What is King Bhu­mi­bol's legacy?

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - NICHOLAS FARRELLY nicholas.farrelly@anu.edu.au Nicholas Farrelly is the co-founder of New Man­dala, a spe­cial­ist web­site on South­east Asian af­fairs based in the ANU Co­ral Bell School of Asia Pa­cific af­fairs.

THE 70-year reign of Thai­land’s King Bhu­mi­bol Adulyadej started and ended in­aus­pi­ciously. It was a fam­ily tragedy that un­ex­pect­edly brought Bhu­mi­bol to the throne. He went on to be­come the world’s long­est-serv­ing monarch but, in death, his for­mi­da­ble legacy is deeply tar­nished by the am­bi­tions of those who fought hard­est to de­fend him.

In 1946, the un­timely and mys­te­ri­ous death of his older brother, King Ananda Mahi­dol, cat­a­pulted the young Prince Bhu­mi­bol into a role for which he was un­pre­pared. King Ananda died vi­o­lently in Bangkok’s Grand Palace. He was found in bed with a pis­tol shot to the head. To this day, no­body knows who pulled the trig­ger. Foren­sic re­ports sug­gest that nei­ther sui­cide nor an ac­ci­dent were likely. Whis­pered spec­u­la­tion about regi­cide has con­tin­ued ever since.

Many like to be­lieve that shad­owy fig­ures out­side the palace were re­spon­si­ble. There is also the deeply dis­turb­ing pos­si­bil­ity – un­think­able for most Thais – that Ananda’s death was an inside job. Some com­men­ta­tors have won­dered if Bhu­mi­bol, who was the last per­son to see King Ananda alive, would ever cast any light on the mys­tery. He never did, and any knowl­edge he had of the tragic event is now prob­a­bly gone for­ever.

Bhu­mi­bol was born in the United States and spent much of his early life at­tend­ing school and univer­sity in Switzer­land. Even af­ter be­com­ing king, he re­turned to Switzer­land for an­other five years of education, jazz mu­sic, fast cars and Euro­pean high so­ci­ety. He re­turned full-time to Thai­land in 1951, aged 23 and speak­ing im­per­fect Thai.

Few would have ex­pected this highly Western­ised young man to be­come Thai­land’s long­est-reign­ing king and a po­tent sym­bol of the Thai na­tion. In fact, early in his reign, there was diplo­matic chatter that Bhu­mi­bol was eas­ily con­trolled by schem­ing politi­cians within the govern­ment. In 1932 a rev­o­lu­tion had bought about an end to the ab­so­lute monar­chy and by the time Bhu­mi­bol be­came king Thai roy­alty had lost much of its former pres­tige and power. Some of the old palace hard­lin­ers would have pre­ferred a more for­mi­da­ble fig­ure on the throne.

It was an un­re­mark­able be­gin­ning, but King Bhu­mi­bol grad­u­ally grew in stature as a role in mod­ern Thai politics was con­structed for him. The palace be­came a use­ful sym­bol around which Thai­land’s rul­ing mil­i­tary strong­men could build the ide­o­log­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture of na­tional unity. In those years, royal en­dorse­ment and con­ser­va­tive cre­den­tials were far more im­por­tant for Thai gov­ern­ments than elec­toral le­git­i­macy.

Sur­rounded by loyal es­tab­lish­ment fig­ures, Bhu­mi­bol was ma­noeu­vred into the pub­lic con­scious­ness as a dili­gent and com­pas­sion­ate king and as the em­bod­i­ment of Thai val­ues. In those cru­cial years, the monar­chy grew to be­come Thai­land’s premier in­sti­tu­tion. It was not long be­fore Thai­land’s once-ten­ta­tive king was mak­ing glo­be­trot­ting trips, meet­ing with in­ter­na­tional lead­ers and show­ing off his glam­orous queen.

At home, na­tional unity was a press­ing con­cern. In the 1960s and 1970s, Thai­land was be­sieged by the com­mu­nist ad­vances in In­dochina. Within Thai­land’s borders, com­mu­nist in­sur­gents mounted a per­sis­tent cam­paign against the govern­ment. Nul­li­fy­ing these op­po­nents, and win­ning over the hearts and minds of the Thai peo­ple, be­came a top pri­or­ity for both the govern­ment and the palace.

As Cold War anx­i­eties cli­maxed, Bhu­mi­bol sup­ported a strong Amer­i­can pres­ence in Thai­land. From its bases in the king­dom, US forces bombed Laos, Cam­bo­dia and Viet­nam. In Thai­land, Bhu­mi­bol spon­sored the es­tab­lish­ment of para­mil­i­tary or­gan­i­sa­tions, and be­came the pa­tron of the Bor­der Patrol Po­lice and other guardians of the realm. He also set up a series of ru­ral de­vel­op­ment cen­tres in the poor­est and most re­mote ar­eas of the coun­try.

