After two days of rumors about the health of Thailand’s king, confirmation finally arrived in the form of a solemn statement issued by the royal palace Thursday evening. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a unifying figure through seven politically tumultuous decades, died peacefully in the capital of Bangkok at the age of 88. According to the palace, the world’s longest-reigning monarch died at 3:52 p.m. after years of declining health. The immediate cause of death was not clear.
Despite reports that the king’s health had worsened in recent days, the news has plunged Thailand into a period of deep mourning and uncertainty. For most Thais, King Bhumibol is the only monarch they have ever known, the one constant in a modern history marked by mass protests, military coups, and widening political fault lines. In some quarters, the king is revered with almost religious fervor; his beatific portrait is ubiquitous, staring down from the walls of homes, businesses, and government buildings across the country.
By the time the king’s death was announced Thursday evening, crowds of mourners had gathered outside Siriraj Hospital, clad in yellow and pink, colors associated with the throne. Some wept openly, clutching portraits of the monarch. Others sang royalist songs in a plaintive key. On social media networks, the #longlivetheking hashtag was trending as Thai web users posted hundreds of messages and photos in memory of King Bhumibol.
In a televised address, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a general who took power in a May 2014 coup, declared a year of mourning and a 30-day moratorium on entertainment events. He also announced that King Bhumibol will be succeeded as expected by Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who has said he “needs time to mourn his father” before taking his place as the 10th king of the Chakri Dynasty. Unlike King Bhumibol, Prince Vajiralongkorn is a controversial figure, a jet-setting womanizer whose eventual ascension to the throne will likely herald a period of rocky transition for one of the world’s most revered monarchies.
During a reign lasting a touch more than 70 years, King Bhumibol presided over Thailand’s transformation from a rural kingdom once known as Siam into a regional economic powerhouse. A quiet, introverted man with horn-rimmed glasses, Bhumibol was born in 1927 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while his father was a student at Harvard Medical School. The young prince spent much of his early life abroad, until the mysterious shooting death of his brother, King Ananda Mahidol, unexpectedly catapulted Bhumibol to the throne in 1946.
In his early years as ruler, King Bhumibol split his time between his official royal duties and hobbies like photography and jazz and as the years went by came to be seen as a stabilizing force that stood firm amid cycles of political upheaval. (Since 1932, this country of 67 million has experienced 19 coups and coup attempts.) The king’s stature was heightened by the political tumult of October 1973, when the arrest of 13 student activists triggered massive public protests against Thailand’s military dictator du jour, Thanom Kittikachorn. After security forces fired on student protesters, killing around 70, King Bhumibol and other royals intervened and expressed support for the protesters. The junta was eventually forced out of power, and Thanom fled the country.
If these events revealed a new zenith of popularity for the 45-year-old king, it also demonstrated the ambiguity of his position in Thailand’s fractious politics: not directly involved but never wholly aloof. In an article on the October uprising, the New York Times described King Bhumibol’s role as “less than ruling but certainly more than just reigning.” Although royalists argue that the king was a father figure who ruled for the good of his people, most of Thailand’s military coups have enjoyed tacit royal approval.
In his twilight years, as Thailand’s political crises compounded, King Bhumibol became a remote, isolated figure, more a presence than a man, dogged by poor health and swaddled by a stringent lèse-majesté regime that effectively prevented any open discussion of the royal family — including the effect his death might have on this politically fragile country.
The ramifications of King Bhumibol’s death are uncertain but likely to be far-reaching. Despite standing as a bastion of unity for the Thai people, the king’s image papered over wide social and political divides. For the last 15 years, a bitter political struggle has pitted the allies of former prime minister and billionaire telecommunications mogul Thaksin Shinawatra, who won massive support from the rural poor for his populist social and economic policies, against the traditional royalist elite — a tight-knit coterie of soldiers, bureaucrats, and rich businessmen surrounding the palace. This conflict reflects a deeper social rift between the conservative middle class in the cities and rural and working-class Thais — the so-called “Red Shirts” — who found their political voice in support of Thaksin.
