Thursday, October 13, 2016

King Bhumibol Adulyadej the Great of Thailand (1927-2016)

It has just been announced that His Majesty, Bhumibol Adulyadej the Great, Lord of Life, King of Thailand, has passed away. Such news has been long expected but is no less tragic, nor is the impact mitigated by that fact. Few monarchs in the world today have been so loved, so respected and so revered by their subjects as the late King of Thailand. For the Thais, he has been a rock of stability, a beacon of hope, a helping hand, a kind father and a wise leader throughout his amazing 70 year reign. Beyond the borders of Thailand, he has also been a powerful presence in Southeast Asia, a firm and reliable figure throughout many years, even decades of troubled times. He was, in every way, providentially the right monarch in the right place at the right time. As Thai everywhere mourn the passing of this great and beloved sovereign it may be helpful for those unfamiliar with Thailand to take a look at some of the specific reasons why Rama IX is so popular, so revered and why he is referred to as “the Great”.

Born in the United States in 1927 while his parents were on a sort of world tour, King Bhumbibol succeeded his older brother as monarch in 1946. It was a delicate time for the Thai monarchy. After the end of the absolute monarchy in Thailand, King Prajadhipok abdicated and left the country and the young boy, King Ananda Mahidol was nominal monarch from 1935 until his death in 1946, having a regency the entire time. From the end of the absolute monarchy, instability and prevailed in Thailand and this was only ended with the establishment of an authoritarian military regime while the young king was out of the country. This was the regime which joined with Japan and the Axis powers during World War II so, in the aftermath of all of that, Thailand was in a very delicate position and the monarchy had been shaken and, for the first time in Thai history, to a large extent absent for an extended period of time. Many hopes were placed on young King Ananda Mahidol and when he died in 1946, it was yet another blow to an already bewildered people. Thailand had a new king, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who had never expected to be king.

Known for his love of music, young King Bhumibol returned to school in Europe and switched his studies to political science and statecraft while the military regime continued to rule. This situation prevailed after his return until a conflict arose against the long-standing strongman Field Marshal Phibun (the man who had ruled throughout World War II). Phibun went to the King who advised him to resign before he was overthrown. Phibun did not listen and soon after was overthrown in a coup at which point the King, acting on his own, declared a state of emergency and took control of the situation himself. Public order was secured, the people were calmed and normalcy prevailed while the government situation was sorted out. For the first time since the end of absolutism, traditional royal customs were revived and the King took on a much more high-profile role in national life. The people were quickly drawn to the young man who traveled throughout the countryside, in simple clothes and dark glasses (worn since he had lost an eye in an automobile accident in Europe), looking into their concerns and coming up with his own solutions through government action or the private activities of his own charities.

Thailand experienced what could be called a sort of compassionate counter-revolution during this period. The monarchy was back in public life as it had not been for many years, traditions were restored that had long been dormant and the King obviously had a great deal of influence and was certainly not a captive of the government. At the same time, he was meeting regularly with ordinary people, he was acting outside the government, in person and through his own private agencies, to help people who needed it and improving the countryside in areas from infrastructure to agriculture. Whereas, in the past, the King had been the government, then the government had taken power while child monarchs were absent or powerless but now the King was rising above the government. The state was still there but the King could act in a private capacity without them and soon his moral authority was more powerful than any political authority held by the government of the day.

It was also during this period, in the 50’s and 60’s, that communism began to sweep Southeast Asia and the Kingdom of Thailand allied itself with the United States in fighting the spread of communist subversion. Most think of Thailand simply providing support to the U.S. forces in Vietnam, rest and recreation facilities, ports and air bases and the like, but Thai forces also joined the fight with Thai soldiers seeing action in Laos against the communist movement. There was a real fear that Communist China would dominate Laos and use it to gain entry to Thailand. The Kingdom of Thailand also sent the hard-fighting “Queen’s Cobra battalion” to South Vietnam where it served alongside American and South Vietnamese forces against the communists from 1965 to 1971. These days, of course, this long struggle is not viewed favorably anywhere but it was certainly not lost on the people at the time in Thailand that the victory of communism and the loss of the Vietnamese emperor and the kings of Laos and Cambodia went hand-in-hand with civil war, misery and tyranny whereas Thailand, for a time alone, remained a free and relatively prosperous country under their beloved King.

