Bangkok — King Bhumibol Adulyadej, revered in Thailand as a demigod, a humble father figure and an anchor of stability through decades of upheaval at home and abroad, died Thursday. He was 88 and had been the world's longest reigning monarch.
The Royal Palace said Bhumibol died "in a peaceful state" at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok, where he had been treated for various health problems for most of the past decade.
During a reign that spanned 70 years, the U.S.-born Bhumibol became much more than Thailand's constitutional monarch. He was the nation's one constant as myriad governments rose and fell, a gentle leader who used the influence of the throne to unify the nation and rally troops through the Cold War as Thailand's neighbors fell under communist control. In his heyday, the frail-looking, soft-spoken man in spectacles wielded so much power and respect, he was able to squelch coups and rebellions with a gesture or a few well-chosen words.
Bhumibol was viewed by many in the majority Buddhist nation as a bodhisattva, or holy being who delays entering nirvana to aid the human race. But while junta leaders, prime ministers and courtiers approached him only on their knees, Bhumibol was remarkably down-to-earth. He rolled up his sleeves and hiked into impoverished villages and remote rice paddies to assess the state of his country and help resolve everything from water and food shortages to family squabbles. He played half a dozen musical instruments and jammed with American jazz greats including Benny Goodman.
By the twilight of his rule, Bhumibol had become the world's richest monarch and one of the planet's wealthiest people: Forbes magazine estimated his fortune at more than $30 billion in 2011. Although not known for having extravagant tastes, he nevertheless lived the elite life of a modern-day king, racing yachts and appearing at official functions clothed in ornate golden robes.
Over the last decade, the once vigorous Bhumibol had withdrawn from public life due to a series of illnesses. His wife, Queen Sirikit, has also long been ailing and has been even more rarely seen.
The king was often ensconced at a Bangkok hospital, emerging from time to time to gaze across the Chao Phraya River from a special pavilion. He had been notably silent about the political upheaval and protests that have shaken the country in recent years.
Since army-staged coups in 2006 and 2014, political rivals had increasingly invoked the need to protect the palace as a pretext to gain or hold power, and some politicians have been sidelined by opponents who accused them of disrespecting the king, a grave crime in this Southeast Asian country. Although Bhumibol once said he is not above criticism, Thailand's lese majeste law — the world's harshest — has been routinely employed in recent years, with anyone – including foreigners - charged with defaming the palace facing 15 years in jail.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn will become the new monarch after the death of his father, in accordance with the constitution. He said the government will notify the National Legislative Assembly, or parliament, of the king's successor, and it will act accordingly with the laws of succession in the constitution.
Prayuth added that the government will observe a one-year mourning period and flags will fly at half-staff for 30 days. No government events will be held for 30 days, he said.
With the king's passing, the world's longest reigning monarch is Queen Elizabeth II, who ascended to the British throne in 1952.
Bhumibol Adulyadej (poo-me-pon ah-dun-yaa-det) was born Dec. 5, 1927, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while his father, Prince Mahidol of Songkhla, was studying medicine at Harvard University.
Bhumibol ascended to the throne in 1946, when his brother, 20-year-old King Ananda Mahidol, was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head in a palace bedroom under circumstances that remain mysterious. Bhumibol, then an 18-year-old prince, was named king 12 hours later following an extraordinary legislative session.
After the shooting, Bhumibol returned to Switzerland, where he was studying law and political science. In 1948, he was seriously injured in a driving accident that deprived him of sight in his right eye; Sirikit Kitiyakara, the daughter of a Thai aristocrat and diplomat, helped nurse him back to health.
Bhumibol and Sirikit wed in 1950, a week before the king's coronation ceremony. Together they helped bridge East and West, visiting nearly 30 countries early in their reign. Bhumibol addressed the U.S. Congress when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, dined with French leader Charles de Gaulle and met Elvis Presley on a visit with his queen to a Paramount Studios movie set in 1960.
Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932, with the prime minister and Parliament holding political power, and the king serving as head of state and placed in "a position of revered worship."
Although disillusioned in recent years with mounting societal greed, environmental destruction and the sidelining of traditions, the king said he tried to move with the times.
"A constitutional monarch must change with the country but at the same time he must keep the spirit of the country," he declared. People may be different, he said, "but the common character of the people must be embodied by the king."
For much of his reign, as Thailand hurtled from a traditional agrarian society of 18 million people to a modern, industrializing nation of 70 million, Bhumibol spearheaded thousands of projects aimed at improving life for his people, traveling to the farthest reaches of his nation to join village elders on a patch of grass to discuss the recent harvest or plot an irrigation ditch.
The weight of royalty and Bhumibol's work on behalf of Thailand's have-nots won him a following backed up by nightly TV programs that tracked his every move. He remained active until his final years and dispensed funds and advice on everything from deforestation to Bangkok's traffic.
"They say that a kingdom is like a pyramid: the king on top and the people below," he once told an Associated Press reporter. "But in this country it's upside down. That's why I sometimes have a pain around here." He pointed to his neck and shoulders.
The name Bhumibol means "Strength of the Land," and the bounty of Thailand's soil and waters was the king's passion. In 1952 he set out to breed a better freshwater fish, a staple of the Thai peasantry, in the ponds of his Chitralada Palace in Bangkok. It was the first of more than 4,300 palace-sponsored development projects now blanketing the country.
He pioneered work to help eradicate the opium grown by northern hill tribes. "It has become an instrument of destruction ... The drugs subjugate the body, the money subjugates the soul," he said, dipping into his own pocket to start a project to convince the tribes to abandon opium crops for others like tea and coffee.
While normally in the background of government theater, the king stepped to the forefront at crucial moments of Thai history. During a pro-democracy uprising in 1973, he ordered the gates of the Grand Palace to be opened to students fleeing the gunfire of troops loyal to a dictatorial triumvirate. The message was clear, and the trio went into exile. In 1992, during another bloody confrontation between the military and pro-democracy protesters, the king called in the two key protagonists, who prostrated themselves before him on nationwide TV and promised peace. The crisis ended immediately.
After mass protests against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra began in 2006, Bhumibol urged the country's top courts to resolve the political crisis. A bloodless military coup followed, and part of the army rationale for intervening was Thaksin's alleged disrespect for the king.
Even with Thaksin dispatched, the crisis simmered, with his opponents — the so-called "Yellow Shirts" — claiming the mantle of defending the monarchy. With the country polarized, Queen Sirikit showed her sympathies by attending the funeral of a Yellow Shirt follower killed in protest clashes, undermining the axiom that the throne was above politics.
By 2011, the king's health had worsened and Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra had become prime minister through elections. Mass protests helped fuel an unstable climate that triggered another army coup in 2014.
Through it all, Bhumibol himself remained adored and revered. His occasional public outings drew tens of thousands of people into the streets trying to catch a glimpse, with most dressed in the royal color yellow. Many have wept at the sight of his passing motorcade.
Much of the admiration is genuine: framed posters, paintings and photographs of the king are ubiquitous in Thai homes and shops, depicting not only an exalted figure in glimmering robes, but also an ordinary-looking man with a camera strapped around his chest. Taxicab windows proclaim "Long Live the King."
But some of the adulation is obligatory. Bhumibol's birthday is a national holiday. Pedestrians must stop while the royal anthem is played at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. daily in parks and the mass transit system. In cinemas, a brief film play depicting the impact of Bhumibol's life runs before every movie, and the audience must stand as it is shown.
Vajiralongkorn, the next king, does not hold his father's place in Thai hearts. There had been speculation that the crown might go to his more popular sister, Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, but Prayuth put that to rest Thursday. Bhumibol and Sirikit also have two other daughters, Chulabhorn and Ubol Ratana.
"The next king will not be as influential as King Bhumibol, and I would bet that there will be a lot of competition to gain power over him or her by the military and political factions who want to use the king for their own ends," said Paul Handley, American author of "The King Never Smiles," a biography of the king scorned by monarchists for its frank criticism.
