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King Bhumibol Adulyadej

Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej was pronounced dead on 13 October 2016 after years of grave illnesses, leaving the throne to Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who was manifestly unsuited for the job. The 88-year-old king had for decades been the single most powerful political figure in the country, the hidden hand that kept things running. The Bureau of the Royal Household announced that the 88-year-old monarch died in quiet manner at 3:52 p.m. (0852 GMT) at Siriraj hospital where he had been diagnosed with critical ailments since the last several years. King Bhumibol, or King Rama IX of the Chakri dynasty, who had been the world's longest-reigning monarch for the last 70 years, was survived by 63-year-old Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who was to be officially proclaimed King Rama X. Prince Vajiralongkorn, King Bhumibol's only son, was named Crown Prince, the heir apparent to the throne in 1972 in accordance with the Palace Law. The health of ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand had worsened, and the Royal Household of Thailand announced on 09 October 2016 that the king's condition has yet to stabilize and he has been advised to suspend all royal functions. His health has been failing for several years. He had been in hospital for years and had heart surgery in June 2016.

The story of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, even if stripped of courtier-inspired mythology, was exceptional. The American-born son of a half-Chinese commoner, he accidentally inherited a throne close to extinction and revived it. In the process he created one of the world’s most powerful and wealthy monarchies, and surely the only one of any significance to have actually gained in political power in modern times. According to Forbes Magazine, Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej was the wealthiest monarch in the world, with a net worth of about $30 billion, which fluctuates according to the fortunes of the real estate and stock holdings of the Crown Property Bureau, the state investment vehicle of which he was a trustee [the Thai government has stated that the CPB owns and manages the assets of the monarchy on behalf of the Thai people, and that the CPB's assets are not part of the king's personal wealth].

As a man, King Bhumibol Adulyadej has displayed a remarkable range of talents. He was a gifted musician and composer, particularly in the field of jazz; one of his songs was featured in a Broadway musical in the early 1950's and his skills have been a cknowledged by such masters as Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton. He was an enthusiastic sailor in the early years of his rule and won the Southeast Asia Peninsula Games gold medal in 1967. In addition, he can point to impressive achievements in the fiel ds of painting, photography, and engineering. Thanks to his international education and upbringing, he was fluent in three European languages and at ease in a variety of cultures. Undoubtedly, though, posterity will remember him most for his accomplishm ents as leader of Thai nation during a critical period in its history.

The Thai elite with King Bhumibol Adulyadej at its apex uses his charisma upheld by cultural myths and pageantry to influence the direction of politics in a paternalistic manner. Even when he “intervened” in 1973 and again 1992 to end bloodshed in Bangkok after clashes broke out between soldiers and anti government protesters, what he did was not unconstitutional. He gave advice to the parties concerned to end the conflicts peacefully. His words carried weight due to the moral authority he had acquired through his political neutrality and integrity.

On the evening of May 20, 1992, about 50 million Thais were watching television and felt included in the historic audience granted by His Majesty the King to the Former Prime Minister and his opponent, Former Palang Dharma Leader, at the height of the conflict with the use of force against prodemocracy demonstrators. From that moment on, through each step taken on the path back to normalcy and democracy, His Majesty the King clearly showed his interest in following up the development, from the dissoulution of the House of Representatives, the inauguration of the newly-elected House, the appointment of the new coalition government, along with the people's hope and aspiration.

King Bhumibol has been the one constant in Thai politics for six decades of military coups, fractious civilian governments and the wholly new phenomenon of a populist regime under Thaksin, a billionaire businessman, from 2001 to 2006. The king, who ascended to the throne in 1946 at a time when the monarchy had lost much of its majesty, has restored the institution as one of the key pillars of Thai society and political stability by a demonstrated devotion to his people, especially the poor, in thousands of royally sponsored development projects. At times of past political crisis, the king has stepped in to offer counsel, leading to peaceful resolutions. A worry for the future was the king's frail health.

Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej, the only king ever born in the United States, came to the throne of his country in 1946 and lived to become the world’s longest-reigning monarch. When at nineteen Bhumibol assumed the throne, the Thai monarchy had been stripped of power and prestige. Over the ensuing decades, Bhumibol became the paramount political actor in the kingdom, silencing critics while winning the hearts and minds of his people. The Western-raised boy came to be seen by his people as a living Buddha. A king widely seen as beneficent and apolitical was in fact deeply political and autocratic whose skillful political maneuverings attempted to shape Thailand as a Buddhist kingdom. Bhumibol had notable achievements in art, in sports and jazz, and a lifelong dedication to rural development and the livelihoods of his poorest subjects. But beyond the widely accepted image of the king as egalitarian and virtuous, he was an anti-democratic monarch who, together with corrupt allies in big business and the military, protected a centuries-old, barely modified feudal dynasty.