The end of this era came with the death of General Sarit Dhanarajata in 1963, after which the military governments became increasingly less stable as squabbling generals vied for power among themselves. This has become fairly common in Thailand but, thanks to the King and his wisely moderate use of his extensive moral authority and public prestige, Thailand could be said to have unstable governments but a stable country. The long period of military rule finally began to draw to a close when this government instability became so severe it threatened to destabilize the country as a whole. The King foresaw the danger and decided to intervene, though initially it was actually a non-intervention. He refused to endorse new regimes that took power by force during the 1980’s and this ensured that these dissident forces never lasted very long since, if the King did not recognize them, the vast majority of Thais likewise viewed them as illegitimate and ultimately power reverted back to the legal authorities. It was a precarious time, and there were minor outbreaks of violence, but what under other circumstances would have caused national collapse and civil war, ended with little major turmoil thanks to the King.

Finally, there came the issue of the transition to democracy. Thailand had actually had almost no experience with democracy, despite claims to the contrary, prior to the 1990’s. The end of royal absolutism brought to power a new class of political elites but they were not true democratic representatives of the public will and they were soon replaced by military leaders who had held power ever since. That changed with the military coup of 1991 in which General Suchinda Kraprayoon seized power, making himself dictator. However, this time, there was considerable public opposition and violence broke out as army units fought to suppress anti-government demonstrations. The chaos spread throughout Bangkok and fears began to rise that an all-out civil war was eminent.

Once again, the King saw that the situation was critical and warranted his intervention. He summoned General Suchinda and the leader of the democracy movement (a retired general) Chamlong Srimuang to the Royal Palace on May 20, 1992. The event was televised and the Thai public watched as these two generals, the two most powerful non-royals in the country, crawled on their knees and bowed down to the revered King. He urged them to resolve their differences peacefully, for the good of the country, nothing that sounds very radical. However, this was a hugely significant event. The dictator of the country had been seen humbling himself on national television, side by side with the leader of the dissidents and while the King did not openly take a side in the issue, by urging them to resolve their differences peacefully, this was a clear indication that he did not wish to see the army used to shoot down dissidents in the streets and that some accommodation would have to be reached. Without military force, that accommodation could only come by way of the democratic process. However, it also meant that the pro-democracy side would have to stop their riots and start talking policy and making their case to the Thai people.

Not long after, General Suchinda resigned and after a short time a general election was held and a democratic government came to power in Thailand. Again, a civil war had been averted and the transition from military rule to parliamentary democracy had taken place without a major, nationwide upheaval, thanks to the intervention of the King. The people did not forget, nor the many and on-going charitable works of the King which impacted their lives in a positive way. As the 1990’s passed beyond the year 2000, however, democracy began to take its toll quickly on Thailand. A leftist government, led by the wealthy and unscrupulous Thaksin Shinawatra came to power, basically by buying votes, promising people other people’s money and he held on to power by means of his media empire and intimidation by his bully-boy supporters. In time, accusations of corruption, violation of human rights, even murder were raised against the Thaksin government and people again called on their revered monarch to dismiss him and appoint a new prime minister of his own choosing in 2006.

