Former Far Eastern Economic Review Correspondent Paul Handley, the author of "The King Never Smiles," by far the most authoritative book ever written on the Thai monarch, wrote this assessment of his reign exclusively for Asia Sentinel
Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died on Oct. 13 at 88, was Asia's most venerable head of state and the world's longest-serving monarch, whose reign survived and then thrived through seven decades of post-war turmoil, the Cold War, and the Asian economic boom.
The US-born, Swiss-raised boy restored a nearly moribund monarchy after World War II to become the heart and soul of his country, and made the constitutionally-restricted throne a key player in Thailand's turbulent politics.
The only king most Thais have ever known, his reputation as a hard-working sovereign dedicated to his people survived a final decade of political violence focused on the crown, and much of the nation – even many of those deeply critical of the institution of the monarchy -- plunged into mourning.
Despite a reign book-ended by two different tragedies -- the "mysterious" shooting death of his brother King Ananda in 1946 that made him king, and, in his final years, two military coups and frequent bloody clashes that gave lie to the story that his rule had achieved lasting unity among the Thai people – he will be remembered as one of the country's greatest kings. Indeed, many will see in his selfless commitment the signs that he was, as often presented, a Buddha-like figure worthy of worship.
His death came after years spent mostly in a Bangkok hospital or at his Hua Hin beachside palace Klai Kangwon – Sans Souci, or Far From Worry – under constant care for a range of ailments. While political battles raged over how the country will be run in his absence, including the very future of the monarchy, and with the junta using defense of the throne as an excuse to jail political opposition, Bhumibol had long lost the ability to communicate his own views on it.
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Bhumibol's restoration of the Thai monarchy and long reign is an unlikely tale of chance and perseverance. He was born in the United States on December 5, 1927 to a prince far down the ranks of succession, just one of the many “celestial” sons of the great King Chulalongkorn, the Chakri Dynasty's Rama V. His father Prince Mahidol further removed himself from the line by marrying a commoner, Sangwal. Nor was his older brother Ananda, born in Germany in 1925, any better-positioned to succeed, in theory.
But as chance and a royal bloodline emaciated by excessive inbreeding would have it, many of Mahidol's brothers, including Rama VI, died young and without heirs. Mahidol himself died at 37 in 1929. So by the time Bhumibol was 4, he and Ananda were the senior princes. Finally their uncle, the childless King Prachadhipok (Rama VII) sealed their fate. In the wake of the 1932 revolution against the absolute monarchy, he moved into exile in England and abdicated. Ananda, 9, was king and Bhumibol his second.
The monarchy's survival was guaranteed in the new constitution, but its assets were stripped away and, with widowed Sangwal and her children parked for safety in Lausanne, Switzerland, the new leaders were content to let the institution shrivel on the vine.
When the family was brought back to Thailand at the end of World War II to help foster unity, the princes of the ancient regime began plotting to restore at least some of the throne's prestige and power.
It was during that visit that, on the morning of June 9, 1946, Ananda was found dead in his bed in the Bangkok palace, a bullet hole in his forehead. The first official story was that the young king, suffering stomach problems, accidentally shot himself. Some whispered suicide and others assassination. Though nine years later three palace staff were executed over the death, the hushed theory that has had the most sway was that Bhumibol shot his brother, in play. Both kept multiple loaded guns in their bedrooms.
At his own death, Bhumibol was the last person in Thailand with firsthand knowledge of what happened, and so the verifiable truth may go with him to his pyre.
The consequence of Ananda's death, though, was that the bright, lighthearted Bhumibol, more interested in European cars and American jazz than Thai culture, was named king of a land in which he had spent fewer than 5 of his 18 years. Ever after, the tragedy would underpin Bhumibol's unbending dedication to the country and the monarchy. Official portraiture would never show him smiling. Decades later, he told an interviewer that, at Ananda's funeral, the elder brother came to him and said: “From now on, I walk behind you.”
The other outcome of Ananda's death was that the case was used by a new alliance of the old princes and the military to oust from power the liberal democrats who had risen to power after the war led by statesman Pridi Bhanomyong.
That initial alliance did not last long. On the eve of Bhumibol's permanent return from Switzerland in December 1951 with his young bride and first daughter in tow, the wartime leader Field Marshal Phibun Phibunsongkram, seeking unchallenged power for himself, overthrew the government and rewrote the constitution, stripping all but symbolic power from the throne.
