Thailand is convulsed by a bitter struggle between the nation's elite and its disenfranchised poor, played out in protests that have paralysed Bangkok for weeks.

A battle over Thailand's future is raging, but the one man who has been able to resolve such intractable conflicts in the past has been notably silent: King Bhumibol Adulyadej, long a unifying father figure for his nation.

Thailand is convulsed by a bitter struggle between the nation's elite and its disenfranchised poor, played out in protests that have paralysed Bangkok for weeks and now threaten to expand. The ailing 82-year-old king finds his power to sway events ebbing as the fight continues over the shape of a post-Bhumibol Thailand.

“It's much bigger than the issue of succession,” said Charles Keyes, an expert on Thailand at the University of Washington in Seattle. “It's a collapse of the political consensus that the monarchy has helped maintain.”

As his country suffers through its worst political crisis in decades, the king has disappointed many Thais by saying nothing that might calm the turmoil, as he did in 1973 and 1992 when with a few quiet words he halted eruptions of political bloodletting.

For more than two months now, demonstrators known as the red shirts, who represent in part the aspirations of the rural and urban poor, have occupied parts of Bangkok, forcing major malls and hotels to close as they demand that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva dissolve parliament and hold a new election. Soldiers and protesters continued battling Saturday.

After taking the throne nearly 64 years ago, Bhumibol expanded his role as a constitutional monarch without political power into an enormous moral force, earned through his civic work and political astuteness. He has also presided over an expansion of the royal family's now vast business holdings. With the monarchy at its heart, an elite royalist class grew up including the bureaucracy, the military and entrenched business interests. A palace Privy Council has exerted power during the current crisis.

It is this elite class that the protesters are now challenging.

Those who seek to maintain the status quo have proclaimed themselves loyal to the king and have accused the red shirts of trying to destroy the monarchy as they seek changes in Thai society. For their part, most red shirts say they respect the king but want changes in the system he helped create.

The politicisation of the king's name “has ensured that the monarchy cannot play a central conciliatory role any more,” said Chris Baker, a British historian of Thailand.

More broadly, the divisions in society may have become too deep and the anger too hot to reconcile for years to come. Many analysts say a lasting class conflict has been ignited between the country's awakening rural masses and its elite hierarchy. With the king confined to a hospital since September with lung inflammation and other ailments, concern about the future has sharpened. The heir apparent to the throne, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, has not inherited his father's popularity.

But discussion about the succession and about the future role of the monarchy are constricted to whispers and forbidden Internet sites by a severe lese-majeste law. A 15-year penalty for anyone who “defames, insults or threatens the king, queen, the heir apparent or the regent” has been broadly interpreted in cases brought against writers, academics, activists, and both foreign and local journalists.

Though it is the protesters who are pressing for change, including some who may see a republican form of government in the future, it is a leading member of the establishment party that now rules Thailand who put the issue into its plainest terms.

“We should be brave enough to go through all of this and even talk about the taboo subject of monarchy,” said Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, in a speech last month that he gave, significantly, outside Thailand at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. “I think we have to talk about the institution of the monarchy, how would it have to reform itself to the modern globalised world.” He spoke of Britain and the Netherlands as models, with constitutional monarchs who play a largely symbolic role.

On paper at least, those models are not so very different from the system now in place in Thailand. What sets King Bhumibol apart is the aura that surrounds him and the faith among many people that when things are really bad, he will step forward to save them from themselves.

In a way, what some Thais are saying now is simply that it is time for the king's “children” to grow up and solve their problems themselves.

“There might still be people in Thai society that want to see the king play a role in resolving the crisis,” said Jon Ungpakorn, a former senator and one of the nation's most vocal advocates for democracy. “But on the other side, a large section of society realizes that we should not depend on the monarchy for resolving crises,” he said. “If we are to be a democratic system, we must learn to deal with our problems ourselves.”

During weeks of street demonstrations, protesters have assiduously asserted their patriotism. But unlike other protests in the city, there has been a conspicuous absence of portraits of the king. Among both residents of the northeast, the country's rural heartland, and the red-shirt protesters in Bangkok — many of whom have traveled back and forth in shifts — a new, less reverent tone has quietly crept into conversations.

Krasae Chanawongse, a medical doctor and former government minister in the northeast who is a strong monarchist, laments that “many people are talking about destroying the monarchy.” But protest leaders insist that they are not challenging the king but the system that is built around him.

“Real democracy would have the king at the top, with no elite class to interfere,” said a protest leader, Nattawut Saikua, in an interview.

Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had built an electoral base among the country's poor majority, who also form the base of the red-shirt protesters, threatening the traditional supremacy of the old guard. A coup in 2006 that ousted Thaksin is believed to have had at least the tacit approval of the Privy Council and other elites who saw the prime minister and his base as a challenge to their power. The red shirts have demanded a new election that could bring back Thaksin, now abroad fleeing a prison sentence for corruption.

Whoever succeeds Bhumibol, the veneration and the place the king holds at the heart of Thai society are unlikely to survive him.

“In private discussions people say to each other, ‘What will we do without him?'” said a prominent poet who, like many people speaking about the monarchy, insisted on anonymity. “They get disappointed and upset and even scared about the change in the future.”

As he has grown older, concerns have risen about divisions and disputes in society that might erupt once he is gone. It appears now, with the king no longer playing the role he has in the past, that those conflicts are already under way. — New York Times News Service

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