THE KING OF THAILAND: Bhumidol Adulyadej

By Shaw, John | Business Asia, October 19, 1998 | Go to article overview
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THE KING OF THAILAND: Bhumidol Adulyadej

Shaw, John, Business Asia

A monarch for the people

"A successful monarch must become a living symbol of the country. He must change with the country, but at the same time keep the spirit of the country" -- The King of Thailand, 1982

Few people can name a Thai Prime Minister, even citizens of Thailand itself. There have been so many of them and they have done so little that is good or memorable that their names are quickly forgotten.

But one political fact universally known about Thailand, or Siam as it used to be known, is that for 50 years it has had a great and good king - Bhumibol Adulyadej.

He is not known as anything like the king in the Broadway and Hollywood portrayals of his ancestor Mongkut (who reigned 1851-68) in "Anna and the King of Siam" and "The King and I". Nor indeed was Mongkut in life like Mongkut in the musicals, but the West preferred the myth to history.

However, the life of Bhumibol (pronounced poomy-pon) seems beyond fiction - good material for a biographer but almost too rich a tapestry for a credible novel.

The King was born in 1927 in Boston, USA, where his father, Prince Mahidol, who died two years later, was studying medicine at Harvard. Bhumibol is the only monarch to start life in America. He was educated in Switzerland. In Paris he met Sirikit, the beautiful daughter of an aristocratic Thai ambassador, and married her in Bangkok amid great splendour. His brother, King Ananda, died in his palace in 1946 in a tragedy which is still a mystery, and Prince Bhumibol suddenly became King.

He and Sirikit had four handsome children. He acquired seven languages, an expert knowledge of agriculture, painted accomplished portraits, played jazz saxophone, and with the Queen constantly toured his kingdom helping villagers and promoting better farming and environmental protection.

The story sounds too good to be true, too good for fiction -- but it is true to life. No wonder then that the king has heroic, even divine stature among Thailand's 60 million people.

When he took the throne at the age of 20 he swore to "reign with righteousness for the benefit and happiness of the people", and he spent the next 50 years in fulfilling that promise with exemplary dedication.

Bhumibol is a modern monarch -- although not as informal as the Scandinavian variety -- and has long been more progressive than his many governments. The King travels frequently, often to remote areas and minority tribes, to maintain personal contact with his subjects. He invented the Royal "walkabout" among workers and farmers -- and the regal fundraiser for good causes -- long before Western royals followed suit.

He has established more than 2000 developments and welfare projects to improve economic and social welfare and converted the grounds of his Bangkok palace into a model farm and workshop to encourage village industries.

On his 60th birthday he was formally declared "The Great Beloved King". The 50th anniversary of his reign was celebrated for an entire year in 1996. His reign is the longest in Thailand's long history, and Bhumibol and Sirikit are the world's longest-reigning royals.

When his mother died, at the age of 94 in 1995, there were two main popular emotions amid the solemn pageantry of her funeral -- mourning for a revered Princess, known for good works, and the hope that her son would also live to such a great age.

The question of what happens to Thailand, and to the Thai monarchy, after Bhumibol, who turned 71 in 1998, is a key national question. This is not only because of his virtues, but because Thai political leadership in the 1990s fell to dangerous depths of incompetence and corruption.

The King is above politics but does not stand apart from them. He intervened, quietly but firmly and decisively, in several political and economic crises. Since modern Thailand has never had clear and consistent political leadership, along the lines of, say, Indonesia or Malaysia, the political and moral role of the King has been crucial to national unity and civil liberties.

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