Friday, 14 October 2016

Thai unifying figure leaves lasting legacy

King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, who took the throne of the kingdom once known as Siam shortly after World War II and held it for more than 70 years, establishing himself as a revered personification of Thai nationhood, died on Thursday in Bangkok. He was 88 and one of the longest-reigning monarchs in history.


Guanyu said...

Thai unifying figure leaves lasting legacy

14 October 2016

King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, who took the throne of the kingdom once known as Siam shortly after World War II and held it for more than 70 years, establishing himself as a revered personification of Thai nationhood, died on Thursday in Bangkok. He was 88 and one of the longest-reigning monarchs in history.

The royal palace said that he died at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok, but it did not give a cause or further details.

King Bhumibol, politically influential and highly revered, was a unifying figure in a deeply polarised country, and his death casts a pall of uncertainty across Thailand.

The military junta, which seized power in a coup two years ago, derives its authority from the king. The king's heir apparent, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, is seen by many as a jet-setting playboy and not held in the same regard as his father. And the king's death raises questions about the future of the monarchy itself.

King Bhumibol spent most of his final years in hospital. His portrait hung in almost every shop, and as his health declined, billboards proclaimed "Long Live the King", signalling widespread anxiety about a future without him. In response, he openly fretted that the people should feel so insecure.

Thais came to see this Buddhist king as a father figure wholly dedicated to their welfare, and as the embodiment of stability in a country where political leadership rose and fell through decades of military coups.

His death ends a reign of 70 years and 126 days - one that few monarchs have matched for longevity. Queen Elizabeth II, by comparison, has ruled Britain for more than 64 years, having surpassed Queen Victoria's mark in 2015. With King Bhumibol's death, she becomes the world's longest-reigning monarch.

King Bhumibol (pronounced poo-me-pon) was an accidental monarch, thrust onto the throne at 18 by the violent death of his older brother in 1946. He fully embraced the role of national patriarch, upholding the world of traditional Thailand, where hierarchy, deference and loyalty were guiding principles. Western stereotypes of his country irked him. (He disdained the Broadway musical The King and I, with its roots in his grandfather's court.) And, like a stern father, he was quick to chastise his fellow Thais when he saw the need.

Guanyu said...


In the king's book,The Story of Tongdaeng (2002), about a street dog he had adopted, the message - there was always a message in his writings - was that affluent Thais should stop buying expensive foreign breeds when there were so many local strays to save. The book was a Thai best-seller.

If he was a people's king, King Bhumibol was a quiet and somewhat aloof one. He was a man of a sober, serious mien, often isolated in his palaces, protected by the most stringent of lèse-majesté laws, which effectively prevent almost any public discussion of the royal family.

But he had a worldly bent. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his father was a student at Harvard at the time, he was educated in Switzerland, spoke impeccable English and French, composed music, played jazz on the clarinet and saxophone, took up photography, painted, wrote and spent hours in a greenhouse at his Chitrlada Palace in Bangkok.

Once he had returned from Europe, however, he stayed put. Never interested in a jet-set life, he stopped travelling abroad, saying there was too much to do at home. He was content to trudge through croplands in distant provinces in an open-neck shirt and sport coat, tending to the many development projects he encouraged and oversaw: his milk-pasteurising plants, dams that watered rice fields, factories that recycled sugar-cane stalks and water hyacinths into fuel, and countless others.

In a political crisis, Thais admired him for his shrewd sense of when to intervene, sometimes with only a gesture, to defuse it, even though he had only a limited constitutional role and no direct political power.

"We are fighting in our own house," he scolded two warring politicians whom he had summoned to sit abjectly at his feet in 1992. "It is useless to live on burned ruins."

Eleven years earlier, he had aborted a coup by simply inviting the besieged prime minister, Prem Tinsulanonda, to stay at a royal palace with the king and queen.

Thailand was transformed during his reign, moving from a mostly agricultural economy to a modern one of industry and commerce and a growing middle class. He presided over an expansion of democratic processes, though it was a halting one. He witnessed a dozen military coups and several attempted uprisings, and in his last years, his health failing, he appeared powerless to stem sometimes violent demonstrations, offering only vague appeals for unity and giving royal endorsement to two coups.