With another king, Phibun might have succeeded. But Bhumibol proved to be remarkable material for recasting and restoring the monarchy. With few official duties, the determined old princes cast him to a hungry public and eager media as a youthful, European-style monarch who nonetheless lived faithfully up to his duties as a traditional Thai Buddhist king, the dhammaraja, the king who embodies the Buddhist law. He could at one moment be playing jazz on television with his family, all in fashionable Western garb, and the next in the ancient kings' robes offering alms on the foremost monks. Slowly, the Thai people came to adore the young monarch and his family.
As the princes remade him they remade Siam, or Thailand, into his mold as well: Bhumibol became the essence of Thai culture, the "Soul of the Nation" as a 1980 BBC documentary called him.
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The Cold War marked much of Rama IX's reign. The young king became a symbol of the fight against the communist movements that surrounded his kingdom. Money from the United States flowed into the country and particularly to the Thai military, empowering and also helping to thoroughly corrupt them.
Five years after Phibun's coup, in 1957 the young king and his wizened advisors joined hands with a more royal-friendly general, Sarit Thanarat, to eject him. That set a pattern that Bhumibol's palace seemed never able to break away from: whenever politics became too unruly, and whenever an elected politician sought to steal the limelight from the king and the generals, he was overthrown in a coup, with the palace blessing.
Remarkably, Bhumibol's reputation survived this picture. When Sarit died in 1963 and was given a top-flight royal funeral, the king was untarred by the revelations that the general he had been closest to had amassed hundreds of millions of dollars from through graft.
From early on Bhumibol threw himself into development and anti-poverty work, personally backing everything from rice research and fish farms to cloud-seeding, dam-building and irrigation, to fighting epidemics and disaster relief.
The most iconic pictures show him tramping through rice paddies and hill forests to isolated peasant villages, his boots and trouser legs muddied while Queen Sirikit more daintily trudges behind.
He shirked the excessive luxuries of fellow monarchs for a relatively simple life and hobbies: his saxophone, a three-meter sailing dinghy he built by hand, painting and photography. Queen Sirikit, who gave him one son and three daughters, brought the glamo to the Thai throne, dubbed in the US press “Asia's Jackie Kennedy” during a 1960 world tour that saw the couple on the covers of the leading US and European newspapers and magazines.
At the height of the Cold War in the 1960s he plunged headlong into the anti-communist fight. Bhumibol monitored global broadcasts, studied intelligence reports, built his own ground-level source network from the peasants whose villages he visited. He appeared more often in military uniform, test-firing the latest weaponry.
He also grew confident that he, through his study, hard work, and now decade-plus on the job, had greater insight into what the country needed. With the ready support of the military governments in power, he pushed policy ideas, scientific inventions, capital investments, and development programs aimed at strengthening national unity.
His principle, he would tell the BBC years later, was to simply “do good,” guided by the tenets of the Buddha.
‘‘I do things which I think are useful, and that’s all. I do not know what can be defined as king. . . . I am called a king, but my duties . . . are not the duties of a king. It is something that is quite different, difficult to define. I have no plan. ...Today, we are going [to do] something. . . . We don’t know what the something is, but we are going to do something that is good.’’
Increasingly though his support for military governments blemished his achievements. By the late 1960s domestic and international pressure mounted for greater democracy. It finally boiled over with an uprising in 1973 that challenged the king's support for the army with his commitment to his people. This time he chose the people, helping push out the generals after pro-democracy protestors were gunned down in the streets by soldiers, and then presiding over a remake of a more democratic constitution.
He readily accepted the mantle of a king of the people, but it took just three years to lose that. In fact, he was becoming more reactionary amid the gains of the communists in Indochina and the growth of the small, jungle-bound Communist Party of Thailand.
In 1976 the palace succumbed to existential panic. In a burst of brutality that filled international headlines, that October the military seized power again and slaughtered students in Thammasat University, all in the name of protecting the monarchy. Turning his back on democratic forces, Bhumibol chose ultra-right royalist Tanin Kraivixien as the new prime minister over a military-controlled regime.
Doing so deeply divided the country, and for the first time the public began to openly question Bhumibol's commitment to his people. Tens of thousands swelled the ranks of the Communist Party of Thailand, threatening to become a potent insurgency. Tanin turned out to be too extreme even for some in the military. A year after he took power he was overthrown in a military coup that proved the only one Bhumibol ever clearly opposed.
