enforce is part of what’s led Thailand to this dead end, and part of what’s created the order that these young people find so unacceptable,” he said.

Student Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, a 22-year-old protest leader, said Vajiralongkorn must do more to attain the barami of his father.

“If they want people to love them and have popularity, they have to work and let people see what they are doing for them,” she said. “If the monarchy could do its job and gain respect that way, I will respect it.”

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