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.