King Bhumibol of Thailand, 1927-2016

Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has died aged 88, revived the prestige and power of a troubled monarchy but saw his country lurch between democracy and dictatorship throughout his 70-year reign. 

The man who became the world’s longest-ruling living king was revered by many Thais as a semi-divine unifier of the nation, but questions grew in his later years about the monarchy’s involvement in politics — a role always officially denied. 

King Bhumibol’s life ended with the country again under the control of the generals who have ruled Thailand for a good part of its modern history. This time, they are trying to sustain an old establishment centred on the nobility, the military and the bureaucracy against emerging forces of new money, class consciousness and political reform.

By the end, the young saxophone-playing king who once jammed with Benny Goodman on a triumphant trip to the US had become a remote figure, his enduring conservatism evident in the revival of practices such as the prostration abandoned by a 19th-century predecessor. As King Bhumibol’s health deteriorated, authorities jailed a number of people in his name under draconian lese majesty laws. Those punishments and wider social taboos mean no meaningful debate is possible in Thailand about the king’s stewardship or the monarchy’s role in society. Reporting on the royal family is tightly restricted.

Born on December 5 1927 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his father Prince Mahidol was studying medicine at Harvard, Bhumibol was educated in Switzerland. He was crowned after King Ananda Mahidol, his elder brother and a fellow gun enthusiast, was shot dead in 1946 in Bangkok’s Grand Palace in murky circumstances that raised the possibilities of suicide, murder or accident. The question of what happened that day remained to the end of King Bhumibol’s life.

King Bhumibol plays saxophone in a jam session with clarinettist Benny Goodman © AP

Taking the name Rama IX, King Bhumibol was the ninth monarch in the Chakri dynasty founded in 1782 in the ancient kingdom of Siam. In 1950 he married Sirikit, the daughter of a Siamese ambassador to France, who bore a son and three daughters.

King Bhumibol’s great achievement was to rebuild the prestige and influence of a throne staggering from the twin blows of King Ananda’s death and the loss of its absolute power after a military-led uprising 14 years earlier. Thanks to relentless messaging in schools and wider society that the trinity of “nation, religion and king” was at the heart of being Thai, the generals and then King Bhumibol himself established him as the dhammaraja — or wise monarch ruling according to Theravada Buddhist principles. 

King Bhumibol’s ascent was also helped by the support of the US as a crucial part of its cold war struggle against communists who were to overthrow other monarchies in Southeast Asia. At home, the former engineering student became the modernising “developer king”, travelling to remote rural areas to promote high-profile — if never independently scrutinised — projects to irrigate the staple rice crop.

King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit talk to demonstrators in October 1975 during protests that led to the fall of the government © AP

King Bhumibol came to be widely seen as a stabilising force and trusted guide through an era of rapid change, including the rise and fall of communism elsewhere in Asia and the social upheaval that accompanied Thailand’s transformation from backwater to regional industrial hub. While not personally associated with an opulent lifestyle, he oversaw the expansion of the Crown Property Bureau and other investment vehicles into an opaque royal treasure chest estimated to hold tens of billions of dollars. By the 1990s, his long and sometimes humorous televised birthday speeches, drenched in religious philosophy and homespun homilies, proved immensely popular and reinforced his seemingly unassailable position as a father of the nation. 

Politically, King Bhumibol’s choice to appear frequently in army uniform symbolically confirmed his alliance with Thailand’s many authoritarian regimes drawn from a military whose first duty is to the monarchy, not the people. He also made limited concessions to forces campaigning for greater popular representation. In 1973 he allowed pro-democracy students fleeing a violent army crackdown to take refuge in his palace. But he chose not to condemn the 1976 massacre at Bangkok’s Thammasat University of dozens of pro-democracy protesters by state forces and rightwing royalist thugs, even as the world was shocked by images of activists being lynched and hanged from trees almost on the doorstep of the Grand Palace. 

It was another reminder that what the king did not say could be as significant as what he did. He had remained silent at the start of his reign as three men, including two palace pages, were executed for plotting to kill his brother, in what many outsiders saw as a travesty of justice aimed at saving royal embarrassment. He also stayed quiet over hundreds of cases launched for alleged lese majesty, aside from making an elliptical 2005 remark that he was ready to be criticised.

King Bhumibol’s acquired authority was displayed most strikingly in 1992, when security forces clashed with pro-democracy demonstrators, killing about 40 people. The king summoned the prime minister and the protest leader to the palace where, on national television, he softly reprimanded them for allowing their personal rivalry to threaten the nation. Three days later the prime minister resigned, ending the crisis but also stopping democratising forces in their tracks.

A 1992 TV grab from shows the king reprimanding the prime minister and the leader of pro-democracy protests © AFP

During the last period of King Bhumibol’s reign, the establishment found its hold over the country challenged as never before by the emergence of Thaksin Shinawatra, an autocratic telecommunications magnate whose parties won every election since 2001 on the back of huge support in rural areas. That political awakening led supporters of the old guard to resort to a mixture of legal gerrymandering, sometimes violent civil disobedience and two military coups — both signed off by the palace. 

The post-Thaksin crisis coincided with a worsening in King Bhumibol’s health, including a mysterious stay in hospital between 2009 and 2013 that foreshadowed his final long confinement. The coming weeks of national public grief, much of it heartfelt, will mark the end of his extraordinary journey from a US hospital to the crown of one of Asia’s last monarchies. But historians may also ask how a supposedly benign king with considerable influence in shaping his country over seven decades left behind a nation riven by social conflict and increasing political repression. Whatever the verdict, his death deprives Thailand of the only king most of its citizens have known — and leaves a vacuum that his official heir apparent, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, may struggle to fill.

King Bhumibol on his 83rd birthday in 2010 © AFP

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