King who won a place in his nation's heart

The Thai monarchy is unlikely ever again to enjoy the centrality and prestige that King Bhumibol restored to it for a time.
The Thai monarchy is unlikely ever again to enjoy the centrality and prestige that King Bhumibol restored to it for a time. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The death yesterday of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, after a 70-year reign, brings to a close one of the most unlikely chapters in the history of modern South-east Asia.

At the time of King Bhumibol's birth in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1927, the kingdom of Siam was an absolute monarchy and an agrarian society. King Bhumibol was born the second son of the highest-ranking half-brother of the reigning Rama VII. This was hardly an auspicious position. And within five years, an uprising among soldiers and civil servants would replace the absolute monarchy with a constitutional regime. This event forced the Thai monarchy into a quarter-century of eclipse when it played only a marginal role in national affairs.

In 1935, the abdication of Rama VII brought King Bhumibol's brother, then still a minor, to the throne as Rama VIII. The boys continued their education in Switzerland, and King Bhumibol seemed destined for the life of the brother of a king, devoted to his great hobbies of jazz and photography.

The tragic gunshot death of Rama VIII in June 1946, when the boys were back in Thailand with their widowed mother for a brief visit, changed matters considerably.

While the distinguished Thai historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul has written a pair of well-researched articles on that death, which made Bhumibol king, its details remain poorly understood in Thailand.

The young new King and his bride would return to the country from Europe for good in late 1951, but during most of that decade, military dictatorship in Bangkok consigned the monarchy to a position of little relevance.

The Thai monarchy is unlikely ever again to enjoy the centrality and prestige that King Bhumibol restored to it for a time. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

It was only with Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat's seizure of power in 1957 that the fortunes of the monarchy began to improve. Serving as an appreciated mentor to the young King Bhumibol, Field Marshal Sarit restored much of the prestige and ceremony that the royal institution had lost after 1932.

The travels of the King and Queen, both to remote parts of Thailand and overseas, played a crucial role in building national unity and raising the country's profile as the challenges of the Cold War loomed.

Further, the King identified himself with Field Marshal Sarit's campaign for national development. He would over the years come to take a particular interest in water resources, peering at maps of local irrigation systems during visits to the countryside, championing without hesitation dam construction and offering ideas about flood prevention in Bangkok.

Mass demonstrations in October 1973 against the generals who had succeeded Field Marshal Sarit led to King Bhumibol's first decisive intervention into Thai politics.

Helping to force those generals to leave the country, he changed the balance of the partnership between the army and the monarchy and seemed to identify the latter with the cause of democracy.

Three years later, however, and in the nervous aftermath of the fall of neighbouring Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam to communism, King Bhumibol sided with the military when it moved to topple an elected government. This came after the beating and murder of students gathered at Bangkok's Thammasat University by members of the security forces and royalist mass organisations.

The 1980s saw Thai politics gradually open up, in a form of managed democracy overseen by the King's close associate, Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda, and a network of others linked to the palace. As economic growth accelerated and Thailand grew wealthier and more industrialised, this period represented the pinnacle of the King's reign. The authority that he exerted in resolving the violent political crisis of 1992 reflected his immense stature.

On the night of May 20 of that year, King Bhumibol summoned would-be strongman General Suchinda Kraprayun and Major-General Chamlong Simueang - leader of the massive anti-Suchinda street protests that had paralysed Bangkok - to an audience. With the two officers on the floor in front of him, he instructed them to end their confrontation. Broadcast on television, images of this audience electrified the country.

A prominent member of the royalist network next resumed the Thai premiership, unelected, pending elections the following September. The outcome looked like a triumph for the King.

At the same time, Thailand had changed. The monarchy never really found a new role to replace its earlier one of promoting rural development and counter-insurgency. National unity was more elusive in a more prosperous, more urbanised, better-informed society. Efforts to associate the monarchy with clean government and the fight against corruption did not go smoothly, above all with the political ascendance of Thaksin Shinawatra after 2001.

Clean government began to be seen as a pretext to oust Thaksin, who tapped shrewdly into the immense rural and urban lower- middle classes that Thailand's economic success had created.

The emergence of these classes was in part the result of the development work that the King had championed in earlier decades of his reign, but their rising political awareness posed a challenge to groups favouring managed democracy under implicit royal sponsorship. These groups backed the coup that ousted Thaksin in September 2006. Even by that time, King Bhumibol's health was failing.

During the past decade, he had been much less visible to his subjects. Younger members of the royal family proved unable in their public roles to fill his shoes. This is not surprising, as Thailand is far more complex and affluent than during the Cold War decades in which, through hard work and the astonishing revival of Thai royalism, King Bhumibol won a place in the hearts of many of his subjects.

By the middle decades of his reign, the monarchy played a role in Thai life that would have been unimaginable just a few decades earlier. Thais firmly associated it with their self-image as citizens of a successful country.

One of the by-products of the monarchy's pre-eminent role in Thai life was the relative underdevelopment of other Thai institutions. The political tensions of recent years have reflected that underdevelopment, along with the inability of the Thai political order to accommodate new social forces. These tensions have brought increasing prosecutions for lese majeste, which often appear to have more to do with suppressing alternative voices than defending the monarchy.

These prosecutions will be an unfortunate legacy of the last years of King Bhumibol's reign. They have, along with other developments, attracted criticism from home and abroad and given Thai royalism an increasingly defensive appearance.

Since the coup of May 2014, the balance in the long-term partnership between army and monarchy seems to have changed again, this time in the army's favour. The ruling junta appears determined to manage a smooth transition to the reign of King Bhumibol's son and heir.

The implications of this determination for a return to elected government in Thailand are unclear. Whether the junta succeeds in managing the transition smoothly, and what the role and status of bodies like the Privy Council and the Crown Property Bureau will be in the new reign, remains to be seen.

The renewed role of regionalism in Thai politics and society may also present a challenge to the national unity that King Bhumibol sought to promote. Whatever the case, the Thai monarchy is unlikely ever again to enjoy the centrality and prestige that King Bhumibol restored to it for a time.

The months ahead will be a time of grief and uncertainty in Thailand. They will be a difficult period in which we ought to extend to Thais our understanding and support.

  • The authors are co-coordinators of the Thailand Studies Programme at the Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2016, with the headline 'King who won a place in his nation's heart'. Print Edition | Subscribe