Building on legacy of Thailand's King Bhumibol

It may defy international understanding for a modern nation of 69 million to mourn the passing of a man for over a year. But Thailand has done just that. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, their late monarch, will be cremated today after a year of mourning and funeral preparations. To understand where Thailand stands as it tries to arrive in the 21st century, it is necessary to grasp the late King's extraordinary role under exceptional circumstances over his 70-year reign.

When it comes to saying a final goodbye to King Bhumibol, the vast majority of Thais in the country and in the diaspora are overcome with emotion and longing for an epoch they grew up in. This is partly because kingship was not meant for King Bhumibol. He was thrust upon the throne in June 1946 practically without choice after his older brother, King Ananda Mahidol, died under inconclusive circumstances. So in the Thai collective imagination, this was a monarch who did not want to be king in the first place.

Yet, after ascending the throne, King Bhumibol threw himself into the job of nation building. It was during the Cold War in the 1950s to 1980s that he made his mark while Thailand had to make its way in a treacherous neighbourhood, challenged by the threat of communist expansionism and poor economic standing at home.

Understanding the Cold War context is imperative to appreciate how and why Thais have a deep affection for and bonding with their late King. At the time, the pillars of the Thai state - nation, religion and monarchy - struck a collective chord. The resulting unity and stability enabled economic development and kept communism at bay.

Initially, military rulers deployed young King Bhumibol around the country and later abroad to garner domestic legitimacy and mobilise international support as the Cold War gathered pace. The late monarch worked up and down the country tirelessly, travelling to places from rugged hills and remote rivers to malaria-infested jungles, promoting myriad public works projects, earning popularity and moral authority that surpassed the military's. He also became the patron and sponsor of numerous charities, and endorsed and handed out many state-related papers from official documents to university diplomas.

Thai people have seen in him a selfless man who made sacrifices to get Thailand through the hard and precarious years of the Cold War, a monogamist monarch who lived a monastic life of devotion and duty, devoid of private jets, yachts and other trappings.

Over his reign, the tide of economic development lifted the Thais' collective boat. True, some gained more than others but all were better off throughout his reign. Thais saw how the late King, with his various talents and accomplishments in music, engineering, sailing, the arts and development work, never travelled abroad again after a worldwide tour from the 1950s to 1967, except to commemorate the opening of the first Thai-Lao bridge in 1994.

So to the Thais, King Bhumibol was the consummate leader and anchor of their land. No matter what happened, they knew that things would have a way of working out, as he was a front for stability and final arbiter of conflict.

The late King is known to not smile a lot, and the Thais felt that he smiled less so that they could smile more. When he advanced in years, their sympathy and respect intensified because they saw how his work had taken a toll, how he suffered into old age for the country that they had. In many ways, he defined the way Thais were. Saying goodbye to who they were and the way they have been because of a king who did so much for so little has been hard to do over the past year.

There will be views and arguments in the coming months and years that Thailand's traditional political order set up around the late monarch on the back of the military-monarchy-bureaucracy axis has impeded democratic development and stunted democratic institutions, that economic development over King Bhumibol's long reign was unfairly distributed, that Thailand is left with a military dictatorship and a strong monarchy without the monarch who rebuilt it. These points are not invalid and will be the grist for historians for many years to come.

Leaving behind a country that successfully weathered the Cold War and achieved a critical mass of development will be King Bhumibol's chief legacy. But success can breed its own challenges. The Thai people today are ever so exposed to the outside world, connected to media technologies, in need of a voice and elected representation. Current dictatorships like Thailand's have a harder time without communists to fight against.

The way forward will have to be the adjustment of traditional institutions to fit with new demands and expectations that can derive from the strengthening of democratic institutions such as political parties and elected representatives.

It is a daunting tall order for Thailand to have both a traditional monarchy and a modern democracy in a new balance. Yet, there is no other way than compromise and accommodation to regain the country's footing again after so much turmoil and conflict so far in the 21st century.

•The author teaches international political economy and is director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2017, with the headline 'Building on legacy of Thailand's King Bhumibol'. Print Edition | Subscribe