The King has led by example. He has embodied the ten traditional moral principals of Buddhist kings: charity toward the poor; morality; sacrifice of personal interest; honesty; courtesy; self-restraint; tranquility of temperament; non-violence; patience; and impartiality in settling disputes. And he has led by action. The making of the royal hegemony by King Bhumibol Adulyadej from 1951 to 2003 centered in part on the “Royally-Initiated Projects”, a central part of the process by which the monarch won political-ideological power in four periods.

  1. The Inception Era (1951-1957) The 1932 coup did not only change political rules and regulations but also limit the power and roles of the monarch, from the Absolute Monarchy to Constitutional Monarchy. In Phibun Songkram’s regime, the king had been prevented from exercising political power. Under such pressure, the king worked with his own budget and a few royal servants. The royal projects in this era include, Social Welfare and Royal Film and Radio Broadcasting Projects.
  2. The Defend National Security Era (1958-1980) Under the war against the communist movement, Sarit Thanarat introduced the policies which combined capitalist development with a re-emphasis on the role of the monarch. The Sarit period [1959-1963] of strict authoritarian rule saw the re-establishment of the monarchy as a significant political institution. Since the ouster of the Thanom-Praphas regime in 1973 King Bhumibol of Thailand was far more than a figurehead. In this era, the king played important roles as “The Development King.” Many royally-Initiated projects had been implemented with the financial and political supports from the government. Beside social welfare projects, the royal projects in this era expanded to the rural areas. The target areas were remoted/mountainous communities which under the “influence” of the Communist Party of Thailand.
  3. The Development of Coordination Organization Era (1981-1987) In Prem Tinsulananda’s administration, without any political pressure, relationship between the state and the monarch were closest. The monarch was the ultimate arbiter of political decisions in times of crisis, and the monarchy was the primary source of national legitimacy. “The Office of the Royal Development Projects Board” was erected. The government then officially allocated budget and man-power to support the royal projects. Most of the activities were related to the development of large scale irrigation projects. The projects were also mobilized state resources from different governmental units to create “The Development Study Center.” This center aimed to be a successful example of agricultural development.
  4. The Establishment of Royal NGO (1988-2003) “Chaipattana Foundation” the first and only royal NGO was established in this era. The main policy announced by the royal NGO was to promote “self-sufficient economy.” This policy was accepted by many sectors as an alternative development due to the economic collapse, the failure of government development policy, and the movement of grassroots organizations and NGOs. In this era, the royal political-ideological leadership was consolidated.
The process of making the royal’s hegemony took five decades of developing the royal alliance of bureaucrats, organic and traditional intellectuals. The royally-initiated projects illustrate the confrontation, negotiation and coordination among the state, capitalist and the monarch in different political-ideological contexts. In a phase of transition from one particular phase of capitalist development to another and in the change of political power, locally and globally, the making of royal hegemony was an ongoing process.

On 28 February 1987, the king made a few remarks on the country's administration, saying that "every country must modify the administrative system used so that it was suited to the country. The same is true in Thailand. We need to modify the system so that it fits the situation here." He also discussed administration in a democracy, which was an import from the West. He said that "this must be modified so that it matches Thai social conditions. We can't import a foreign system without making changes." There were reports that the king told reporters some-thing to the effect that "democracy in Thailand was difficult because we are copying the foreign type. If we adopted a Thai style, there would be less difficulty."

Bhumibol has manipulated Thai politics to a degree far beyond his constitutional power. As a traditional conservative force he ranks among those actors who delayed the democratic development of his country. The standard formulation was that Thailand was a parliamentary democracy with the King as symbolic head of state, a constitutional monarchy along European lines. But after the People's Alliance for Democracy swathed themselves in yellow and proclaimed "We fight for the king", that formula became untenable. Besides toppling Thaksin, the coup sought to restore the palace’s hegemony, especially over Thaksin’s strong rural constituency.

A "Thai-style democracy" in which the monarch acted as a moral balance against wicked politicians was the cornerstone of royalist thinking. Thaksin Shinawatra, twice elected with strong popular support in 2001 and 2005, sought systematically to displace the palace power network with a new set of connections. Thaksin was frightful because he showed that democracy could work in Thailand, that an elected leader could deliver prosperity and be rewarded with unprecedented popular support. Thaksin accuses the Thai aristocracy of suppressing democracy and urges his followers, who are largely lower middle-class, to rise up and reclaim their rights.