Some observers have suggested that the succession could have complex effects on the outcome of this struggle. The most immediate question surrounds King Bhumibol’s nominated successor. Though Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn’s claim to the throne is clear, the 64-year-old lacks his father’s royal aura and is believed to be deeply unpopular among the royalist elite. Over the years, he has shown little interest in the public duties associated with the royal family, instead earning a reputation as a fast-living playboy who spends most of his time outside the country, largely in Germany, where he reportedly owns an $11 million villa on a lake south of Munich.
In 2007, leaked video footage showed Prince Vajiralongkorn holding a lavish private party with his then-wife, Srirasmi Suwadee — clad in nothing but heels and a G-string — and his pampered pet poodle, Foo Foo, which by the time of its death last year held the rank of chief marshal in the Royal Thai Air Force. (The mutt’s death was marked by four days of Buddhist funeral rites.) In July, the German tabloid Bild published photos of Prince Vajiralongkorn boarding a plane in Munich wearing low-rise jeans and an unflattering tank top that revealed a palette of fresh yakuza-style tattoos. (Thai authorities claimed the photos were doctored.)
Scottish journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall, author of the 2014 book A Kingdom in Crisis, which was banned in Thailand for its discussion of the royal succession, says much of the Thai elite is implacably opposed to the prospect of Prince Vajiralongkorn succeeding his father. “From quite a young age, he acted like a medieval monarch,” Marshall said of the crown prince. “For the elites who benefit from the continued perception of a benevolent monarchy, this is a disaster.”
To make matters worse, many fear that Prince Vajiralongkorn might make common cause with Thaksin, who is currently in exile abroad, joining hands with the popular politician to clean house in the palace. This, in turn, could undermine royalist control of the Privy Council, a small but influential royal advisory body, and threaten the sprawling networks of business and patronage that converge on the opaque Crown Property Bureau, which administers the palace’s estimated $53 billion in property and business investments. “What the elite has always been terrified of is that the crown prince and Thaksin will get together and that Thaksin would get his hands on the Crown Property Bureau. That thought absolutely terrifies them,” Marshall said.
For now, with the population in deep mourning, things are likely to be muted. Undoubtedly, this is by design. Kasit Piromya, a former foreign minister, told me last year that one of the army’s main motivations for launching the 2014 coup was to ensure there was political stability during the sensitive period of succession. Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan, said despite the elite’s distaste for the crown prince, most senior officials would probably wait to see how things pan out. “At the end of the day, the well-being of the monarchy is the well-being of the royalists. Even if they don’t like it, they’ll have to swallow it for their own good,” he said.
Where the succession leads in the longer term is harder to predict. One question is whether the popular reverence for the monarchy will fade now that King Bhumibol is gone. Another question is what sort of monarch Prince Vajiralongkorn will turn out to be if and when he is crowned king. Will he choose to settle into a comfortable life of palace-bound ritual? Or will he decide to pursue an activist reign, shaking up an entrenched political establishment in pursuit of his own vision for Thailand? There is also the question of whether elections, which the junta has promised for next year, will go ahead in the current situation. What is certain is that as one historical era opens, and another closes, the future of the monarchy will now hang ever more ominously over the country’s political life — whether or not anyone can acknowledge it publicly.
Photo credit: CHUMSAK KANOKNAN/Getty Images
Tags: Argument, Bangkok, Military, Obit Desk, Politics, Southeast Asia, Thailand
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The Life of Bhumibol Adulyadej: Thailand's revered king leaves a politically uncertain nation in his wake
By Anne Barker
Updated October 14, 2016 18:38:20
As a child, Bhumibol Adulyadej hardly expected to become king.
His father was well down the line of succession and the family was living overseas. Bhumibol was born in the US in 1927 while his father studied at Harvard.
They returned to Thailand when he was barely two. But after the sudden death of his father from kidney failure in 1929, Prince Bhumibol's mother took the family to live in Switzerland.
