BANGKOK - A 96-year-old confidant of late King Bhumibol Adulyadej has been formally confirmed as the regent to manage the throne in the place of the crown prince and heir apparent, but it wasn't clear how long the caretaker arrangement would last.
In a speech late Saturday, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said that Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn invited him and regent Prem Tinsulanonda for an audience to discuss the situation "as his royal highness was deeply concerned for the Thai people during this time of national bereavement."
Prem heads the Privy Council, a body of advisers to the monarchy, and was the closest adviser of Bhumibol. He is also known to be close to Bhumibol's highly popular daughter Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. Vajiralongkorn, who should have ascended the throne, has asked for more time to grieve along with the nation before taking over the monarchy. The constitution dictates that the Privy Council head be the regent in such a situation.
"His Highness's only wish is to not let the people experience confusion or worry about the service of the land or even the ascension to the throne because this issue has the constitution, the royal laws and royal traditions to dictate it," Prayuth said in his message broadcast on television.
The 64-year-old crown prince implores everyone to help each other get through the grief first before thinking of his ascension to the throne, Prayuth said.
"Once merit-making and the cremation has passed ...then it should be the right time to proceed. This procedure should not impact the work plan or any steps," he said.
No date has been set for the cremation, which in royal families is usually months if not years later. Officials have suggested it would be at least a year. Buddhist funeral ceremonies have already begun at the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok's historic centre where Bhumibol's body is kept in an ornate hall for the royal family members to pay respects. The hall will be opened to the public on Oct. 28.
Analysts say the question of succession is important because the late king had been the unifying glue that had held Thailand's often fractious politics together, and diffused tensions during crises when the dominant military was pitted against the civil society. While the institution of monarchy is generally revered and respected in Thailand, it is more so because of Bhumibol's popularity that no other royal member commands.
"His death means that the Thai political system must find an alternative focal point around which to unite the country's factionalized population," said Tom Pepinsky, a Southeast Asia expert at Cornell University.
For ordinary Thais, succession was not particularly top on their minds for now as they were consumed by grief at the loss of a man many saw as their father and a demigod.
Tens of thousands of people are thronging at the palace complex to pay their last respects to a beloved monarch who dominated the memories of generations of Thais. Authorities have allowed people to enter the complex for a limited time, and only to sign condolence books in another hall.
The king of Bhutan is also expected to visit later Sunday.
Bhumibol's death after 70 years on the throne was a momentous event in Thailand, where the monarch has been glorified as an anchor for a fractious society that for decades has been turned on its head by frequent coups. Over the past 10 years, Thailand has suffered particularly intense political turmoil pitting arch-royalists against those seeking a redistribution of economic and political power, allied with Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist prime minister ousted in a 2006 coup.
But in recent years, Bhumibol had suffered from a variety of illnesses and seemed far removed from the upheavals of Thai politics, including the 2014 coup that brought current prime minister, an army general, to power.
A one-year mourning period for the government has been declared together with a 30-day moratorium on state and official events. But no substantial demands have been made of the private sector.
The government has only urged people to refrain from organizing entertainment events for a month, apparently mindful of the need to ensure that the sputtering economy, which relies heavily on tourism, does not suffer too much.