In the age of Thaksin, the King on several occasions made public his differences with Thaksin's style and more importantly, his philosophy. As respected former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun puts it, Thaksinomics tought that it was OK to be greedy and that money fixes everything. The King's idea was somewhat different and has been neatly summarized in a short pamphlet called, "What is Sufficiency, Economy?" This pamphlet drew on royal utterances over the past 25 years and essentially called for a rural-based model of sustainable development. By 2005 the pamphlet was being flogged by Privy Councillors, the head of the Crown Property Bureau, and noteworthy columnists as the antidote to Thaksinomics.

In addition, Bangkok observers were aghast at what was perceived as Thaksin's unwillingness to be appropriately obeisant to His Majesty. In the 2005 campaign, they claim, he swarmed about upcountry as though he were the sovereign of the country. He was visibly impatient with the many royal ceremonies he had to sit through where he was not the center of attention. In the 2005 Mahidol Awards, he fussed and fretted in his seat while the King spoke softly to the American and German doctors who were being honored.

Duncan McCargo argued in 2005 that "Thai politics are best understood in terms of political networks. The leading network of the period 1973-2001 was centred on the palace, and is here termed `network monarchy'. Network monarchy involved active interventions in the political process by the Thai King and his proxies, notably former prime minister Prem Tinsulanond. Network monarchy developed considerable influence, but never achieved the conditions for domination. Instead, the palace was obliged to work with and through other political institutions, primarily the elected parliament. Although essentially conservative, network monarchy also took on liberal forms during the 1990s. Thailand experienced three major legitimacy crises after 1992; in each case, Prem acted on behalf of the palace to restore political equilibrium. However, these interventions reflected the growing weakness of the monarchy, especially following the landslide election victories of prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2001 and 2005. Thaksin sought to displace network monarchy with new networks of his own devising. "

The royal endorsement of the September 2006 coup against the elected and widely popular Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra led to a surge of critical debate on King Bhumibol and his democratic credentials. This was aided by the almost parallel publication of Handley’s "The King Never Smiles", the first extensive, non-hagiographical biography of the Thai king.

In 2005, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party, using a combination of populist appeal and money politics, won an overwhelming majority in the parliament. As it looked increasingly improbable that existing mechanisms could check Thaksin's power, protestors concerned by allegations of corruption and autocratic practices took to the streets, and some prominent figures called (unsuccessfully) for King Bhumibol to intervene under the cover of a vague constitutional provision. Many Thais initially accepted the September 2006 coup because it offered a way out of a grueling political crisis and appeared to have the King's support.

The coup leaders benefited from an appearance of Palace endorsement. King Bhumibol publicly signaled his acquiescence (if not support) when granting an audience to Sonthi and the other coupmakers involved on the night of their coup. Like many of their predecessors, the leaders of the 2006 coup portrayed themselves as forced to act to protect the King, highlighting their allegiance when identifying themselves as (roughly translated) "the Council for Democratic Reform under the Monarchy" (CDRM), and receiving the King's imprimatur in the form of a Royal Command appointing Sonthi as the head of the CDRM. Signals of Palace support -- or, at a minimum, acceptance -- played an important role in promoting the public's acceptance of the coup, although other key factors included widespread frustration with the ongoing political crisis and faith in the coup leaders' promise to hold elections in approximately one year. Thais increasingly soured on the military-appointed interim administration as it proved incapable of dealing with difficult problems, but the Army preserved some of its credibility by allowing elections to take place.

Throughout 2007 celebrations for Bhumibol’s 80th birthday anniversary were held, including the splendid Royal Barge Procession preceded by several rehearsals; tree-planting campaigns in the countryside; art exhibitions; and a royal fair at the Royal Plaza (Sanam Luang). All this culminated in the December 2007 celebrations for Bhumibol’s birthday. In October 2007 the king was hospitalized for several weeks after suffering a stroke, followed by his sister, Princess Galyani. In early 2008, Princess Galyani died, triggering a well-organized display of grief. People were advised to wear black, as they were supposed to wear yellow on Mondays to honor the king over the preceding months.

The December 2007 election provided a useful indicator of the limits of Palace influence. Plausible rumors in the period leading up to the election claimed that Queen Sirikit sought actively to block the return to power of pro-Thaksin forces. The failure of such efforts may attributed to divisions within the royal family, or to the lack of mechanisms to effectively convey Palace views to the public while maintaining plausible claims that the Chakri dynasty plays an appropriately apolitical role. Whatever the reason, it was clear that the monarchy carries enormous influence but, even when some of its core interests are at stake, lacks full control over the course of events.

