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Crown Prince To Succeed Thai King Who Died After 70-Year Reign

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: As Americans prepare to choose a new head of state, Thailand is witnessing its first transition in 70 years. The country is in mourning after the death of the long reigning and popular king. Some Thais are anxious about the crown prince who's expected to succeed him.

Here's NPR's Jackie Northam.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The death of the 88-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej not only deprives Thailand of a beloved leader, it's also causing concern about his successor. For while the king was universally revered, his son, the 62-year-old Maha Vajiralongkorn, is almost equally reviled.


ANDREW MACGREGOR MARSHALL: A lot of the Thai aristocracy - also the Thai middle class - they really hate the prince. They just refuse to accept him. And I think this is a key element of the Thai crisis.

NORTHAM: That's Andrew MacGregor Marshall in an interview with The Phnom Penh Post. His book, "A Kingdom Divided: Thailand's Struggle For Democracy In The Twenty-First Century" (ph) talks about the crown prince.


MARSHALL: And the reason I think they're worried about the prospect of the crown prince becoming king is because he's headstrong. He's, factually, a little bit crazy, and he can't be controlled.

NORTHAM: It's these kind of statements that have made Marshall persona non grata in Thailand. The country has strict lese-majeste laws where any criticism of the monarchy can land you in jail for up to 15 years.

Still, stories, rumors and scandals about the jet-setting crown prince abound. He's been married and divorced three times. There's a video on YouTube of his third wife appearing topless during a birthday party. His poodle Foo Foo held the rank air chief marshal until its death last year.

PAUL HANDLEY: There are a lot of bad stories, his misbehavior in the past. People not only dislike him but they fear him. And that's a recipe for a real disaster if he's not kept in check.

NORTHAM: Paul Handley is the author of "The King Never Smiles," an unauthorized biography of the king and the Thai monarchy, which is banned in Thailand. He says Thais have known for decades the crown prince isn't living up to his father who shepherded Thailand into a modern and prosperous nation.

HANDLEY: He has not shown any interest in the development of Thailand, in the institution itself and how it should be shaped.

NORTHAM: Lindsey Ford with the Asia Society Policy Institute says there are fears how Thailand will change once the crown prince assumes his father's throne.

LINDSEY FORD: So the fact that the crown prince does not enjoy the same degree of popularity or legitimacy with the people raises concerns that the monarchy will be weakened. There are also question marks about whether he enjoys the same sort of reverence from the military.

NORTHAM: Thailand's powerful military seized control during a coup in 2014, in part, analysts say, to help manage the royal transition once the king died.

Michael Montesano with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore says on Skype that, for now, relations between the crown prince and the military are on an even keel.

MICHAEL MONTESANO: But we shouldn't kid ourselves about the fact that the power here is in the hands of the military, the army really.

NORTHAM: Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn says he wants to wait until the mourning period is over before ascending the throne. That will give Thais a bit more time to digest there's a new king in town.

Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: October 14, 2016 at 12:00 AM EDT
In an earlier version of this story, it was stated that the third wife of Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn appeared topless at a birthday party for him. But it is not clear whose birthday was being celebrated — that of the crown prince, his wife or their dog.