Some shoes are just too big to fill. Take the ones left behind by Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died just over a year ago at 88, and whose five-day cremation ceremony began in Bangkok yesterday after 12 months of national mourning.
The longest-reigning monarch in Thai history served for 70 years, and was venerated by his people as the "Father of the Nation" who brought unity, peace and prosperity. Or, as Rebecca Shamasundari recently put it in The ASEAN Post, he was "a stabilising force in times of political turmoil and tensions in Thailand," which has endured numerous military coups, most recently in 2014.
Maha Vajiralongkorn, 65, will officially be crowned king once his father's body has been cremated, but observers are already raising doubts about his ability to fill the void left by the late king. The French newspaper Le Figaro, in a portrait of the new monarch, describes him as "the polar opposite of his father's virtuous personality."
Thrice divorced and the father of seven children — many of whom he refuses to recognize — Vajiralongkorn is known more for his eccentricities than any interest in public service. Photographs have circulated of him arriving at the Munich airport and accepting salutes from Thai officials while dressed in jeans and a tight crop top that showed off his elaborate tattoos. Despite being the official crown prince for 44 years, he showed virtually no interest in the duty that was expected to eventually pass to him one day. As the French daily argues, "He failed to put these long years to good use to prepare himself to embody this sacred function."
Vajiralongkorn in August 2015 — Photo: VOA/Wikimedia Commons
Of course in Thailand itself, readers aren't likely to come across any such criticism. As Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai national and professor at Kyoto University, explained a few months ago in The Washington Post, Vajiralongkorn and the military junta that governs Thailand have launched a crackdown on social media to suppress unflattering content about the new monarch. The effort comes on top of already harsh "lèse-majesté" legislation.
Looking northward, it's easy to imagine another succession woe in the making. With Xi Jinping now elevated to the level of "Father of the Chinese Revolution" Mao Zedong, and the noted absence of an heir apparentamong the newly-appointed members of the Politburo Standing Committee, some wonder if the Chinese president is planning to remain at the helm, in one form or another, beyond the end of his second term.
If Xi's ambitions are indeed of that magnitude, it would deepen existing concerns about authoritarianism. But at this point, no matter how long his reign lasts, another problem looms for the Chinese Communist Party: how to fill shoes that grow bigger by the day.