BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand’s junta sought on Tuesday to reassure the country that the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej last week would not upend plans for a return to democratic rule, which include a general election in late 2017.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha also moved to quash uncertainty around the royal succession, saying that a new monarch could ascend to the throne after 15 days of mourning.
Doubts arose after the head of the advisory Privy Council was asked to stand in as regent until Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn becomes king. The prime minister said last week that the prince’s coronation would take place after the cremation of his father, which will follow a year of mourning.
However, the prince can become king before his official coronation, and Prayuth’s comments appeared to be aimed at cooling speculation that the throne might be empty for a protracted period.
King Bhumibol was seen as a stabilizing figure in a country often racked by political turmoil.
“On the matter of succession, in accordance with the constitution, citizens in Thailand and abroad should not be worried or concerned,” Prayuth told reporters after Tuesday’s cabinet meeting.
“After at least 15 days of mourning, it will be the appropriate time to enact section 23 of the constitution,” he added, referring to clauses relating to the succession.
“THE ROADMAP IS THE ROADMAP”
The junta, which seized power in a 2014 coup, has laid out a ‘roadmap’ for a return to democracy under a constitution that was endorsed by a referendum in August, with an election that would be held late next year.
There had been speculation that the election might be pushed into 2018 because of the one year of mourning for the king.
“Nothing has changed,” Prayuth said. “The policies of this government, the laws - including elections - will be according to the roadmap. Don’t ask me when or how it will occur, the roadmap is the roadmap.”
The government says the constitution will restore stable, clean politics after a decade of turmoil stemming from confrontation between populist political forces and the military-royalist establishment.
Two military takeovers and outbreaks of deadly civil unrest over the years have stunted growth in Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy.
Critics, including major political parties, had denounced the constitution before the vote, saying it would stifle democracy by giving unelected lawmakers, including those appointed by the military, veto power over elected governments.
The death of the revered king after seven decades on the throne has raised sensitivities across the nation.
The government has tightened restrictions on the media and on Tuesday said it would ask other countries to extradite people suspected of insulting the nation’s monarchy.
Criticism of the monarch, the regent or the heir, known by the French term lese majeste, is a crime that carries a jail sentence of up to 15 years in Thailand.
Justice Minister Paiboon Koomchaya told reporters the government was tracking six high-profile lese majeste suspects living abroad, but conceded that there were significant legal and diplomatic challenges around seeking their extradition.
The junta has urged citizens to report cases of lese majeste to authorities, and is has also asked internet service providers to monitor content and block inappropriate material.
Some Thais have taken the matter into their own hands. A series of videos has surfaced online in recent days showing angry crowds around the country mobbing people they believed had insulted the monarchy.
Reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat, Cod Satrusayang and Panarat Thempgumpanat; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore