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The King And I
King Bhumibol of Thailand is the longest reigning monarch in the world.
Column By Don Coppock
I recall my first visit to Bangkok . I was taking a tour of the city, we were bogged down in one of the city's usual traffic jams, and the tour guide was talking about all things Thailand.
We were about to enter the King's Grand Palace, so I asked him his thoughts on the King. He smiled and his eyes got a glassy look as he began, ‘I love my King...’
The future, as always, is anything but certain in Thailand. There are deep divisions here, just as in the USA . Thailand's newly elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, younger sister of ousted and disgraced former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, offers familiar political promises, swearing to bring harmony and unity to the country, though many fear her strings are being pulled by her brother, and feel his return will kill any chance of achieving those goals.
The former PM remains a powerful force here, though he has been convicted of using his office to help his family amass a fortune, and faces a two year sentence. Meanwhile he has been using his billions to foment civil unrest from his present home in Cambodia. He was a primary force in the last red shirt rebellion and many believe the recent election suggests he is hoping to get a pardon and return to power here, which will likely tear this country in two. So once again political tensions are running high and critics of the present government abound.
But criticism is legal in Thailand , just as it is in the US . It's a free country and you're pretty much allowed to express your disproval about anything. That's what people in a free society do. You can rail about government corruption or the beggars in Bangkok. You can accuse the police of taking bribes. You can complain about the weather, the traffic, the spicy food or the prostitution. In fact you’re free to criticize most everything in Thailand. But criticize King Bhumibol (known as Rama lX) at your own risk...doing so can result in a jail sentence of up to 15 years, though even the King scoffs at lese majeste, acknowledging he’s not above criticism.
The King's image is used everywhere in Thailand.
Not that I’ve ever heard any complaints, and the law is rarely enforced. You probably won’t face criminal charges should you elect to disparage him, but to do so would alienate you from most Thais and run you the risk of being ostracized at best and assaulted at worst...because the Thais make no secret of the fact they love their monarch. And while they may condemn anything else, the solidarity regarding their king is universal and unshakable.
Bhumibol is sacrosanct in this country, revered to the point of deification. His portrait is everywhere you look. Virtually every home, shop, and business voluntarily has at least one likeness of the king adorning its walls. Tributes on TV are numerous, while every morning and evening the national anthem blares, and when it plays people stop whatever they are doing and stand at attention in a solemn homage to the king they worship. His birthday is a national holiday, and in theaters you’re expected to rise and pay tribute before every movie as a short documentary is shown celebrating his reign while an anthem which sounds strangely like a hymn builds to an inspiring and thundrous climax. He has come to be a proud symbol, and all Thais regard him as a father figure, having lived their entire lives in his reign.
And what a reign it’s been.
Thais are uniformly proud of this King whose image has been imprinted forever on their minds. He was born in Massachusetts in 1927, was educated in Switzerland , and has held his post as the world's longest living monarch since 1946. He has watched Siam become Thailand. He has watched 11 US presidents come and go. He has seen 28 prime ministers, numerous coups and wars. He has helped usher in democracy (Thailand is a constitutional monarchy) and watched Thailand enter the modern age. He is an author, painter, musician (having played with the likes of Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton), composer, scientist and inventor (the waste aerator for treating waste water provided to Thai farmers for free...he has also patented a rain making technique and a car fuel made from vegetable oil), being the only monarch to ever hold a patent.
And thru it all he has remained unsullied while amassing one of the greatest fortunes in the world. Although he has limited constitutional power, he has served as mediator in countless conflicts, his is the voice Thais listen for in every crisis, and his endorsement can make or break any political career.
Somehow he’s negotiated his way through a royal life in the spotlight with quiet dignity and grace. There are no scandals in his wake, not even the hint of a rumor. He has carried himself with solemn strength throughout his life, and his passing will be a national tragedy...because this man, this symbol of a former age, who has somehow bridged the gap between royalty and the common man, is truly loved.
But at 84 his health appears fading. These days it’s rare to see this mythical figure wheeled out for special appearances. He’s plainly ill, very frail, increasingly fragile and his eyes have that hollow far away look that suggest his concerns are elsewhere.
It appears this man who has been the enduring symbol of Thailand hasn’t much longer to live, this slight figure who makes no secret of the fact he loves his people...and anyone who has watched him over the course of his reign can’t help but feel a little sad and perhaps a little apprehensive. All are aware he's living on borrowed time, and there is an unease regarding his likely predecessor.
The king’s only son and his likely successor is Prince Virijongkorn, a man nearing 60 who has lived the pampered life of royalty and whose personal dalliances are the subject of much criticism, from his gambling debts, his ties to deposed PM Thaksin Shinawatra, to his much publicized philandering. Even this future King’s mother has distanced herself, so disappointed is she in him. So this will be the end of an era, this death of the beloved Thai monarch, who in many eyes is the glue that holds the country together. It is dubious whether the new king will be embraced as his predecessor, and all evidence indicates he will have to go a long way to earn the respect of the Thai people. Thus far he has exhibited none of the strengths of his beloved Father.
What is sure is that he has a hard act to follow.
As a westerner, and more specifically as an American, I've never endorsed royalty, the notion of monarchies confuses me, and it's hard to comprehend this blind loyalty to a privileged man who has inherited everything without ever having to endure the struggles of the common man. But having lived here awhile I've come to accept it as something uniquely Thai. And while I suspect I'll never understand it, I find it strangely touching, this mysterious unshakeable love which defies reason, and I'll be mourning along with all my Thai friends when mortality finally claims the man who has for some reason come to mean so much to so many...perhaps the last of his kind to ever occupy the throne of Thailand.