For 70 years, the beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) ruled Thailand, and to date he has represented the country’s only stable political reference point.
Since the introduction of the constitutional kingdom in 1932, the country has been through 19 different constitutions and 12 military coups – the latest just two years ago. The King’s demise has long stood as a national trauma. Now the divided country is at a crossroads.
The improbable monarch
There was little indication that Bhumibol would become king. Bhumibol was born in the United States, in Massachusetts, in 1927. His father, Prince Mahidol, the 69th of King Chulalongkorn’s (Rama V) 77 children, was sixth in line to the throne and married a woman without a hint of blue blood. His wife, Sangwal, came from a poor family of Chinese ancestry and, since she was seven years old, worked as a maid for Mahidol’s mother, Quween Sawang. Mahidol died early and Sangwal and their three children settled in Switzerland. The small family had little to do with their home country.
When the 1932 revolution replaced the absolute kingdom of Thailand with a constitutional monarchy, the Chakri dynasty stood weak. King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) withdrew from public life and on 2 March 1935 abdicated and left the throne to Bhumibol’s brother, Ananda.
Ananda was only 9 years old when he took over as king (Rama VIII), and spent much of his time in Switzerland where he studied. His reign was also short-lived. On 9 June 1946, he was found dead in his bedroom, killed with what in all likelihood was an accidental shot by his own Colt 45 pistol. The circumstances of his death were never solved. A traumatized Bhumibol suddenly became king. His brother’s agonizing death affected him throughout his life.
After completing his studies in Switzerland, King Bhumibol returned to Thailand for his coronation in 1950. By his side stood Queen Sirikit, whom he had married just a week earlier. The couple had four children and the new king and his family were to have enormous significance for Thailand. The end of the 1950s was the beginning of the lifelong Bhumibol heyday.
Ancient royal rituals were revived under dictator Sarit Thanarat’s rule, and the royal couple traveled around the country to meet locals engaging in development projects. The King quickly received almost divine status and was highly revered.
At this time, Asia was marked by major political conflicts. Thailand’s geopolitical significance became invaluable to the United States who wanted to strengthen the country as a buffer against communism. Thailand was thus one of America’s most important allies. With Bhumibol as figurehead, both the United States and Sarit (and several state leaders after him) received the moral legitimacy they needed and a political system that limited intervention from democratic forces.
Bhumibol performed ceremonial duties, but was less interested in pageantry. He showed great interest in infrastructure and development projects. He was a diligent hobby photographer, always with his camera around his neck while traveling. He also had a great passion for jazz and held regular intimate concerts in the royal palace, where the king himself preferred to play saxophone. The concerts were broadcast on the king’s own radio station, Radio Aw Saw.
Bhumibol was also inspired by his colleague in Norway, King Olav V. He admired Olav’s sporty style and even took up sailing with his daughter Princess Siridhorn. Perhaps it is the combination of grounded diligence and divine aura that is part of the key to Bhumibol’s popularity and success.
The nation’s glue
Elected politicians and military leaders have come and gone in Thailand. Bhumibol has “always” been there. A large majority of Thais have never experienced a world without Bhumibol – until now. And still, his presence will continue. His portrait hangs in every home, along parade streets, in front of public buildings, in restaurants, shops, and offices around the country. The King has been a pillar of Thailand. He has been the one that has held everything together – the nation’s glue.
Despite the fact that the King should be above politics, Bhumibol has intervened in the political sphere on several occasions. He is particularly remembered for his role during the national crises in 1973 and 1992, when the King intervened and stopped the violent clashes between students and the military. On other occasions, including the student massacre in 1976, he took a backseat role and he has not seen it as his duty to intervene. During the last ten-year political crisis, Bhumibol has resolutely countered any pleas for royal intervention to resolve the crisis.
A divided country
Siriraj Hospital has been the King’s primary habitat for almost a decade and the political crisis in Thailand has increased proportionally with the now 88-year-old monarch’s declining health. The wealthy telecom tycoon and former policeman Thaksin Shinawtra and his circle have challenged the power of the established elite of families linked to the military and bureaucracy.
This elite has invested heavily in the monarchy, both financially and socially. A shift in the throne threatens the traditional power structures, and many fear that their privileges are at stake. The political conflicts that have marked Thailand in recent years have largely been the prelude for the fray that has now opened with Bhumibol’s departure. The aftermath will most likely be equally dramatic.
Towards a new era
An ancient prophecy has predicted the demise of the Chakri Dynasty after the ninth Rama. Some hope, and others fear, that the prophecy will come to pass. The succession has long been linked to considerable uncertainty, but any public discussion of the topic is effectively prevented by the country’s strict lèse majesté laws that provide up to 18 years imprisonment for whoever expresses opinions deemed as critical to the royal house.
Without Bhumibol, the monarchy in Thailand will not be the same. No one is able to fill his shoes, and Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn stands as successor facing an impossible task.
The future of Thailand will be characterized by two different processes. On the one hand, there will be a long mourning period and a passionate cult around Bhumibol and his personality. On the other hand, there will be a raw power struggle behind closed doors about Thailand’s political future.
The royal family controls the Crown Property Bureau, a business conglomerate worth over 40 billion dollars, and the political elite want full control over the succession and the political developments that will follow before the reopening of democratic elections. This was the backdrop for the military coup in May 2014, and Thailand’s political future has been on hold ever since.
- This text was first published as an op ed in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten 13 October 2016: ‘Ingen er i stand til å fylle kong Bhumibols sko‘
- Translation from Norwegian: Amanda Cellini