The death of the world’s longest-reigning monarch, King Bhumbibol Adulyadej, on 13 October may loose forces that will energise a new round of political turmoil in Thailand
The 70-year reign of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej started and ended inauspiciously. It was a family tragedy that unexpectedly brought Bhumibol to the throne. He went on to become the world’s longest serving monarch but, in death, his formidable legacy is deeply tarnished by the ambitions of those who fought hardest to defend him.
In 1946, the untimely and mysterious death of his older brother, King Ananda Mahidol, catapulted the young Prince Bhumibol into a role for which he was unprepared. King Ananda died violently in Bangkok’s Grand Palace. He was found in bed with a pistol shot to the head. To this day, nobody knows who pulled the trigger. Forensic reports suggest that neither suicide nor an accident were likely. Whispered speculation about regicide has continued ever since.
Many like to believe that shadowy figures outside the palace were responsible. There is also the deeply disturbing possibility—unthinkable for most Thais—that Ananda’s death was an inside job. Some commentators have wondered if Bhumibol, who was the last person to see King Ananda alive, would ever cast any light on the mystery. He never did, and any knowledge he had of the tragic event is now probably gone forever.
Bhumibol was born in the United States and spent much of his early life attending school and university in Switzerland. Even after becoming king, he returned to Switzerland for another five years of education, jazz music, fast cars and European high-society. He returned full-time to Thailand in 1951, aged 23 and speaking imperfect Thai.
Few would have expected this highly westernised young man to become Thailand’s longest reigning king and a potent symbol of the Thai nation. In fact, early in his reign, there was diplomatic chatter that Bhumibol was easily controlled by scheming politicians within the government. In 1932 a revolution had bought about an end to the absolute monarchy and by the time Bhumibol became king Thai royalty had lost much of its former prestige and power. Some of the old palace hardliners would have preferred a more formidable figure on the throne.
It was an unremarkable beginning, but King Bhumibol gradually grew in stature as a role in modern Thai politics was constructed for him. The palace became a useful symbol around which Thailand’s ruling military strongmen could build the ideological infrastructure of national unity. In those years, royal endorsement and conservative credentials were far more important for Thai governments than electoral legitimacy.
Surrounded by loyal establishment figures, Bhumibol was manoeuvred into the public consciousness as a diligent and compassionate king and as the embodiment of Thai values. In those crucial years, the monarchy grew to become Thailand’s premier institution. It was not long before Thailand’s once tentative king was making globetrotting trips, meeting with international leaders and showing off his glamorous queen.
At home, national unity was a pressing concern. In the 1960s and 1970s, Thailand was besieged by the communist advances in Indochina. Within Thailand’s borders, communist insurgents mounted a persistent campaign against the government. Nullifying these opponents, and winning over the hearts and minds of the Thai people, became a top priority for both the government and the palace.
As Cold War anxieties climaxed, Bhumibol supported a strong American presence in Thailand. From its bases in the kingdom, US forces bombed Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In Thailand, Bhumibol sponsored the establishment of paramilitary organisations, and became the patron of the Border Patrol Police and other guardians of the realm. He also set up a series of rural development centres in the poorest and most remote areas of the country.
He argued, quite rightly, that social and economic development would make Thailand’s rural poor less vulnerable to leftist indoctrination. Some of the most iconic images of Bhumibol’s reign come from his visits to rural villages, where he dispensed development resources and agronomic wisdom to his grateful peasant subjects.
Thailand’s status as a linchpin in the anti-communist fight, paved the way for an economic boom and the enmeshment of Bhumibol in global power politics. The defeat of local communist forces in the early 1980s was directly linked, in many Thai minds, with the king’s devotion to his kingdom. Following the spectacular economic growth and semi-democracy of the 1980s, the last three decades of Bhumibol’s life were accompanied by constant reference to his newly democratic public persona.
His adoration by the Thai public was stoked by a constant diet of positive press coverage about him and his family. Bhumibol’s status grew as international organisations flocked to honour Asia’s modern monarch with a welter of awards and honorary degrees.
Public relations triumph
His greatest public relations triumph came in 1992, following a massacre of unarmed protesters by army units on the streets of Bangkok. In a nationally televised display of royal authority, Bhumibol called the protest leader and the Prime Minister to his palace. As they knelt before him, he commanded that they settle their differences peacefully. This is the king that many people in Thailand will want to remember: powerful, wise and rescuing the nation in a moment of crisis.
This image served the king well in the years that followed. In an emerging but still fractious democracy, Bhumibol was seen as the ideal national arbiter if things got out of control. His homespun ‘sufficiency economy’ philosophy provided Thais with moral reassurance during the Asian economic crisis of 1997. The king was capitalising on the charisma that he had accumulated during the earlier decades of his reign.
