Thais have been watching for signs of friction between the armed forces and the monarchy—the country’s two biggest sources of political power—since the death in October of Bhumibol Adulyadej, King Vajiralongkorn’s long-reigning father. The new king is viewed warily by Bangkok’s elites, who have sometimes worried that he sympathises with populist politicians whom the army has twice kicked from power. On the whole relations have looked cordial. King Vajiralongkorn has stacked his privy council with generals plucked straight from the junta’s cabinet; the junta has looked to the palace to help adjudicate in a long-running and volatile dispute over who should fill a vacant post at the head of Thai Buddhism, which the military government had appeared ill-equipped to handle alone.

But although the king’s right to reject the draft constitution is enshrined in an interim charter which the generals themselves wrote, his decision to interfere remains a surprise. Under King Vajiralongkorn’s father the palace preferred to maintain the fiction that Thailand’s monarchy holds a symbolic role which is “above politics”, even while it meddled energetically behind the scenes. The bluntness of King Vajiralongkorn’s intervention—and the determination it reveals to resist relatively small checks on royal power—is both a snub to the junta and a worry for democrats, some of whom had dared hope that the new king might be happy to take a back seat in public life.

The junta says it will make all the requested changes within a few months, and that the new text will not need to be put to a second referendum. But it has clearly been caught by surprise. It says it will first have to revise the interim charter which has been in force since the coup. This document allowed for the king to reject the draft constitution in its entirety but appeared not to provide for the possibility that he might ask to strike out lines he did not like.

Some Thais worry that a lasting power struggle is brewing. Others see a minor spat over language, which will quickly be forgotten. Since the 1930s Thailand has written and torn up 19 constitutions; hardly anyone expects this effort to be the last. The one certainty is that the redrafting will delay by several months the general election that was supposed to be held at the end of this year. Mr Prayuth has implied that elections cannot now be held until after King Vajiralongkorn’s coronation, which itself cannot take place until after his father’s elaborate cremation, scheduled for October. All this boots the long-promised polls well into 2018.