It's indicative of the king's untouchability that the book was banned in Thailand, and a Thai-American man was arrested for allegedly posting translations of parts of the book on the internet.
Some have speculated that it was not just poor health that led Bhumibol to increasingly retreat behind palace walls, but his own worries about the future. Some of his private conversations toward the end of his reign reflected a deep concern that Thailand had lost much of the core culture he had sought to embody all his life.
Nicholas Grossman and Dominic Faulder (eds.). 2011.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life’s Work: Thailand’s Monarchy in Perspective.
Singapore: Editions Didier Millet. 383 pages.
In 2008, when it had become impossible for any credible journalist to ignore the entanglement of the palace in Thailand’s unfolding tragedy, I wrote an analysis on Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej for Reuters. A conference call was convened with top managers plus a Thai lawyer hired to provide legal advice on what could safely be published. For almost an hour we discussed the article, with the lawyer rejecting every point as too risky. “So what can I say?” I eventually asked.
Welcome to the parallel universe of 21st century Thailand. Any rational observer can see the King is dying and the monarchy is in crisis, but saying so is illegal. Instead of acknowledging reality and accepting the need to evolve, royalists are retreating deeper into a fantasy world and demanding that everybody else believe their delusions too. A leaked U.S. cable from 2009 quotes a leading American businessman in Thailand who tried — and failed — to explain to royalist contacts that criminalizing debate would harm the monarchy. As he concluded, “These people live in an alternate reality.”
There is a desperate need for Thailand’s more reasonable royalists to step up and restore some sanity to the situation. The international media also has a crucial role to play, because if they collectively resolve to report the reality of what is happening without undue deference to the ridiculous strictures of the lèse-majesté law, its enforcement will no longer be sustainable and sensible debate can begin.
So when news emerged that several longtime foreign journalists in Thailand were collaborating with the more moderate members of Bhumibol’s inner circle on a major semi-official book on the King, it seemed to offer hope that royalism could be reclaimed from the extremists. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life’s Work was overseen by an editorial board chaired by former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun, working with highly regarded academics—David Streckfuss, Porphant Ouyyanont and Chris Baker— and journalists with years of experience in Thailand—Nicholas Grossman, Dominic Faulder, Julian Gearing, Paul Wedel, Richard Ehrlich, Robert Horn, Joe Cummings and Robert Woodrow. All are well-known members of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT), which claims to advocate press freedom and open exchange of information. Launching the book at the FCCT in November 2011, Anand declared:
These were stunning claims. Unfortunately they proved totally dishonest. The depressing conclusion to be drawn from this publication is that sanity is in short supply even among moderate royalists, and foreign journalists lack the courage to help Thailand face reality. The most important thing to understand when assessing any book about Bhumibol is that — as Anand and every journalist and academic who worked on the project must be fully aware — it is impossible to write a credible factual account of the King’s reign without broaching some of the most taboo subjects in Thailand’s modern history and radically reappraising what can be legally said about the monarchy. Nobody expects a royal hagiography to be a warts-and-all exposé that reveals every skeleton in the palace closets, but Anand insisted this book would be an accurate narrative, and the involvement of a vast team of foreign scholars and journalists was touted as proof. Instead, all we get is a fairytale.
A Life’s Work’s most glaring departure from reality is the unsustainable claim that the King has never interfered in politics apart from two famous occasions, 1973 and 1992, when he stepped in to halt military massacres and restore democracy. In fact, the palace has meddled incessantly ever since the 1970s, as Paul Handley’s brilliant 2006 biography The King Never Smiles demonstrates beyond doubt. The monarchy was intimately involved in events leading up to the appalling massacre of students at Thammasat University in October 1976 and the authoritarian era that followed. From the 1980s, the palace used General Prem Tinsulanonda as its political proxy, first as prime minister and then head of the Privy Council. And since 2005, the royalist establishment has been actively seeking to crush Thaksin Shinawatra, the most popular politician in Thai history, with disastrous consequences.