He ar­gued, quite rightly, that so­cial and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment would make Thai­land’s ru­ral poor less vul­ner­a­ble to left­ist in­doc­tri­na­tion. Some of the most iconic im­ages of Bhu­mi­bol’s reign come from his vis­its to ru­ral vil­lages, where he dis­pensed de­vel­op­ment re­sources and agro­nomic wisdom to his grate­ful peas­ant sub­jects.

Thai­land’s sta­tus as a linch­pin in the anti-com­mu­nist fight paved the way for an eco­nomic boom and the en­mesh­ment of Bhu­mi­bol in global power politics. The de­feat of lo­cal com­mu­nist forces in the early 1980s was di­rectly linked, in many Thai minds, with the king’s de­vo­tion to his king­dom. Fol­low­ing the spec­tac­u­lar eco­nomic growth and semi-democ­racy of the 1980s, the last three decades of Bhu­mi­bol’s life were ac­com­pa­nied by con­stant ref­er­ence to his newly demo­cratic pub­lic per­sona.

His ado­ra­tion by the Thai pub­lic was stoked by a con­stant diet of pos­i­tive press cover­age about him and his fam­ily. Bhu­mi­bol’s sta­tus grew as in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions flocked to honour Asia’s mod­ern monarch with a wel­ter of awards and hon­orary de­grees.

His great­est pub­lic re­la­tions tri­umph came in 1992, fol­low­ing a mas­sacre of unarmed pro­test­ers by army units on the streets of Bangkok. In a na­tion­ally tele­vised dis­play of royal author­ity, Bhu­mi­bol called the protest leader and the prime min­is­ter to his palace. As they knelt be­fore him, he com­manded that they set­tle their dif­fer­ences peace­fully. This is the king that many peo­ple in Thai­land will want to re­mem­ber: pow­er­ful, wise and res­cu­ing the na­tion in a mo­ment of cri­sis.

This im­age served the king well in the years that fol­lowed. In an emerg­ing but still frac­tious democ­racy, Bhu­mi­bol was seen as the ideal na­tional ar­biter if things got out of con­trol. His home­spun “suf­fi­ciency econ­omy” phi­los­o­phy pro­vided Thais with moral reassurance dur­ing the Asian eco­nomic cri­sis of 1997. The king was cap­i­tal­is­ing on the charisma that he had ac­cu­mu­lated dur­ing the ear­lier decades of his reign.

But Bhu­mi­bol’s health be­gan to fal­ter and fade at the same time as new po­lit­i­cal chal­lenges were emerg­ing in his king­dom. Moderni­sa­tion, con­sumerism, mass education and the in­ter­net were start­ing to un­ravel the es­tab­lished po­lit­i­cal or­der. In these turbulent times, Bhu­mi­bol was very poorly served by his en­er­getic back­ers.

In Septem­ber 2006 the Thai mil­i­tary over­threw the elected govern­ment of bil­lion­aire busi­ness­man Thaksin Shi­nawa­tra. Thaksin was an im­mensely pop­u­lar po­lit­i­cal leader and his pop­ulist eco­nomic poli­cies dwarfed the benev­o­lence of the king. Thaksin had cashed in on Thai­land’s lust for moder­nity and many felt that his un­prece­dented elec­toral power was a threat to Bhu­mi­bol’s tra­di­tional royal author­ity.

The king’s clos­est sup­port­ers were in­stru­men­tal in engineering the move against Thaksin. The coup-mak­ers were obliged to in­fuse their ac­tions with royal mys­tique. When the tanks took to the streets of Bangkok, yel­low rib­bons were tied around their gun bar­rels. Yel­low is King Bhu­mi­bol’s colour. Af­ter the putsch, one of the king’s Privy Councillors, and a mil­i­tary veteran of the fight against com­mu­nism, was ap­pointed as prime min­is­ter. The un­elected govern­ment ac­tively pro­moted Bhu­mi­bol’s “suf­fi­ciency econ­omy” phi­los­o­phy as an an­ti­dote to the brash com­mer­cial­ism of Thaksin.

What Bhu­mi­bol thought about the en­thu­si­as­tic use of his royal brand by a mil­i­tary govern­ment that had de­stroyed Thai­land’s con­sti­tu­tion is not known. What is known is that he made no at­tempt to dis­tance him­self from it. For the first time, the Thai pub­lic had a clear view that the palace was a player in par­ti­san politics and, what’s more, had con­trib­uted to the over­throw of a govern­ment that had been elected three times.

There was worse to come for Thai­land’s monar­chy. In the post­coup elec­tion of De­cem­ber 2007, a new Thaksin-aligned govern­ment was elected, ef­fec­tively un­do­ing the work of the coup-mak­ers. Pow­er­ful sec­tions of the Bangkok elite could not ac­cept this re­sult. They mounted a series of in­creas­ingly bel­liger­ent street protests, swathed in royal yel­low, to bring down an­other elected govern­ment.

