The King and Thai - 80 remarkable years

Thailand’s much loved King

Thailand’s king will be 80 on December the 5th, and with an unprecedented outpouring of pride and joy the Thais will turn out to celebrate with him. Visitors in the Kingdom at the time will be able to witness an obsessive display of affection for one of Thailand’s greatest monarchs.

Anyone who has visited Thailand will immediately notice just how loved the King has become in recent years. The Thai have always had a healthy respect towards their monarchy but when the current King, Bhumibol (or Rama IX), reached sixty years on the throne last year, the entire country celebrated with a year long calendar of events.

He is the world’s longest reigning King still alive, something which the Thai are immensely proud of, but their love and pride goes far beyond that. Despite all the hubris, all observers agree that he’s been rather a remarkable king. Over the years he has tirelessly undertaken his duty as father to the nation, leading by example as he travelled to every corner of the kingdom. During these many excursions in the sixties and seventies he worked towards uplifting the lives of poor subjects, educating, introducing new farming techniques and instigating irrigation projects. Dams were built on his instruction, co-operatives formed and infrastructure developed.

Even the lowly hilltribes, often regarded as marginal citizens in Thailand, have received particular attention from the King. His Royal Project has been internationally recognised for its work in weaning mountain folk off poppy (opium) cultivation by providing green houses and new crops to derive an income from. And all the while he has conducted himself with self-discipline, grace and wisdom.

Born in Massachusetts, USA and educated in Switzerland, the King was an unlikely candidate to reign over the longest period of stability in the Chakri Dynasty’s 200 year era. His grandfather, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), was regarded as the greatest of recent Thai kings and ruled for more than half a century, keeping colonists at bay and modernising his powerful Asian’ nation of Siam.

Images of the King are found everywhere

But following generations provided no effective heir and when King Pradajhipok abdicated following the 1932 coup, the most suitably blue-blooded candidate turned out to be his deceased brother’s son Ananda. But Ananda was murdered shortly after the two teenage boys returned to Thailand from Europe, and Bhumibol became the ninth Rama. He had to improve his Thai language, learn all the court rituals and cling on to the threads of a constitutional monarchy through two decades of political upheaval. This included World War II and the rise of communism in the region.

Time has been on his side. Today he’s semi-retired and leaves much of the ceremonial tasks to his four children, including crown prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. He’s widely regarded for his ideas on a self-sufficiency economy, sustainable development and environmental protection, and his rare but important interventions to settled political deadlocks over the years. The most famous of these was his much vaunted involvement in pacifying divided leadership in the May 1992 demonstrations. Whereas the country has had a bumpy ride in maturing as a democracy, the monarchy has ultimately been seen as the unifying force to resolve conflicts.

However, the more sceptical among the many foreigners who live in Thailand suggest its an unhealthy obsession, fuelled by a fever pitch of personality cult which has been propagated and perpetuated by the Palace itself - a brilliantly successful sixty year publicity campaign. With vaguely defined, but widely applied lese majeste laws that are sometimes misused to attack political foe, any criticism or negative reports on the monarchy have been successfully silenced. What the Thai get is a steady diet of newsclips and TV montages reminding them of his achievements, books and other media written by or about the King, jazz music he has composed and more, all to accentuate his greatness.

The King loves to play and compose

And the spin doctors have had a pretty easy task, for he is an individual who really has made the most of his tenure as one of the world’s last truly powerful kings. In addition to his exhaustive work for his subjects he’s achieved some impressive results in his leisure time. An accomplished musician, he has jammed with Benny Goodman, composed anthems for the Kingdom and plays a mean saxophone. Several dozen patents, ranging from rain-making to agriculture have been registered in his name, he’s a dab hand at painting, and even won a gold medal for sailing at the South East Asian Games in the 1967.

In a country often beset by coups, political turmoil, financial crisis and more, the King is the one shining example of success and it is that which makes the Thai so proud of him. They may not have ever heard of Nelson Mandela or the Pope, but to them their King is one of the world’s most famous people. Scarcely a day goes by without something related to him being featured in the papers, and when he was hospitalised recently they turned out in their thousands at the clinic and papers and media hung his every bit of recovery.

But achievements or not, the Thais love of the king goes much beyond a single over-achiever whom they consider to be a god-king. The success and strength of their monarchy, and it’s proud legacy, is their greatest treasure. And they are willing to defend it at almost any cost to civil liberties.

Showing your love to King is more than just praise of the individual, it represents their very Thai-ness. From the yellow T-shirts they all insist on wearing on Mondays (the colour of the King’s birth day), to the most favour dog species (yes, you guessed it, the same one the King has), and large murals of him wearing his trademark camera (he likes to photograph his subjects in action), the people of Thailand love their king as a way of loving their country. And unity is especially important to them.

Thailand doesn’t win world cups or bring home dozens of Olympic medals. It’s not a world leader in science and technology nor a newly developed nation. But there is one thing that they are overwhelmingly proud of, and that’s the profile of their king. So, when you visit Thailand, you can join in, it will certainly please your hosts.

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