Mourn­ing the loss of the revered king in Thai­land

The Star Democrat - - OPINION - GE­ORGIE ANNE GEYER Ge­orgie Anne Geyer has been a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent and com­men­ta­tor on in­ter­na­tional af­fairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at

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.

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