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.