While the King likely could send blunt signals to achieve virtually any short-term outcome he desires (as in 1992, when he pushed General Suchinda from power), such intervention could transform the role of the royal family in ways that open it up to criticism and, over the long run, jeopardize its current lofty standing.

As Hewison puts it, "the King and his advisors feel that he should intervene in the political process . . . The King often appears to be acting outside the limits normally considered appropriate for a constitutional monarchy." King Bhumibol was very careful not to do anything unconstitutional. At the peak of the crisis from October to November 2008 when there was a violent suppression or the anti-Thaksin protesters in front of the parliament and occupation of Suvarnaphumi airport which the government did not suppress, some wanted the King to intervene. The King did not indulge their wish, but let the situation run its course under the constitution. In Western constitutional monarchies, the governments are relatively stable, efficient and responsive to the needs of their people. There may be some few uprisings or demonstrations, but the governments are able to handle them effectively and hence the sovereigns are not under pressure to intervene. However, in Thailand there have been military coups, political violence, riots, uprisings and demonstrations which have often led to political instability. This creates a situation wherein the monarch must determine whether he should directly or indirectly intervene while remaining politically neutral.

On 04 December 2008, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and his sister, Princess Sirindhorn, appeared jointly before assembled dignitaries to announce that King Bhumibol was ill and unable to deliver his customary annual address to the nation. After the Crown Prince made brief remarks on the King's behalf, Princess Sirindhorn explained that her father had bronchitis, was exhausted, on an IV, and unable to eat. Subsequent official reports from the Palace indicated that the King suffered from a fever and had an infection, but by December 8 his condition was improving and he was able to eat soft food.

On 30 November 2009, the Office of His Majesty's Principal Private Secretary (PPS) announced that King Bhumibol Adulyadej -- who suffers from Parkinson's and suffered a stroke in 2007 -- would not participate in any of the public events scheduled around his December 5 birthday, Thailand's National Day. Though the King has been hospitalized since mid-September, he had made two public appearances in recent weeks, heightening expectations he might be able preside over portions of the public celebration. Instead, the most notable traditional public events (Military parade and oath-taking, public audience/annual speech) had been postponed, and Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn assigned to represent the King.

The 82 year-old Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej held court in his throne hall at the Grand Palace on his birthday 05 December 2009, in what was seen by many Thai as a possible last public hurrah. Leaning heavily on his right side, the King offered brief remarks to several hundred key officials, stressing his recent themes of national unity and the need to place national interests above personal benefits. As the golden curtain closed at the end of the audience and cameras flashed as if at a rock concert, Thais watching around the country on TV cried and commented that it seemed like a closing of an era. To emphasize the sense of transition, the Crown Prince stood in for the King at subsequent birthday events.

On 31 May 2016 the Bank of Thailand emitted commemorative banknotes with a face value of 70 baht to be offered to the public for 100-baht each from June 9, the 70-year anniversary of His Majesty the King’s accession to the throne. The central bank produced 20 million of the new notes, with the 30% excess over the face value presented to the King. Both sides of the bill feature the King in full profile with him wearing the army decorations on the front and a younger image of His Majesty on the back.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej traveled to his Bangkok palace January 11, 2016 , a day after the palace announced he was being treated for a blood infection and swollen lung. "His Majesty will go to the Chitralada Palace for a change of atmosphere," said a palace official, who declined to be identified. Thailand’s 88-year-old king, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, had been hospitalized since May 2015 and had received treatment for multiple illnesses. A statement issued 10 February 2016 said the king had battled a fever for the past two weeks and was being looked after by doctors. It also said tests found “an infection in the lower part of the lungs,” and a blood infection and inflammation in his right knee joint. Concern about his health grew when Bhumibol missed an annual audience to mark his birthday 05 December 2015, but he made a rare public appearance on 14 December 2015.

Statement by President Obama on the 70th Anniversary of Accession to the Throne of His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej on June 07, 2016 stated in part: "On behalf of the American people, I send my heartfelt congratulations to His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the people of the Kingdom of Thailand as they celebrate the 70th anniversary of the King’s accession to the throne. ... His Majesty has served as a source of strength and inspiration for many in our two countries over the past seven decades. As the only reigning monarch born in the United States, His Majesty shares a special connection with the American people...."

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Page last modified: 08-02-2019 18:21:24 ZULU