At the time, Prince Bhumibol's uncle Prajadhipok was king. But a revolution in 1932 ended Thailand's absolute monarchy and stripped Prajadhipok of most of his powers.
He abdicated in 1935 and fled into exile. Without an heir, the crown then went to Prince Bhumibol's older brother Ananda Mahidol. Thailand was now a constitutional monarchy.
Prince Ananda was only nine when he took the throne and still living in Switzerland.
A series of regents ruled in his absence until he returned to Thailand after the war.
But in June 1946, he was found shot dead in his bedroom in Bangkok's Grand Palace. His younger brother Prince Bhumibol became king at 18.
The exact cause of Ananda Mahidol's death has never been resolved and remains a source of controversy.
Three servants were later executed for his murder. But in an interview years later with the BBC, King Bhumibol said the death remained a mystery.
"The investigation provided the fact that he died with a bullet wound in his forehead," he said.
"It was proved that it was not an accident [and] not a suicide, but one doesn't know.
"What happened is very mysterious because … immediately many of the evidence was just shifted ... everyone was political. Even the police were political."
The then Prince Bhumibol was at the palace at the time.
"When I arrived he was dead," he said.
"Many people wanted to advance, not theories, but facts to clear up the affair. They were suppressed. And they were suppressed by influential people in this country, or in international politics."
'Hate at first sight' turned to love for royal couple
The death of one king launched the reign of another.
King Bhumibol took the throne in June 1946, but returned to Switzerland to finish his studies.
In 1948 he crashed his car into a truck in Lausanne, and lost the sight of his right eye. On a trip to Paris he met his future wife Sirikit Kitiyakara, the daughter of Thailand's Ambassador in France. Although the relationship did not begin smoothly.
"It was hate at first sight on my side," she told the BBC.
"Because he said he would arrive at [4:00pm]. He arrived at 7:00pm, kept me standing there, practising curtsey and curtsey. So it was hate at first sight."
But hate turned to love, and the pair married in Bangkok in April 1950, a week before King Bhumibol was crowned. Sirikit was made Queen.
It was the start too of a long love affair with the people of Thailand and beyond.
In 1960, they set off on a six-month world tour. The King and Queen were a stylish pair who loved to travel.
King Bhumibol was a jazz fan known as the "Swinging King of Siam".
In her younger years, Queen Sirikit was voted one of the world's 10 best-dressed women — she never wore the same dress twice on state occasions — according to the Australian Women's Weekly in 1962.
That year they toured Australia for 19 days, taking in every state capital, and wowing new fans, including Australia's then-prime minister Robert Menzies.
"The great pleasure, the great opportunity, for two or three days in Canberra, of having some of your own charm brushed off on us so that we might take it with us as a happy memory," he said at the time.
Bhumibol 'not born to be a king, has worked at it'
Virtually from the start of his reign, King Bhumibol was seen as a semi-god who embodied the values of Buddha. He was revered as a champion of the poor, and seen as a force for stability and unity in a country wracked by decades of tumultuous change.
Since 1932, Thailand has endured 20 coups d'etat, attempted coups, rebellions or other constitutional crises.
Through it all, King Bhumibol remained Thailand's one constant, beloved by Thais for modernising the country's monarchy and revitalising ancient traditions.
Perhaps because he was not born to be king, he had to earn the people's respect.
"It's not an inherited right," Thailand's former prime minister Anand Panyarachun said.
"It is not something that is given down to him by his father or grandfather. Because after all, he was not born to be a king you know. So he has worked at it, and he has been very successful."
For 70 years, King Bhumibol maintained his people's love and reverence.
Most Thais have never known life under another king. His face is on Thai banknotes and coins.
His portrait is in offices and schools across the country. Many Thais keep a photo of the king in their homes and cars.
The royal anthem is still played in cinemas before the start of a movie.
Reign not without controversy for devoted king
In return, King Bhumibol showed the same devotion to his people. His service often took the form of trips around Thailand, pursuing the cause of agriculture or other rural projects.
