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Politics

Thailand's new king turning 65 without public appearance

King Maha Vajiralongkorn has made institutional changes in his first 10 months

Monks collect alms early on the morning of King Maha Vajiralongkorn's 65th birthday at Royal Plaza in Bangkok, July 28. (Photo by Nozomu Ogawa)

BANGKOK -- As King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun turns 65 on Friday, his first birthday since his accession in October, celebrations are being restrained by the year-long official mourning period for his revered father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

In keeping with the former reign, Buddhist monks gathered alms early in the morning at large merit-making ceremonies led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chano-cha and other senior officials, but the new king is not due to make an appearance.

Until being overtaken by infirmity in his final years, King Bhumibol used his birthdays as an opportunity to give long, extemporaneous addresses that were broadcast to his some 66 million subjects. These 'fireside chats' covered many subjects, and were popular for their intimate tone.

Control of royal assets

King Maha Vajiralongkorn's appearances in Thailand have been mostly at major state events and on Buddhist holidays. In recent years, he has spent much of his time in Munich, Germany, where his 12-year-old son, Prince Dhipankara Rasmijoti, attends school.

The king has nevertheless made his presence felt. He delayed his formal succession for 50 days as part of the national mourning process, and later requested adjustments to a new constitution that had been approved by national referendum last August. The constitutional adjustments included revised protocols for appointing a regent during his frequent absences abroad. The new constitution finally received the king's royal assent in April at an unusually elaborate ceremony.

Recent amendments to the Crown Property Act have tightened the king's control over the royal family's collective assets held by the Crown Property Bureau (CPB). These include prime real estate in the capital and major shareholdings in blue chip companies such as Siam Cement Group and Siam Commercial Bank, Thailand's third largest lender.

CPB assets belong to the monarchy as an institution, and in the past have been kept separate from assets held privately by members of the royal family. Very conservatively estimated to have been worth around 1.4 trillion baht ($44 billion) in 2014, the CPB assets are among the largest of any royal family. The astute but opaque management of the CPB was technically overseen by the sitting finance minister as chairman.

According to the amended law promulgated on July 16, the "management and making benefits" of royal properties will be subject to "the king's will" and managed by his personal appointees, including the chairman. Adjustments have also been made to tax exemptions on royal assets. Legislation related to crown property dates back to 1936 after constitutional monarchy was introduced in 1932, with adjustments in 1941 and 1948.

Professor Yasuhito Asami of Japan's Hosei University, a specialist in Thai politics, believes the changes could have an effect on the national economy given the size of the royal conglomerate. "The assets of the monarchy are huge," he told the Nikkei Asian Review. "Depending on how the assets are managed, it may create uncertainties."

Control of agencies

On May 1, a new law placed a number of state agencies connected to the running of the palace directly under the king's control. The Royal Thai Aide de Camp Department was previously under the defense ministry, and the Office of the Royal Court Security Police was part of the national police force. The king can now appoint and remove officials in these departments at his discretion.

The recent legal amendments have been passed by the 220-seat National Legislative Assembly appointed by the military after a coup in May 2014. Thailand has the strictest law of lese-majeste in the world, with penalties for insulting senior members of the royal family of up to 15 years in jail -- in some instances with consecutive terms. A university student who was arrested in December for sharing on Facebook a Thai-language biography by the BBC of the new king has not been granted bail.

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