First posted 06:22pm (Mla time) Sept 20, 2006
BANGKOK, Thailand -- For many in Thailand, it was a clash between two men: an arrogant prime minister and a humble king who always wins.
Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej has yet to utter a word about the dramatic overnight coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. But speaking out is not the style of the 78-year-old monarch, who despite age and frailty has shown that he remains the most powerful man in the country.
On the books, the bloodless coup was a military affair led by army chief General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, who said the overthrow was needed to resolve a protracted political crisis and restore "harmony among the people." The new regime put Thailand under martial law and declared a provisional authority loyal to the monarch.
It remains unclear exactly what role the king played in removing Thaksin. The palace claims it was not involved in the events, but many Thai people, along with political and monarchy experts, see it as another example of the constitutional monarch's behind-the-scenes power, which he has exercised sparingly but effectively in his six-decade reign.
"If the king didn't give a nod, this never would have been possible," said Sulak Siwalak, a prominent social critic and author of books on the role of the monarchy in Thailand.
"Thaksin failed to realize that the king has been on the throne for 60 years and he's no fool. The man is old and Thaksin thought he could play around with him -- and it was a dangerous game," said Sulak. "He felt he could belittle the king, and that's something the king cannot stand."
There was no one event that led to Thaksin's ouster, but a series of missteps that prompted many to accuse the prime minister of challenging the king's authority -- an unpardonable act in Thailand.
Thaksin defied months of street protests and demands for him to resign amid allegations of corruption, election violations and a worsening Muslim insurgency in the south.
Chief among Thaksin's flaws, in the eyes of the palace and many Thais, was his personality.
The tycoon-turned-politician proved to be ambitious, conservative and strong-willed, refusing to correct himself when his policies backfired -- particularly in the case of a strong-armed military approach to violence in the south, where more than 1,700 people have died over the past two years.
Critics call him self-centered and arrogant. He was also accused of stifling what was once one of Asia's freest media and of allowing his business and political cronies to reap enormous gains from corrupt policies.
Some say the palace was infuriated by Thaksin's apparent attempt to steal the spotlight during the king's lavish June celebrations for his 60 years on the throne by breaching protocol by greeting visiting royals ahead of the Thai monarchy.
The king could be described as Thaksin's opposite.
"(The king) clearly cares for his subjects. He is a simple person. He is genuine, and genuinely selfless. He doesn't indulge himself in a lot of his wealth," said Paul Handley, author of a controversial new biography, "The King Never Smiles," which portrays the king as a major player in Thai political developments over the last few decades.
Handley said the king is also "stubborn and hardheaded and doesn't really accept critiques of his own view of how the country should develop."
Although a constitutional monarch with limited powers, the king is held in reverence by almost all Thais because of his lifelong dedication to helping the country's have-nots.
Regarded as semi-divine by some, the king spent decades mingling with common folk in backwater villages where he seeded hundreds of development projects. He believes that Thais and their leaders should adhere to Buddhist principles -- that people should live simply, not strive for excesses and not flaunt their wealth.
The king rarely enters the political sphere, but when he does, everyone listens and obeys -- something Thaksin found increasingly difficult to do.
"Thaksin showed a certain lack of regard for the king and the palace's desires. And he showed a lot of independence which the palace saw disfavorably," Handley said.
In April, the king made a rare television appearance, prodding Thailand's top courts to intervene to resolve a political deadlock: the kingdom has had a caretaker government and no working legislature since April 2 elections, which were boycotted by the opposition.
The nation's top judges annulled the vote, paving the way for new polls later this year. But Thaksin angered many by refusing to bow out.
"The anti-Thaksin forces in the top levels of government -- and perhaps in the palace -- realized that Thaksin could still be prime minister after the new election and there was no way out, and they were fed up," Handley said.