Mourning the loss of the revered king in Thailand
It sometimes seems that all the world might be dressed in black these days, whether for the battles spreading across the Middle East or over the vulgar expressions of the American political scene.
But one country, Thailand, IS dressed in black, in an expression of sadness over memories of joyful days. And as Thailand, historic Siam, mourns its beloved and much-revered King Bhumibol — the tall, slim monarch who led what is a comparatively successful country in Asia for the last 70 years — we might be wise to mourn him as well.
This king was the direct descendant of King Rama V, the famous monarch of “The King and I,” who in the 19th century had kept the sticky-fingered British and French colonialists out of his attractive land by developing so wisely that they could not claim, as they were wont to do, that they were moving in to “modernize” the poor Asian folk. King Bhumibol showed equal amounts of wisdom and cunning during his own reign.
During his seven decades, King Bhumibol Adulyadej quietly intervened at least twice in his nation’s politics to defuse dangerous conflicts; he oversaw a nation where the importance of hereditary titles was constantly lowered, while merit was rewarded; and he was devoted to lifting up the poor. (When his wife, Queen Sirikit, established a foundation to maintain gorgeous Thai artworks, she went personally to small villages and picked only the poorest children to be the nation’s artists. I visited the foundation 15 years ago, and can attest to the fact that the children had become true artists.)
Actually, the king was a man more simple than his full name. One of his quotes sounds very much like that of a Methodist minister from Hillary Clinton’s Sunday school: “A good person can make another person good. It means that goodness will elicit goodness in the society; the other person will also be good.”
But that good simplicity was paired with a deep historical understanding of his nation and its psyche. And an understanding of the 20th century’s new foreign “visitors” — the American “replacement colonialists” in Indochina after the Europeans were booted out of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
While Washington was waxing ridiculous over some supposed dominoes falling to communism across Asia (these dominoes were never found, despite more than 50,000 Americans killed fighting to locate them, plus billions of dollars wasted), Thailand rejected American intervention and went, until recently, its own largely workable way.
In Bangkok, I interviewed one of the nation’s most seasoned diplomats, Sukhumbhand Paribatra (now governor of Bangkok), and he explained the attitudes at play.
“We still have a vast disparity of wealth and income,” he told me, “but ‘evolution’ is a good word for our approach. Thai society is a very flexible and pragmatic society. It is not averse to change, but it prefers changes that come in evolutionary, not revolutionary, ways.”
As the 20th century wound its brutal way, with two horrendous world wars and too many “small wars” to count, the predominant idea among most political and strategic thinkers was that either some form of liberal democracy or communist totalitarianism would dominate the nation-states of the world — both kinds of “instant egalitarianism.”
After all, the end of the Second World War also saw the virtual end of colonialism. But how would these previously colonized peoples organize themselves? As Thailand shows, the predominantly successful winners were neither democrats nor Marxists but, unexpectedly, new countries that had a mixture of controlled democracy and wise, open-minded monarchs — the very old “enlightened monarchy” model.
With Vietnam gone, we focus obsessively on the Iraqs, the Libyas, the Afghanistans, in part of course because we have no sense and we are there, not developing but fighting again. But there ARE successful countries in the region — King Abdullah II’s Jordan, Sultan Qaboos’ Oman, King Mohammed VI’s Morocco, to name a few. They are mirrored by monarchs in small but pros- pering places like Bhutan in the Himalayas.
Thailand’s story is not, of course, one that can be easily imposed upon other areas of the world. You do not just dredge up a king or a sultan; they have to spring naturally from the spiritual loins and wombs of a nation and then earn their keep, too. And the post-Bhumibol era is unquestionably fraught with dangers. His son is an unpleasant playboy with alleged criminal tendencies who lives in Germany, and the military, which has darkened the picture by seizing power off and on for years, might easily take over permanently; while across Asia, a broader authoritarian shift ensues from the Philippines to Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia.
But at least we might pause to recognize the roles the positive leadership of these monarchs are playing and how they fulfill the inner needs of their people — and how we might base our strategies more wisely upon them. The King and I sincerely hope we will.