Meanwhile, a strain of republicanism emerged as the country broke into two camps: on one side, the establishment, with the palace at its core; on the other, the disenfranchised, whose demand for a political voice threatened the traditional order. He nevertheless remained a unifying figure to Thais - so much so that at times he wanted to moderate the country's almost obsessive veneration of him.

In his annual birthday address in December 2001, King Bhumibol said: "There is an English saying that the king is always happy, or 'happy as the king' - which is not true at all."

In his birthday speech in 2005, he said that the belief that the king can do no wrong was "very much an insult to the king". "Why is it that the king can do no wrong?" he asked. "This shows they do not regard the king as being a human. But the king can do wrong."

King Bhumibol was born in Cambridge on Dec 5, 1927, the son of Prince Mahidol of Songkhla, a founder of modern medicine in Thailand; he was studying public health at Harvard at the time. King Bhumibol's mother, Princess Sangwalya Chukramol, was a Thai nurse studying on a scholarship at Simmons College in Boston when she met the prince. King Bhumibol had an older brother, Ananda, and a sister, Galyani Vadhana.

Guanyu said...

King Bhumibol and his father were inheritors of the reformist tradition begun by King Mongkut in the 19th century and accelerated by his son, Chulalongkorn, King Bhumibol's grandfather. King Mongkut and King Chulalongkorn were the king and prince in Anna and the King of Siam, Margaret Landon's 1943 novel, which was based on the autobiographical writings of Anna Leonowens. The novel inspired the musical The King and I and its film adaptation.

His father, Prince Mahidol, died when King Bhumibol was two, and his mother, to whom he was very close, took her children to Switzerland for schooling. Their family life was interrupted in 1935 when Thailand's last absolute king, Prajadhipok, Prince Mahidol's half brother, abdicated in the wake of a military coup. The crown passed to Prince Mahidol's eldest son, Prince Ananda, then 10 years old. King Ananda was barely into his 20s when, on June 9, 1946, he was found dead in his private chambers with a bullet through his head. King Bhumibol was the last family member to have seen him alive, but he never spoke publicly about the death or about rumours that the young king, a gun collector, may have committed suicide or killed himself accidentally. King Bhumibol, though not originally in the line of succession, was anointed king. At the time, Thailand was under military control after emerging from an inglorious period of collaboration with Japan in World War II. He soon returned to Switzerland for a few years and studied politics and history at the University of Lausanne.


While on a trip to Paris, he met Sirikit Kitiyakara, whose father, a Thai prince, was serving as a diplomat in Europe. They married in 1950, the year King Bhumibol was formally crowned Rama IX of the Chakri dynasty.

In an interview with The New York Times in 1988, the first he gave to a Western newspaper, King Bhumibol spoke with some bitterness of his early reign. He was repeatedly silenced by the military when he tried to assert himself, he said, and so decided to focus on what he could do best within his limited rights. That led to his concentration on development, an area in which the military could not challenge him without further undermining its increasingly shaky popular support.

He began systematically building a following across the Thai political spectrum, down to the village level. It was a strategy emulated in neighbouring Cambodia by Norodom Sihanouk, another Asian monarch who held the devotion of a nation through years of turmoil.

David K Wyatt, author of the classic 1982 book Thailand: A Short History, credited King Bhumibol with turning the monarchy into Thailand's strongest social and political institution.

King Bhumibol was nearing the end of a long day of visiting projects in eastern Thailand in the summer of 1988 when he agreed to be interviewed by The Times. The subject turned to the legend of The King and I, which had been banned in Thailand as being disrespectful to the monarchy, and to the West's image of the glittering life of a king of Siam, embodied in the musical most memorably by Yul Brynner.

"At first, it was all this rubbish about the half brother of the moon and the sun and master of the tide and all that," King Bhumibol said in his fluent English. He said that he found it "irking" to have to live up to legends created by Western writers. "They wanted to make a fairy tale to amuse people," he said, "to amuse people more than to tell the truth."

In reality, he said, his life revolved around his development projects. He said that he did not care how history would remember him. "If they want to write about me in a good way, they should write how I do things that are useful."