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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 September 2006, 16:02 GMT 17:02 UK
Thai king remains centre stage
By Kate McGeown
BBC News, Bangkok

Thai soldiers man a tank under an archway featuring a portrait of revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej
Thai state TV says the revered king endorsed the coup

Throughout every twist and turn in Thailand's recent political history, there has been one constant figure.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has been on the Thai throne for 60 years, is revered across the nation, with some people even seeing him as a virtual god.

Officially his power to influence political events is limited. But in practice he yields immense power, due to the high respect in which he is held.

That is why many Thai analysts are saying he must have at least been in favour of the coup on Tuesday night, which toppled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, or it would not have taken place.

"The role of the king was critical in this crisis," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University.

"He is widely seen as having implicitly endorsed the coup."

Sulak Siwalak, a well-known social critic, went further. "Without his involvement, the coup would have been impossible," he said.

The palace has made no direct comment since the takeover took place.

The only statement relating to the king was made by the coup leaders, in a televised announcement stating that the king endorsed General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin as the head of the temporary government.

People liked Thaksin, but they love the king
Prof Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Chulalongkorn University

But sometimes silence speaks volumes - and while there is little evidence that the king was directly involved in the coup, there are plenty of clues to suggest he at least tacitly approved of what happened.

The generals who led the coup said they were acting in defence of the king, and even wore yellow armbands signalling their loyalty to the crown. Gen Sonthi also went to speak to the palace soon after taking over.

According to Prof Thitinan, the exact role that the king played is unclear.

"He did not initiate the coup - it was the military that did that," he said. But he added: "No coup would succeed without the king's consent."

Skilful intervention

If the king was indeed linked in some way with the coup, it is not the first time he has intervened in Thailand's often turbulent political history.

One of the most enduring images of his reign is when he ended street violence in 1992 with a few quiet words to the two main rivals, who were kneeling side-by-side at his feet.

Earlier this year he influenced the country's courts to annul the controversial poll in April, by describing the situation as a "mess".

But King Bhumibol is careful never to get too openly involved in Thailand's politics. Often a mere nod or a brief TV appearance is enough to put his point across.

Ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra
Thaksin was so successful he felt no one else would outsmart him - I think that was his undoing
Sulak Siwalak, social critic

"He's very skilful," said Sulak Siwalak. "He never becomes obviously involved. If this coup goes wrong, Sonthi will get the blame, but whatever happens, the king will only get praise."

In fact, such is the faith that the Thai people have in their monarch that many believe if the king did intervene, it was obviously the best course of action to take.

Prof Thitinan said he believed the king allowed the coup to take place as it was the best option available.

"What we were heading for otherwise was violence in the streets," he added, citing the turbulent events of the last few months, such as the controversial elections in April, the street protests against Mr Thaksin and the ongoing political uncertainty.

'Aloof and selfless'

But another reason the coup took place is undoubtedly because of the growing gulf between the monarchy and the prime minister.

"This coup was nothing short of Thaksin versus the king," said Prof Thitinan.

The two men are very different - the king aloof and selfless, the prime minister populist and often seen as arrogant.

"The king spent four decades to win the hearts and minds of people, quietly doing many public works. Thaksin tried to do it in four years, through populist handouts," said Prof Thitinan.

"People liked Thaksin, but they love the king," he added.

Thousands of Thais mark the 60th anniversary of the king's accession (9 June 2006)
The 60th anniversary of the king's accession in June drew huge crowds

In recent months, the prime minister has angered the palace in several ways, most notably during the king's 60th anniversary in July, when he was accused of trying to seek attention by greeting guests before they met the royal family.

He has also faced a growing battle with one of the king's closest aides, retired General Prem Tinsulanonda.

In July, when the prime minister accused a "highly influential person" of attempting to overthrow the government, many analysts assumed he was talking about Gen Prem.

In return Gen Prem told a group of Thai army cadets that their first loyalty was to the king.

The antagonism grew, but despite the national esteem in which people view the king, the prime minister remained firm.

"Thaksin was so successful - he felt no one else would outsmart him," said Sulak Siwalak. "I think this was his undoing.

"He used his money and power, but didn't realise the palace is more subtle than that, and has a lot of quiet power."

In the battle between the two camps, there could only be one winner - the quiet but enormously influential 78-year-old monarch.

Whether King Bhumibol had any connection to the coup or not, he has survived Mr Thaksin as he has survived many other prime ministers, governments and constitutions.

Thailand may be shrouded in uncertainty right now, but the constant figure the people have come to love and trust is still in place, as strong as ever.

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