ArrowArtboardCreated with Sketch.Title ChevronTitle ChevronEye IconIcon FacebookIcon LinkedinIcon Mail ContactPath LayerIcon MailPositive ArrowIcon PrintSite TitleTitle ChevronIcon Twitter
Articles

The life and legacy of a beloved king

BANGKOK King Bhumibol Adulyadej's twilight years, largely spent living in a hospital, were marred by constant speculation about his impending demise, the trampling of constitutional democracy in protracted bouts of street protests, two coups and uncertainty about his successor.

Backed by the U.S. during the Cold War and the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, King Bhumibol -- invariably dressed in military uniform -- restored Thailand's monarchy, helped block the spread of communism in Southeast Asia, and acted as a bulwark against insurgencies backed by China and the Soviet Union. But the king lived long enough to see tourists from Russia and China come to be welcomed in vast numbers with visa waivers.

With over 70 years on the throne, King Bhumibol was the world's longest-serving living head of state. His reign dated from 1946 as war-shattered, politically chaotic Thailand (known as Siam until 1939) surfaced from an unhappy alliance with Japan.

At birth, Prince Bhumibol was low in the line of succession. His uncle, King Prajadhipok, was pushed aside in 1932 in a coup led by French-educated revolutionaries, overturning centuries of nominally absolute monarchy. When King Prajadhipok abdicated in 1935, his successor was Prince Ananda Mahidol, a young nephew being raised in Switzerland, along with his brother, Prince Bhumibol.

King Ananda was found dead in bed on the morning of June 9, 1946, with a bullet through his forehead. The royal brothers played with guns a lot, and among numerous theories there was speculation of an accident. The shooting has never been convincingly explained. Speaking to the BBC in the late 1970s, King Bhumibol ruled out an accident or suicide. He said the investigation had been suppressed by "influential" Thais and foreigners.

Prince Bhumibol was only 18 when he acceded on the evening of his brother's death. The reign's sinister start cast a mournful shadow; it was to be his coronation four years later in 1950 that was celebrated annually on May 5.

Young King Bhumibol was in many ways a foreigner in his own land. Initially, his Thai was not as good as his French -- which he always preferred to English. He was born in the U.S. on Dec. 5, 1927, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while his father, Prince Mahidol Aduldej, was battling chronic ill health to qualify as a doctor at Harvard. In 1923, a doctor in England gave the sickly Prince Mahidol less than two years to live, yet he fathered two boys who unexpectedly became kings -- against his expressed wishes. King Bhumibol's other sibling, Princess Galyani Vadhana, was three years older and died in 2008.

Prince Mahidol was the 69th of 77 children of King Chulalongkorn, and a brother to two kings. Since it was considered inappropriate for royalty to touch commoners, the progressive Prince Mahidol went to Chiang Mai in 1929 to practice medicine discretely. Within weeks, he was diagnosed with an amoebic liver abscess and died of kidney failure.

Prince Bhumibol therefore never knew his father and was raised by his mother, Sangwan, a commoner of Chinese ancestry who was training as a nurse in the U.S. when she met Prince Mahidol. When King Vajiravudh assented to his half-brother Prince Mahidol marrying a commoner in 1920, it was not expected to affect the succession, even though the children of King Chulalongkorn had been dying prematurely for years -- his longest-lived child died at just 56. Many potential heirs died in the 1920s. The morbidity was a result of institutionalized consanguinity in the royal family.

To escape stifling court life, where she was often treated as an outsider, and the threatening politics of the early 1930s, Prince Mahidol's widow, Mom Sangwan, who was later titled the Princess Mother, took her children to Switzerland. Young King Ananda and his family returned to Thailand only once before World War II, when travel became impossible. There were winter sports and summer walks in the mountains, and an unimaginably liberal upbringing by Thai standards. A Greek tutor, Cleon O. Seraidaris, taught the princes carpentry.

After his unexpected accession, King Bhumibol returned to the University of Lausanne. His studies ended with a car crash in 1948 that cost him his right eye. King Bhumibol would later present more degrees and receive more honorary degrees than anybody on earth.

During his convalescence, the king courted a younger royal cousin, Mom Rajawongse Sirikit Kitiyakara. They married in 1950 after the long-delayed cremation of King Ananda, shortly before the coronation.

The couple returned to Switzerland before settling in Thailand in 1951. The prime minister, Field Marshal Phibun Songkhram -- a key participant in the overthrow of the monarchy in 1932 -- wanted to avoid a royalist resurgence and restricted their movements. In 1957, Phibun was removed in a coup by another field marshal, Sarit Thanaraj, a northeasterner uninterested in foreign notions of democracy. Sarit got on well with the young king and promoted the monarchy as a focus for national development and security. Royal ceremonies not seen in decades were restored, and the king developed an interest in arcane rituals that fostered a mystique around the monarchy. Many Thais came to regard him as a semi-divine being who had achieved the status of a dhammaraja by respecting a Buddhist concept of 10 kingly virtues.