Car­ry­ing por­traits of the royal fam­ily ev­ery­where they went, the “yel­low-shirt” pro­test­ers oc­cu­pied govern­ment house, block­aded the par­lia­ment and, in their ul­ti­mate act of na­tional van­dal­ism, closed down Bangkok’s in­ter­na­tional air­port. De­spite the dam­age to Thai­land’s econ­omy and in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion the se­cu­rity forces re­fused to move against them. There was spec­u­la­tion that the pro­test­ers had friends in very high places.

Even­tu­ally the pro-Thaksin govern­ment fell, and a much more royal-friendly ad­min­is­tra­tion lead by Prime Min­is­ter Ab­hisit Ve­j­ja­jiva took its place. Through­out the months of yel­low-shirt chaos, nei­ther the king nor his ad­vi­sors did any­thing to call off those who were cam­paign­ing un­der the royal ban­ner for the forcible over­throw of his majesty’s elected govern­ment.

That govern­ment even­tu­ally fell at an elec­tion, re­placed by Thaksin’s sis­ter Yingluck Shi­naw­tra. Her op­po­nents in roy­al­ist and mil­i­tarist cir­cles in­sisted on un­der­min­ing her grasp on a demo­cratic man­date. It was no great sur­prise when her prime min­is­ter­ship ended in May 2014 with yet an­other army coup.

The current govern­ment in Bangkok, headed by Gen­eral Prayut Chan-o-cha, took charge specif­i­cally so that top mil­i­tary and palace fig­ures could con­trol the king­dom in the sen­si­tive hours, days, weeks and months af­ter Bhu­mi­bol’s pass­ing. Un­der these con­di­tions it is clear to an­a­lysts, both within Thai­land and in­ter­na­tion­ally, just how lit­tle Bhu­mi­bol’s reign con­trib­uted to demo­cratic con­sol­i­da­tion.

De­spite these trou­bled times, King Bhu­mi­bol’s record of vir­tu­ous good works, com­bined with the for­mi­da­ble royal pub­lic­ity ma­chine, means that he is still held in great re­gard by a large pro­por­tion of the Thai pop­u­la­tion. His im­age hangs in houses through­out the king­dom – from elab­o­rate man­sions in Bangkok to bam­boo huts in the far-flung hills of Thai­land’s north. His death will gen­er­ate deep sad­ness and a long pe­riod of mourn­ing.

Those who pub­li­cally de­part from the ac­cept­able script of royal virtue risk be­ing charged un­der Thai­land’s puni­tive criminal code. There is a real fear in Thai­land about dis­cussing royal mat­ters. In his later years, Bhu­mi­bol ex­pressed dis­com­fort about the abuse of laws that pro­tected him, but he never openly called for their re­form or re­peal.

The rev­er­ence for the late king is very real. But the ac­tive re­pres­sion of free speech means that there is no room in Thai pub­lic life for any other sen­ti­ment.

Per­haps there may be stir­rings of new sen­ti­ments when the new king takes the throne. Bhu­mi­bol’s son, Crown Prince Va­ji­ra­longkorn, is ex­pected to be the new king, al­though his el­e­va­tion is a del­i­cate and con­tentious matter. Va­ji­ra­longkorn has a che­quered pri­vate life and a rep­u­ta­tion for hot-head­ed­ness. He is a mag­net for sala­cious ru­mour and colour­ful in­ter­net im­agery. He is much less pop­u­lar than his younger sis­ter, the un­mar­ried Princess Sirind­horn, who is pop­u­larly re­ferred to as Princess An­gel.

Much plan­ning has gone into what hap­pens next, but Bhu­mi­bol’s death may still loose forces that will en­er­gise a new round of po­lit­i­cal turmoil. No won­der the Thai stock mar­ket is jit­tery and in­vestors are call­ing in their risk asses­sors.

King Bhu­mi­bol was the dom­i­nant po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural fig­ure in Thai­land for as long as most peo­ple can re­mem­ber. He reigned over a newly pros­per­ous and in­ter­na­tion­ally re­spected king­dom, and found a place in the hearts and minds of his sub­jects. But in late mo­ments of re­flec­tion he may have regretted that his coun­try be­came so ill pre­pared for ma­ture lead­er­ship tran­si­tions and that his own charisma had been so reg­u­larly mo­bilised against the po­lit­i­cal wishes of the Thai peo­ple.

Photo: EPA

Thai Arts stu­dents paint a por­trait of late Thai King Bhu­mi­bol Adulyadej as part of the coun­try’s mourn­ing. King Bhu­mi­bol died at age 88 on Oc­to­ber 13.

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