BANGKOK (Reuters) - News that Thailand is making preparations for the crown prince to ascend to the throne on Dec. 1 is likely to allay worries that the kingdom was headed for a period of instability following the death of beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Fresh questions about the succession arose when Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn left for Germany at the weekend. He had already prompted some concern when he did not immediately become king following the death of his father on Oct. 13.
But two senior military sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters on Monday that the government is making preparations for a Dec. 1 succession.
Thailand's junta has been preparing for the succession since taking power in a May 2014 coup, when the late king's health was already in decline. Those plans will culminate in a royal stamp on a new constitution that will institutionalize the army's political power.
Experts on Thai affairs say with Prince Vajiralongkorn on the throne, the military may see itself as no longer the crown's junior partner and take the opportunity to play an even bigger role in Thai political life.
Kan Yuenyong, executive director of the Siam Intelligence Unit think-tank, said Dec. 1 "would be a good time frame" for the prince to ascend the throne as it also coincides with a parade by the Royal Guards, which requires royal approval around then.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha had said the prince would assume the duties of the throne a week to 15 days after the king's death, but that it could also take longer. His formal coronation would take place only when the king is cremated after a year of mourning, Prayuth said.
The thrice-divorced prince, King Bhumibol's only male heir, has spent much of his adult life abroad, and has a home in Germany where his son, Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, is enrolled at a private school.
The prince could not be reached for comment before leaving for Germany on Friday.
The prince had personal business to attend to in Germany, one senior military source told Reuters, adding he would return in November.
The prince's delay in taking up the throne had generated various theories with little hard evidence behind them: that the prince was unsure he wanted to rule, or his enemies were trying to block him, or his sister might become queen instead.
The talk is muted in Thailand, where critical discussion of the succession can be deemed an insult to the monarchy and a criminal offense.
Diplomats have dismissed the speculation.
"From what we gather, there seem to be no problems with succession or any truth to rumors about possible rifts," one senior western diplomat told Reuters.
The prince's sister, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, 61, is highly respected because of her devotion to public service and is fondly referred to as Phra Thep, which means 'Princess Angel'.
She is said to be close to Prem Tinsulanonda, 96, who assumed the role of temporary regent after the king's death as president of the royal Privvy Council and is overseeing the transition to a new king.
"Prem is very closely aligned to the Crown Princess, but it is clear that she has taken a back seat in recent days," said a senior member of Thailand's military, who declined to be named.
The princess has signaled she wants "to serve the nation but follow the order of succession and wait for her brother to become king."
The Royal Household Bureau, which handles some of the public relations of the royal family, said the princess was unavailable for comment.
'THE MONARCHISED MILITARY'
Since 1957, Thailand has seen an evolution in an alliance between the monarchy and the military with the latter as junior partner, Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in the city of Chiang Mai, told Reuters.
"Since the crown prince is not as popular as his father, the military could dominate the next reign. Hence, of course, they would champion Vajiralongkorn's rise."
"This monarchised military gains legitimacy from its support for the Crown Prince," Chambers said.
That quest for legitimacy has its genesis in the 2014 coup, which capped a decade of bitterly divided politics pitting a Thai establishment against working and middle class voters, including "red shirts" loyal to ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Most Thai analysts agree the takeover, which ousted the government of Thaksin's sister, former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, was executed to cripple the Shinawatra family's political machine and to ensure the military was in control when the succession took place.
(Reporting by Bangkok Bureau; Editing by Bill Tarrant)