With Sarit's encouragement, King Bhumibol and his glamorous queen traveled the world as emissaries for a kingdom best known for its 1956 Hollywood depiction in Walter Lang's "The King and I," starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. The film is banned in Thailand for its buffoonish depiction of King Bhumibol's great grandfather, King Mongkut. Apart from a brief visit to Laos in 1994, the king did not travel abroad after 1967, when he visited Iran and North America.

Sarit died in 1963 and was succeeded by Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, who together with Praphas Charusathien, also a field marshal, led Thailand through the Vietnam War era, when the U.S. military presence, mostly air force, rose to almost 50,000 people.

King Bhumibol traveled his kingdom widely, taking an interest in health, rural development, irrigation, education and disaffected minorities. On an early excursion in 1955 he became the first of the nine kings in the Chakri dynasty (founded in 1782) to visit Isan, Thailand's impoverished northeastern region.

Over the decades, thousands of royal development projects were initiated. While the results have never been properly audited, King Bhumibol's patronage of counter-communism, development and inclusivity won him lasting popularity and respect. Even communist insurgents concluded that it was unwise to attack the king in any way. Regular spells were spent at provincial palaces, including at Narathiwat in the far South, a deeply troubled area where a Muslim insurgency has left more than 7,000 dead since 2004.

King Bhumibol's personal views were opaque but fundamentally conservative. He warned against change for its own sake. His extemporaneous annual birthday talks were broadcast nationally, but could be hard to follow. Topics ranged from sermons against narcotics to musings about Sesame Street.

There were contradictions. The king was an environmentalist who proclaimed the virtues of vetiver grass against soil erosion and translated the ideas of the German-born British economist and environmentalist E.F. Schumacher. Yet royal names appear on the largest dams in the country, and traffic is often brought to a standstill by some of the world's longest motorcades.

King Bhumibol distrusted political parties and scorned the money-politics that have caused Thailand so much grief. He supported Thailand's most liberal constitution in 1997, working quietly to ensure that Buddhism was not mandated the state religion. He took his role as protector of all faiths seriously and followed constitutional matters keenly.

King Bhumibol's view of the broader rivalries between competing groups in Thai society was ambiguous, particularly his relationship with the manipulative military. Since 1932, Thailand has had 21 coup attempts -- 13 successful -- and some 20 constitutions, but failed to establish constitutional democracy.

Critics faulted King Bhumibol for not opposing coups, and for signing proclamations for the governments they produced, most recently in 2006 and 2014. But the king also signed all the proclamations put before him by elected governments, often led by unsavory politicians.

Was the king's signature an endorsement or a procedural formality? Although he could delay, he only once refused to sign a piece of legislation, and that was because of faulty drafting. The only prime minister he overtly placed in office, Sanya Dhammasakdi in 1973, handed back power after less than 18 months along with a long-promised constitution.

King Bhumibol believed that preserving the institution of the monarchy was paramount. He also knew that the most dangerous scenario in Thai politics is a split in the military. For that reason, whatever he may have thought, he never attempted to roll back a successful coup.

In May 1992, King Bhumibol summoned Prime Minister Suchinda Kraprayoon, second from left, and Chamlong Srimuang, left, the leader of street demonstrations, and told them to place the national interest ahead of their personal ambitions. (Bureau of the Royal Household via Kyodo)

His rare direct political interventions came at the 11th hour. In 1973, after the military shot students from helicopters, he opened the palace gates to give sanctuary and sent the military's so-called Three Tyrants into exile.

In 1992, King Bhumibol famously berated two feuding generals, one of them Prime Minister Suchinda Kraprayoon, on the palace carpet for causing bloodshed. A much more controversial issue was the massacre of at least 46 students at Thammasat University in October 1976 by police, rightists and ultramonarchists, which the palace conspicuously failed to prevent.

A keen jazz musician since his youth in Switzerland, the king's hobbies included musical composition, photography, ham radio, painting, translating and sailing. He made his own wooden dinghies and sailed with friends off the beach at his seaside palace in Hua Hin, where he spent his time out of hospital in his final years.

After the 1997 Asian financial meltdown, his ideas for a so-called Sufficiency Economy, imbued with Buddhist notions of moderation, were consolidated and broadcast widely. Their austere call for restraint struggled for resonance with an urbanized generation striving for growth and modernity.

There were other questions. King Bhumibol was listed by Forbes as the world's wealthiest monarch on account of the immense landholdings and equities of the Crown Property Bureau. Officially, the royal treasure house belongs to the crown as an institution and not the monarch as an individual.