The King refrained from doing so, on the grounds that Thailand had a democratic system and the democratic process was the proper way of dealing with things. However, many people increasingly distrusted the democratic process overseen by the Thaksin regime and in the next elections a great many people boycotted them. Thaksin claimed victory even though he clearly lacked a truly democratic mandate and there was an immediate uproar. Finally, after a private meeting with the King, Prime Minister Thaksin announced he was stepping down. Reports also leaked out of a treasonous alliance between Thaksin and the Thai communist party to overthrow the monarchy and assume absolute power. Thaksin denied this of course but left the country, also to avoid prosecution for the crimes committed while in office, but still maintained his power from abroad by having his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, as the leader of his political faction in Thailand.

Yingluck was, as most probably know, removed from power by a military coup in May of 2014, charged and found guilty of abuse of power. This came after much of 2013 had been consumed with anti-government protests against her and her brother’s regime. The King endorsed the military action as the only way that law and order could be restored in the country as the clashes between the pro- and anti-government forces had become violent. He had earlier warned that the situation had been allowed to fester to the point where there were no good options. However, despite what some argued, the situation was secured, peace and order were restored and the military government has remained in place and will certainly remain in place for a while now, if for no other reason that to secure a peaceful transition from one monarch to another. To the very end of his life, he was concerned with the good of the nation, the welfare of the people and preventing them from coming to any harm.

This is why people in Thailand revered their king so sincerely. It was not just the new roads and bridges he had built, making their lives easier. It was not just his emphasis on education and national history in particular, it was not just his sending of his own medical team to treat poor people in the countryside or that he allowed many more poor Thais in the countryside to own their own farms with his land programs. It was the fact that, on numerous occasions throughout his reign, the King saved Thailand from chaos, disorder and civil war. After World War II, Burma, Vietnam, Laos and (for a time) Cambodia all got rid of their kings and people could see the result. Thailand, alone among them, always stood firm, thanks to the popularity of King Bhumibol, and easily became the most free and prosperous country of all her neighbors to the east and west. The King earned the love and respect of his people and he was able to use that love and respect for their benefit by stepping in to stop government dysfunction from damaging the whole country. He used his moral authority wisely and sparingly but always to the benefit of his people. He was a living example of what even a constitutional monarch can do if their people are fervently loyal and fervently support them.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej the Great will always be remembered as one of the most significant and successful and beloved monarchs that Thailand has ever had in her ancient history. He has deserved all of the accolades he has received, will always be missed and will always be remembered. For the time being at least, while people come to grips with his loss, the “Land of Smiles” has become a ‘land of tears’…


  1. RIP to King Bhumibol.

    In other news, just last month the Dictator of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov died in office. He was a former Soviet Communist Party chief and maintained his power after the Soviet downfall. His successor is preparing for another round of farcical elections.

    Uzbekistan was the site of the former Emirate of Bukhara, a Muslim Central Asian monarchy which continued to exist under a Russian Empire protectorate after the Russian conquest of Central Asia. The Tsars allowed the Emirs of Bukhara to retain their throne under an arrangement similar to princely states in the British Raj, right up until the Soviet Communists overthrew the Emir and forced him to flee to Afghanistan. Have you written on the Emirate of Bukhara before?

  2. I've been wondering for some time: what do you think is the more rightful name for King Bhumibol's land; Thailand, or Siam. From what I understand, the name change came under the military regime of world war II.

    1. Thai people have long called themselves "Thai" since the Ayutthaya period. But they are a racially diverse nation - with Siamese, Chinese, Lao, Malay, Mon, and Khmer ethnic makeups - and by the mid 20th century, the Siamese was no longer the only "major" racial group of the country. They changed it to Thailand (Thai means "free people") which I think suitable to what they have become.

  3. Thai monarchy proves that a country can be better-off with a continuity of "traditional authority." In my view, in all of Asia, only Thailand is free from the racial conflicts of the post colonial era. It was never conquered by a western power. And it had been a multi-racial empire before the European started coming in with their colonial agendas. Thailand today is the only non-racial society in Asian state, despite being a racially diversified country. It is the supremacy of the Monarchy that has allowed Thailand to achieve the social cohesion it has today.


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