He won new respect in the early 1990s when yet another coup d'état led to deadly clashes between the military and pro-democracy activists.
As with other crises, he had the power to pull warring parties aside, read them the riot act and stop further bloodshed.
But his reign was not without controversy. In 2003, King Bhumibol supported a war on drugs which led to the deaths of 2,000 suspects.
Human rights groups attacked the campaign for its state-sanctioned violence and called for a UN investigation. Such findings did little to diminish the way Thais felt about their king.
In 2006, on the 60th anniversary of him taking the throne — and the following year on his 80th birthday — they wore their hearts on their sleeves.
The mass of yellow shirts was inspired by the Thai colour for Monday — the day he was born. It soon became the symbol of royalist protests against then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his red-shirted supporters.
When Mr Thaksin was ousted as Prime Minister in a 2006 military coup, many believed it had the king's blessing.
Indeed, even the most recent coup — which reinstated military rule in May 2014 — was seen by many as a deliberate act to control the monarchy and the succession, not to mention the royal fortune, at a time when Thailand will likely face a power vacuum.
"It's about who will be in power when the royal succession takes place," Ernest Bower, senior adviser at the US Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said.
"It's like a musical chairs game. When the music stops — when the king dies — whoever has power gets to organise the next steps," he told CNBC News in the months after the coup.
The coup removed the last remnants of the government of Yingluck Shinawatra — the sister of the previously ousted Mr Thaksin — and seen by many as a proxy so her brother could govern from exile overseas.
One long-time Thailand observer, journalist Andrew Macgregor Marshall, wrote in the Australian Financial Review in 2014 that Mr Thaksin was seen as a threat to Thailand's elite — the "royalist bureaucrats, tycoons and generals, who wield immense informal influence behind the scenes".
"Thailand's repeatedly rewritten constitution has specified that when the current king dies, his successor should be formally proclaimed by parliament," he wrote.
"To have any chance of sabotaging the royal succession, Thailand's old elite has to ensure it has control of parliament when Bhumibol's reign comes to an end."
Death leaves deep emptiness, uncertain future
King Bhumibol once nominated his only son, Vajiralongkorn as his heir-apparent.
But the crown prince lacks the popularity or respect of his father, and many Thais would prefer to see the king's second daughter Sirindhorn — who some say most resembles the king — take the throne.
Marshall says Prince Vajiralongkorn has long been reviled by the royalist elite, who have dreaded the prospect of him becoming king. Yet he is seen as a close ally to Mr Thaksin.
"Thaksin allied himself with the crown prince, planning to play kingmaker when Bhumibol died," Marshall wrote.
"A new elite seemed destined to supplant the old, with Thaksin and Vajiralongkorn set to secure political and financial supremacy thanks to the votes of the rural poor and the riches of the palace."
The intricacies of this political intrigue can never be discussed in Thailand.
Debate over the monarchy is strictly taboo. Thailand has arguably the world's harshest laws on "lese majeste".
Under Thailand's criminal code anyone found to have defamed, insulted or threatened a monarch or heir-apparent can be jailed for up to 15 years.
Many have fallen foul of the law, including Australians. Only the brave or foolish would dare discuss the royal succession even now, after the King's death.
One thing is clear. Whoever becomes Thailand's next monarch will inherit a fortune estimated to be worth between $30 and $40 billion, and regarded as the wealthiest royal budget in the world.
King Bhumibol spent most of the past two years in hospital for a series of ailments including heart trouble, irregular breathing and high blood pressure.
In recent years the King had made fewer and fewer public appearances or speeches, as his health deteriorated. He made a rare appearance at the royal palace on January 11, but he had not spoken in public for months.
The adoration of his subjects shows no sign of wavering, even after his death.
Tens of thousands of people are expected to turn out for his funeral. The official mourning period is likely to last several months.
His death leaves behind a deep emptiness and an uncertain future.
Topics:royal-and-imperial-matters, thailand, asia
First posted October 13, 2016 23:02:33