Amid the semantics, it was generally overlooked that King Bhumibol held his far more modest personal assets separately and in his own name. Unlike with allowances paid to royal families elsewhere, income from the CPB enabled the royal family to be financially independent -- essential in the venal swirl of Thai politics.

King Bhumibol fell gravely ill in 1975 and 1995 with pneumonia. After the latter bout, he curtailed his trips upcountry, but the palace was loath to describe this as even semi-retirement. Predictions that he would retire to a monastery or abdicate were wrong.

There was national rejoicing in 2006 at the monarch's diamond jubilee, but it was followed by a coup that ousted the elected prime minister, populist telecoms billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra. The reign's end has been blighted by Thailand's most polarized politics since 1932. A dispute in 2005 between Prime Minister Thaksin and media mogul Sondhi Limtongkul became conflated with loyalty to the monarchy. Like football teams, supporters of Thaksin wore red shirts and his opponents yellow, a royal color.

The political feuding fueled hundreds of cases of lese-majeste under the most draconian law of its kind anywhere with up to 15-year sentences. King Bhumibol once said lese-majeste caused him problems, and called for the law's repeal. This did not happen. Palace insiders said the law was still needed to protect Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Sirikit.

King Bhumibol, 88, was also survived by his daughters Ubolratana, Sirindhorn and Chulabhorn.

The writer is the senior editor of "King Bhumibol Adulyadej -- A Life's Work," a biography published in 2011.

Dec. 5, 1927

Born in U.S. at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts

1932

Bloodless revolution ends absolute monarchy in Siam, ushering in constitutional monarchy

1946

Brother King Ananda Mahidol found dead in palace bedroom; Prince Bhumibol accedes, but returns to Switzerland to study law, political science; Prince Rangsit of Jainad, last surviving son of King Chulalongkorn, named regent

1950

Marries M.R. Sirikit Kitiyakara

1950

Following coronation, returns to Switzerland for further studies

1951

Royal family returns to Bangkok

1957

Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat seizes power, dies in 1963; stable premiership contrasts with earlier short-lived governments; young king gains prestige, political maturity

1960

King makes state visits to Indonesia, Burma, U.S., U.K., West Germany, Portugal, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Italy, Vatican, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Spain

1964

Initiates first village development project in Hupkapong, Phetchaburi Province; serves as model for future rural development

1967

Visits to Iran, U.S., Canada, are his last foreign trips

1972

Invests Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, his only son, as successor

1973

Students rise against trio of military strongmen; steps in to prevent more bloodshed; trio exiled; appoints first predominantly civilian government in 16 years

1976

Experiment in democracy ends with brutal rightist backlash, leaving 46 dead by official count

1981

During failed coup attempt, sides with Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda

1988

Becomes longest-reigning monarch in Thai history, at 42 years, 23 days; longest previous reign is King Chulalongkorn's (1868-1910)

1991

Coup restores military dictatorship; businessman and ex-diplomat Anand Panyarachun appointed prime minister

1992

Ends bloody clashes between troops, pro-democracy demonstrators; two key protagonists kneel before him; elected government of Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai follows short second Anand administration

1997

Thailand floats currency, marking beginning of Asian financial crisis, dramatic economic downturn for country

2001

Telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra wins landslide election victory; Thaksin's eligibility for office narrowly confirmed by court after being cleared of concealing assets

2004

Advocates "gentle approach" to solving southern insurgency after government security forces employ aggressive tactics, killing scores of militants; queen continues to spend time in restive region, working on development projects

2004

Massive tsunami hits Thailand's southwestern coastline, killing nearly 5,400 Thais, Burmese migrant workers, foreign tourists; among victims is Thai-American grandson, Bhumi Jensen

2006

Following general election won by Thaksin but boycotted by opposition parties, king calls situation "a mess" and urges country's top courts to resolve political crisis

2006

Thaksin overthrown by military

2006

Junta names Gen. Surayud Chulanont, a privy councilor and former army chief, as interim prime minister

2008

Civilian parliament convenes following elections in December won by People's Power Party; veteran politician Samak Sundaravej becomes prime minister;Thaksin returns from exile within weeks; Samak and his successor removed by courts

2009

2010

Hospitalized again

Street protests leave over 90 dead

2014

Pro-Thaksin government overthrown by military coup

Oct. 13, 2016

Dies at Bangkok's Siriraj Hospital

Sponsored Content

About Sponsored Content This content was commissioned by Nikkei's Global Business Bureau.

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this monthThis is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia;
the most dynamic market in the world.

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia

Get trusted insights from experts within Asia itself.

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Get Unlimited access

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this month

This is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia; the most
dynamic market in the world
.

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Try 3 months for $9

Offer ends April 30th

Your trial period has expired

You need a subscription to...

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers and subscribe

Your full access to the Nikkei Asian Review has expired

You need a subscription to:

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers
NAR on print phone, device, and tablet media