The coup leader, General Kriengsak Chomanan, began doing what Bhumibol should have done: reining in the soldiers and reaching out to estranged neighbors and to the CPT to restore national unity. But Bhumibol never embraced Kriengsak, and instead looked to another general who became his idea of a perfect leader, and would be his closest ally for the rest of his life: General Prem Tinsulanonda.
The palace and Prem managed to oust Kriengsak in 1980 in a parliamentary coup, and Prem would serve eight years as an unelected prime minister who kept the unruly army in line while promoting Bhumibol to new heights.
Prem was Bhumibol's ideal. The king regularly berated elected politicians as venal and shortsighted; he saw businessmen as a selfish force to be tolerated. The military and bureaucracy under Prem were the force that would build his modern Buddhist kingdom.
Yet that view, of peaceable sarong-garbed peasants raising rice and water buffaloes, paying obeisance to generals, monks and the king, was already outdated. The country was latching onto the Asian Tiger wave, sucking in investment in factories that would draw the peasants into the cities and create a bustling society looked outward, to mass consumption and to greater freedom and democracy.
In fact Bhumibol had begun to be imprisoned by his own image and the way he had done the job for four decades. After a trip to the United States in 1967 to convince President Johnson to send more weapons to the Thais, he never traveled abroad again. As the old princes died, he recruited advisors from the bureaucracy. But they too were ultraconservative, equally unable to change and unable to tell the king when he was wrong.
The contradictions between the new Thailand and the massively corrupt old-line military and bourgeois elite fermented as the economy boomed for much of the 1990s, sweeping aside Prem and then another military junta.
By then Bhumibol's stature was at its highest, the country's conscience and cultural touchstone. Even the poorest peasants would seek the opportunity to donate money to him, for his charities, in the belief that, like offering alms to a monk, it was a source of great merit and karma.
But he had steadily lost relevance. Bangkok had become another seething Asian industrial capital, and the Thais who needed the most help were the urban construction and factory workers, not paddy-bound farmers. Bhumibol seemed not to know what to do to ensure they were fairly paid, had heath care and schools for their children that educated them for this new era.
When the economy crashed in 1997, though, he gained new currency by counseling the need to return to simpler times of less bustle and greed. He promoted a "Sufficiency Economy", preaching that meals of healthier brown rice and pulses would lead to a more stable and satisfying life.
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Bhumibol spent part of his last two decades writing. He translated a biography of Josip Broz Tito which focused on how one tough but visionary leader held his country together; and a book on World War II Canadian spy chief William Stephenson, who worked at great tasks behind the scenes without seeking reward.
He recast one of the Jataka Tales of the lives of the Buddha, “Mahajanka”, focusing on a wise king who perseveres for progress despite the many follies of his people. And he wrote a book about his dog, “The Story of Tongdaeng”, which showed how a measly street mutt could be clever and learn proper behavior to serve next to the king.
That each book sold hundreds of thousands, or in the case of “Tongdaeng” possibly millions, of copies demonstrated just how revered Bhumibol was in his final decades, even as a minority took offense at being schooled by the palace pooch.
Yet like Tito, Bhumibol failed at securing a stable future for his kingdom. He had made his throne dependent on its alliance with the military, an institution that remains thoroughly corrupt and convinced of its right to arbitrate power. Amid this, the other key institutions of a modern parliamentary democracy have shriveled.
The consequence was the political turmoil of the past decade that centered on succession. In a dynasty where the royal bloodline had almost expired, Bhumibol had just one son and three daughters. The son, Prince Vajiralongkorn, was known since the 1980s as a capricious brute with none of his father's qualities. None of his sisters, effectively, has offered an alternative.
Bhumibol was aware of the problem, but never found a solution and, Buddha-like, left the issue to fate. But that fate became the battle between Thaksin Shinawatra, the tycoon politician who sought to fill the leadership gap as Bhumibol faded, and the Thai elite – including the generals – for the prince's soul and the soul of the country. Still, even with Prem, as the king's chief privy councillor, tiling the palace in its traditional direction against popularly elected politicians, it took two military coups to cut Thaksin out and force the crown prince into league with the throne's now-traditional backbone, the army.
As Bhumibol died his kingdom, once a beacon of democracy and enlightened monarchy in Asia, was now the continent's only military-controlled country besides North Korea, and his people were uniformly fearful of the future under Rama X and unsure of the way forward.