But Bhumibol’s health began to falter and fade at the same time as new political challenges were emerging in his kingdom. Modernisation, consumerism, mass education and the internet were starting to unravel the established political order. In these turbulent times, Bhumibol was very poorly served by his energetic backers.
In September 2006 the Thai military overthrew the elected government of billionaire businessman Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin was an immensely popular political leader and his populist economic policies dwarfed the benevolence of the king. Thaksin had cashed in on Thailand’s lust for modernity and many felt that his unprecedented electoral power was a threat to Bhumibol’s traditional royal authority.
The king’s closest supporters were instrumental in engineering the move against Thaksin. The coup-makers were obliged to infuse their actions with royal mystique. When the tanks took to the streets of Bangkok, yellow ribbons were tied around their gun barrels. Yellow is King Bhumibol’s colour. After the putsch, one of the king’s privy councillors, and a military veteran of the fight against communism, was appointed as Prime Minister. The unelected government actively promoted Bhumibol’s ‘sufficiency economy’ philosophy as an antidote to the brash commercialism of Thaksin.
What Bhumibol thought about the enthusiastic use of his royal brand by a military government that had destroyed Thailand’s constitution is not known. What is known is that he made no attempt to distance himself from it. For the first time, the Thai public had a clear view that the palace was a player in partisan politics and, what’s more, had contributed to the overthrow of a government that had been elected three times.
There was worse to come for Thailand’s monarchy. In the post-coup election of December 2007, a new Thaksin-aligned government was elected, effectively undoing the work of the coup-makers. Powerful sections of the Bangkok elite could not accept this result. They mounted a series of increasingly belligerent street protests, swathed in royal yellow, to bring down another elected government.
Carrying portraits of the royal family everywhere they went, the ‘yellow-shirt’ protestors occupied government house, blockaded the parliament and, in their ultimate act of national vandalism, closed down Bangkok’s international airport. Despite the damage to Thailand’s economy and international reputation the security forces refused to move against them. There was speculation that the protesters had friends in very high places.
Eventually the pro-Thaksin government fell, and a much more royal-friendly administration lead by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva took its place. Throughout the months of yellow-shirt chaos, neither the king nor his advisors did anything to call off those who were campaigning under the royal banner for the forcible overthrow of his majesty’s elected government.
That government eventually fell at an election, replaced by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawtra. Her opponents in royalist and militarist circles insisted on undermining her grasp on a democratic mandate. It was no great surprise when her prime ministership ended in May 2014 with yet another army coup.
The current government in Bangkok, headed by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, took charge specifically so that top military and palace figures could control the kingdom in the sensitive hours, days, weeks and months after Bhumibol’s passing. Under these conditions it is clear to analysts, both within Thailand and internationally, just how little Bhumibol’s reign contributed to democratic consolidation.
The reverence for the late king is very real. But the active repression of free speech means that there is no room in Thai public life for any other sentiment
Despite these troubled times, King Bhumibol’s record of virtuous good works, combined with the formidable royal publicity machine, means that he is still held in great regard by a large proportion of the Thai population. His image hangs in houses throughout the kingdom – from elaborate mansions in Bangkok to bamboo huts in the far-flung hills of Thailand’s north. His death will generate deep sadness and a long period of mourning.
Those who publically depart from the acceptable script of royal virtue risk being charged under Thailand’s punitive criminal code. There is a real fear in Thailand about discussing royal matters. In his later years, Bhumibol expressed discomfort about the abuse of laws that protected him, but he never openly called for their reform or repeal.
The reverence for the late king is very real. But the active repression of free speech means that there is no room in Thai public life for any other sentiment.
Perhaps there may be stirrings of new sentiments when the new king takes the throne. Bhumibol’s son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, is expected to be the new king, although his elevation is a delicate and contentious matter. Vajiralongkorn has a chequered private life and a reputation for hot headedness. He is a magnet for salacious rumour and colourful internet imagery. He is much less popular than his younger sister, the unmarried Princess Sirindhorn, who is popularly referred to as Princess Angel.
Much planning has gone into what happens next, but Bhumibol’s death may still loose forces that will energise a new round of political turmoil. No wonder the Thai stock market is jittery and investors are calling in their risk assessors.
King Bhumibol was the dominant political and cultural figure in Thailand for as long as most people can remember. He reigned over a newly prosperous and internationally respected kingdom, and found a place in the hearts and minds of his subjects. But in late moments of reflection he may have regretted that his country became so ill prepared for mature leadership transitions and that his own charisma had been so regularly mobilised against the political wishes of the Thai people.
This article was first published on New Mandala.