There can be legitimate disagreement on whether the net impact of palace’s political activism has been beneficial or damaging. But instead of acknowledging Bhumibol’s interventions and trying to make the case that they positively influenced the course of history, this book pretends they never happened at all. It claims that in 1976 and afterwards Bhumibol “kept himself well apart from the perilous entanglements of politics” (page 137). It dismisses the issue of palace involvement in the 2006 coup with a quote from Chulalongkorn University professor Suchit Bunbongkarn on page 178:
In fact, Bhumibol could easily have halted the coup by ordering the royalist generals to stand down as they rolled their tanks into Bangkok. He chose not to.
A Life’s Work’s handling of the death of King Ananda Mahidol, Bhumibol’s elder brother, in 1946 is particularly distasteful. Officially, Ananda’s death was blamed on a communist conspiracy masterminded by Siam’s senior statesman, Pridi Banomyong, who was forced to flee the country and died in exile in 1983. It is understandable that this book would avoid confronting the true story, but it contains disgraceful innuendos reviving the discredited claim Pridi was responsible. On page 86 it states:
For Pridi Banomyong, the coup and accusations against him after King Ananda’s death were the final blows to his political career. As the wartime regent and incumbent prime minister, he had at the very least failed to keep King Ananda safe.
On page 87, it stokes suspicions by asserting:
Many did not believe Pridi had played any role in King Ananda’s death, but after the 1949 failed coup, he never came home and offered no explanation himself beyond saying he did not know who was responsible.
For these statements to be made in 2011 in a book claiming to be a serious scholarly work is shameful.
Besides its cynical dishonesty, A Life’s Work is also undermined by a tendency to treat even the King’s most mundane accomplishments with sycophantic reverence. Bhumibol is praised for such non-achievements as being born in America (page 47), having “straddled two centuries” (page 48), or sharpening his own pencils and cleaning his own saxophone (page 114). This kind of obsequious nonsense does Bhumibol no favours, detracting from genuine appreciation of his real achievements.
The stylistic deficiencies at least provide comic relief from the depressing spectacle of well-known foreign journalists obligingly spouting palace propaganda. A Life’s Work is packed with breathlessly fawning prose better suited to Hello! magazine than a serious academic work. My favourite phrase comes on page 88, when Bhumibol meets Sirikit:
Love came knocking at his door in the shape of a cousin…
Amid the fairytales and dross, there are a few worthwhile chapters. The sections on lèse-majesté by Streckfuss and the Crown Property Bureau by Porphant are genuinely useful, but both are watered-down distillations of work they produced elsewhere. Furthermore, the chapter on lèse-majesté repeats the common but spurious claim that Bhumibol’s 2005 birthday speech signaled his support for reform of lèse-majesté law.
If Bhumibol really wanted the authorities to adopt a saner approach, he could surely make this happen. But as A Life’s Work inadvertently demonstrates, the King and his acolytes have become so lost in their fairytale world that it is simply too late for them to turn back. Abandoning lèse-majesté law would force them to acknowledge unpalatable truths about the failure of the palace to stay above politics, the divisions over the succession, and the tragic stories of 1946 and 1976. They fear that allowing the truth about these issues to emerge would destroy the monarchy. They may well be right.
It’s understandable why Bhumibol’s inner circle would try to defend his crumbling reputation. It is less justifiable for foreign journalists to allow themselves to be used so crudely to give spurious legitimacy to palace propaganda. Reporting on Thailand is difficult and dangerous, but a basic principle of ethical journalism is that if you cannot safely tell the truth, at least acknowledge that you cannot, and explain why. Never, ever lie.
Perhaps the saddest thing about A Life’s Work is that it’s pointless. When Bhumibol passes away, the foreign media will inevitably start reporting the truths they avoided while he was alive. The stories the royalists tried so hard to suppress will come out in the end. You cannot run forever from reality.
Reviewed by Andrew MacGregor Marshall
Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 13 (March 2013). Monarchies in Southeast Asia